Reviewed by Katheryn Broughton
Reviewed by Katheryn Broughton
Volume 20 Number 4
With the publication of this short story collection, Vassanji adds to the lustre gained by his novels The Gunny Sack (Heinemann, 1989) and No New Land (McClelland & Stewart, 1991). The settings for these stories is East Africa in the city of Dar es Salaam and, more specifically, on a street named Uhuru, meaning "independence." "This street... began in the hinterland of exclusively African settlements, came downtown lined by Indian shops, and ended at the ocean." Uhuru Street provides this collection with its controlling image of societies living uneasily together, the ocean representing those who come from Asia, later to leave for the greener fields of Europe and North America.
Several of the stories are linked through the narrator, a young boy who is a precocious observer of parents, older sisters and the neighbourhood. For example, in "Ali," the protagonist is a farm boy who becomes an excellent servant but has to leave when he oversteps boundaries which to him are invisible. The young narrator is very fond of him. Alzira, the dressmaker in a story of the same name, will not admit to having suitors, but there are suspicions that the familiar Goan, "one of Dar's several crazies," was once normal and interested in her. Again, the observant youngster is fascinated by Alzira.
The urge to leave is the theme of several stories. In "Leaving," Aloo is reluctantly helped by his mother to go to university in America. She was widowed and raised her four children through sacrifice and love; it is difficult for her to allow her son to go. A tender story of romance is detailed in "The London-Returned." The couple eventually marries and goes to Toronto, where they develop their own Uhuru Street. Now, they are separated, their dream shattered. In "Refugee," Karim is leaving for Canada, unwittingly assisted by an illegal immigration scheme. He is thoroughly disoriented and frightened as he tries to make his "connections" in Germany. Most of the stories are relatively benign, but there are several from the dark side of life. The protagonist in "Ebrahim and the Businessmen" obtains revenge for his father's humiliation by forcing old enemies not only to grovel for government favours, but also to pay cash for them. Students (in "English Lessons") get back at their difficult teacher by invading his private life and exposing his pain. More chilling is the grotesque murder of an Indian woman who remembers having treated Blacks with scorn. The title, "What Good Times We Had," refers to her memories as she unknowingly is driving to her death.
The style is direct and deceptively simple; the depths of human experience are plumbed within the confines of everyday, ordinary events. Various backgrounds are sketched in quickly but effectively, and the reader is left with an appetite for more.
Katheryn Broughton is a retired high school teacher-librarian in Thornhill, Ontario.
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