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The In-between World of Vikram Lall

by M.G. Vassanji

There’s always a risk that any book set in Africa will have a soft-focus photograph on its cover and a title like The Weight of Water, or The Smell of Hibiscus, or Water Lightly Flecked with Hibiscus: A Childhood Memoir. What do all these sensual, faux-African gardening-tip titles say about the story inside? Usually nothing.

So it was with great pleasure and a large sigh of relief I discovered that previous Giller Prize-winner M.G. Vassanji’s engaging new novel – which does indeed include descriptions of the bounteous, honey-dipped, now-stereotyped African landscape – has been given a tremendous title. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall tells the story of the in-between life of a man named Vikram Lall. What a pleasure to be drawn in by a title that promises mystery rather than foliage.

What does the title mean? What is so in-between about Vikram Lall’s life? The novel unfolds as a remembrance told by Lall as he looks back on his years in East Africa from the safe distance of southern Ontario. He’s earned this exile from his beloved Kenya. On the first page Lall says he is “one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of reptilian cunning,” but the description doesn’t quite fit the character who emerges.

He’s first seen as a perceptive, romantic child of the 1950s, living in the small town of Nakaru with his parents and sister Deepa. Lall is about as villainous as a water-flecked hibiscus. He comes from the ultimate in-between social group: an Indian in Africa. Though his grandfather helped build the railway that cuts through Kenya, his family’s status remains enigmatic, unsettled. Indians are viewed as the Other by both whites and blacks, and Lall inhabits a place in between the young playmates in his town. He is neither a native of the land, like his friend Njoroge, nor is he anything like Bill and Annie, the children of British colonials.

The idyllic childhood around him soon begins to collapse. The Mau Mau rebels are increasing the frequency of their raids against the whites, sometimes killing whole families in the struggle to rid their country of British European rule. Those who were once trusting, unquestioning servants have secretly taken the vow of the Mau Mau and are now faithful to a struggle much more important than a day’s wage.

In an increasingly dangerous time Lall remains enthralled with his country. Later, in a liberated Kenya under the rule of Kenyatta, Lall’s friend Njoroge re-enters his life and falls passionately in love with his grown sister. For a while it seems that their cross-cultural love might be emblematic of this new optimistic age for Kenya.

As Lall grows older he becomes a man who would happily choose to stay on the side of lawfulness, obedience, and moderation. But Kenya in the 1970s is not a place for any of these qualities. Politics are an area of life Lall has always dodged, but it is politics that catch up, envelope him, and gradually pull him into the in-between. His heart, as the saying goes, is in the right place, but when he begins work for corrupt Kenyan politicians his hands are often in the right place, too. Lall may not be an evil man, but the incoming stream of questionable money certainly does not make him any more innocent.

The prose of Vassanji’s fifth novel tumbles out so easily it looks effortless. It’s the style of no style; instead of pyrotechnics and cheap suspense Vassanji favours a long fuse. It’s no secret Lall has been called a monster– it’s on the first page – but Vassanji puts off answering why for as long as possible.

The rich details of rural African life fall into place as they would in an easy conversation or, as in Lall’s case, a confession. The dramas of the Lall family are brought out in detail. As he did in his last novel, Amriika, Vassanji guides his narrator to a safe location to reminisce. In Amriika it was California. Here, with the “frozen black eternity” of southern Ontario outside his window, Lall’s mind can travel freely back to the Kenya he knew, “a landscape filled with sunshine and the innocent, prancing hope of youth.” Canada is the in-between, a perfect blank, and for Lall a place to slowly work over these memories, smoothing out his troubles and regrets.

It’s not those who are bravest that live, nor those who are smartest, or even those with a moral code who survive the upheaval of a country. “I have said that I could not engage morally in my world,” Lall admits at one point. He is a man caught up in the time, and his crimes are crimes of circumstance, at least that’s what he would ask us to believe.

The truth is somewhere in this well-wrought portrait of a troubled man. The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall belongs in that commendable category between merely good and truly great. It would be a shame if it fell in between other, lesser novels about Africa and was forgotten. Lall should not be lost amongst the hibiscus.