No Sentimentality in Vassanji’s Nostalgia!


The Record March 31st, 2017
M.G. Vassanji (born 1950) has authored seven novels, two collections of short stories, and three works of non-fiction. Along the way, he has earned the Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Africa region, two Giller Prizes, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Vassanji is of Indian parentage, but he was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, and attended university in the U.S. A Canadian citizen, the author presently lives in Toronto, the setting of his most recent novel, Nostalgia, recently named as one of the five contenders in the CBC Canada Reads competition.
Nostalgia…. The word evokes pleasantly fuzzy memories and images from the past, seen through the rose-coloured lenses of elapsed time. We speak of certain events, sights, sounds, tastes, or smells as nostalgic, suggesting a time when the world was a simpler place, one which could be easily understood and enjoyed. However, in Vassanji’s Nostalgia, the word has taken on a sinister, even threatening meaning.
Set in the mid-21st century, the book introduces us to a world where the rich have gotten much richer, and the poor are now much, much poorer. Biomedical technology has evolved to the point where death has been defeated, but only for those who can afford it. Dr. Frank Sina, the protagonist, works in Toronto for a big-brother-style organization which carries out the life-prolonging procedures on those who opt for eternal life and can pay the hefty price tag. Frank’s primary job is to treat those who have begun suffering from “leaked memory syndrome”, known as Nostalgia, whereby memories from their past lives begin impinging on their present, reconstituted lives, causing distress and confusion. One such patient in particular, Presley Smith, has begun experiencing bewildering, uncontrollable images. As Frank notes, “They’re all a puzzle, each stray and escaped thought is only the barest tip of a universe that lies far beneath. How far do you reach inside to stem the leak? The deeper you dig, the greater the chance of falling into an endless pit—a hazardous operation.” Frank himself is a GN, or new generation person. He has new memories in a new body, although he admits that he feels the body-age sometimes, since it is a “flawed immortality”. (We only discover at the end of the book just how old Frank actually is!) Those who are not GN are known as G0, and there exists an uneasy rapprochement between the two groups. Frank is in a live-in relationship with Joanie, a G0 or BabyGen, who has no previous life. BabyGens are born to be beautiful: symmetrical, smooth, and flawless (even though, in fact, Joanie snores). Frank is aware that she is seeing someone else, another BabyGen, but his life with her, while not perfect, is still sufficiently rewarding for both of them
Frank continues to try to treat Presley’s Nostalgia, and eventually finds that the rejuvenation organization, quaintly known as the Sunflower Centre, has a special interest in him. When Presley goes off the grid, Frank is asked to report any Presley-sightings, which he quietly refuses to do. At this point, a third significant character, news reporter Holly Chu, enters the picture. She is initially introduced as a casualty of the ongoing conflict between Frank’s privileged world, The North Atlantic Alliance, and that of the war-torn Maskinia, that lies below “the Long Border” separating the haves from the have-nots. This (fictitious) border serves as the construct for the discrepancy between the two worlds, one wealthy and overly civilized, and the other hostile and violent. Holly has apparently been killed and then cannibalized while on assignment in Maskinia, but her martyr’s death, initially seen as a great tragedy, is ultimately revealed to be a fiction. She resurfaces in Maskinia, publicly supporting the rebellion among the residents of that benighted country. Her behavior is initially interpreted as Stockholm Syndrome, whereby the captive identifies with the captor, à la Patty Hearst, circa 1974.
Although it takes a while to develop, the relationship among the three central characters— Frank, Presley and Holly— is clarified in the last third of the story, and it is deeply significant. Along the way, several secondary characters are introduced, playing more or less important roles: Radha, the good-natured Krishna devotee who befriends Frank; Arthur Axe, head of the rejuvenation corporation Frank works for; and Tom, the computerized assistant Frank turns to for help who is oddly reminiscent of HAL, from the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There are many intriguing themes running throughout the book: Science versus religion; the complacency of the upper classes in the face of staggering poverty; the ethical limits of technology in “improving” the human condition; the fluctuating nature of reality; and the importance of being true to ourselves when confronted with difficult, life-altering decisions. Vassanji handles them all with great style and beautiful prose. At 258 pages, it is an exceptionally readable book, blending aspects of psychology, philosophy, speculative fiction, mystery, and love story. You may not agree with the author’s conclusions about what is important in life, but it is certainly worth the ride to see how he gets there!
—Melanie Cutting
P. S. Bibliothéque Lennoxville Library’s version of Canada Reads unfolded last Thursday, March 23rd, with great fanfare. Ross Murray’s take on The Break by Katherena Vermette edged out the competition in a very lively debate!

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About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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