The Assassin’s Song, by M.G. Vassanji comes with an impressive list of literary accolades, having been shortlisted for the Giller and the GG. Yet, for my part, there is a definite lack of simpatico or connection with Vassanji’s tale.
The novel is set in India from Partition to the devastating religious violence of the early 21st century, following the timeless theme of father/son tension and sibling disharmony. There is a rich vein of material here to mine, and mine it Vassanji does. Yet there is a distinct distance to how Vassanji relates his story, a lack of emotional involvement that cools the narrative and shutters the reader.
For the first third of the novel Vassanji spends considerable time setting the stage for the emotional impact of the denouement, offering up endless, almost jejune details regarding the protagonist’s, Karson Dargawalla, life as the next embodiment of the sufi mystic and demi-god who resides in the temple Karson’s father keeps, Pirbaag. From there we shift to the middle third in which Karson escapes to Harvard, and a renunciation of his birthright.
Throughout this interminable backstory, Vassanji does little to draw in the reader, either by way of contextual clues as to language or cultural nuances, or by way of emotional investment. Karson’s father remains an aloof, unapproachable academic, his mother a frustrated, secretive if dutiful stereotype, and his brother an unknown, albeit cute, almost throw-away character. There are other characters who walk on and off-stage, uttering lines and sagacities, conveniently thrown in to move Karsan through the story-arc.
It is not until the final third of the novel, Vassanji employs any emotional investment to draw in the reader. By then, for this reader, it’s too little too late. That Karsan’s brother is most likely a terrorist responsible for the devastation of Pirbaag, and the death of his own father, is almost a shrug. That Karsan submits, in the end, to destiny and the continuation of chicanery and religious charlatanism, seems contrived and cardboard.
It is a competent novel. But it is a disappointing read. In the end, all I can offer is this: Vassanji is no Rohinton Mistry.by