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In epic novel, a boy in India struggles against the forces of history

M.G. Vassanji sets his story in India, the United States, and Canada. M.G. Vassanji sets his story in India, the United States, and Canada. (denise grant)

"God lives in the details," according to a well-known writer's maxim variously attributed to Flaubert, Faulkner, and Nabokov. In M.G. Vassanji's sixth novel, God is present, but fitfully.

Like his previous novel "The In-Between World of Vikram Lall," "The Assassin's Song" tackles material of epic proportions. In fact, it comprises two epics, interwoven. The main one is the story of Karsan Dargawalla, a mid-20th-century Canadian immigrant born and raised in India's Gujarat province. The secondary epic is the story of Nur Fazal, a 13th-century Sufi mystic who emigrated to India from somewhere in the "lands of the Muslims." Their point of convergence? Karsan's family home is the shrine of Pirbaag, consecrated to Nur Fazal since his arrival there centuries earlier. Karsan's father is the current saheba - a kind of high priest - of the shrine. Karsan is slated to become his successor.

Or would that be "fated"? This question is the fulcrum on which the novel turns. Told by his father that the stewardship of Pirbaag is his destiny, the 11-year-old Karsan rebels, but silently, in secret. "I did not want to be God, or His trustee, or His avatar - the distinctions often blurred in the realm of the mystical that was my inheritance," Karsan tells us; "all I wanted was to be ordinary." And he sets out to do just that.

The book opens with the 50ish Karsan in temporary residence at a research institute in India, working on the history of Pirbaag. Within that frame, to which the novel periodically returns, we follow Karsan from age 11 to the present, from India to America to Canada in a stylized, fairy tale-like sequence. It begins with the seemingly outlandish suggestion of a teenage friend that Karsan apply to Harvard. Aided and abetted, fairy godmother-like, by a bookstore owner in Ahmedabad, where Karsan occasionally steals away to read, Karsan wins a full scholarship. "The world beckons," and he goes. Once at Harvard, he is seduced by literature, ultimately getting a doctorate and settling down in contented ordinariness at a Canadian university. He spends the next three decades in British Columbia, with a beloved wife and, eventually, a much-adored son.

At this point, the novel's central question - about fate - deepens. If we set out to determine our own destiny, what is the price of freedom? Karsan's decision to become the master of his fate costs him his homeland. It costs him his family of origin - mother, father, brother. ("A Saheb is not supposed to have a heart," his father tells him. "But you have broken this father's heart.") It is a "steep price," and Karsan feels it. But there is more to come. Ultimately he loses what he holds most dear. The emigre life he's been at such pains to construct is blown open, rendered meaningless, and Karsan finds himself "alone again, and lonely, after so many years." Nur Fazal was known as the Pir, "the Wanderer." Now Karsan, too, becomes a wanderer. He, too, will find an unexpected home. "Do we always end up where we really belong?" he asks, in a reprise of the novel's central question.

"The Assassin's Song" is more satisfying in its outline than in the reading. Shuttling back and forth between centuries interrupts the novel's momentum, which is further compromised by the alternation, within Karsan's own story, between past and present.

More serious is the matter of those God-inhabited details. Because the book is an epic procrusteanly packed into a short novel, it summarizes much of the action, keeping the reader at arm's length. But when the novel zooms in on a scene, it offers vivid encounters with its people and places. "My father took me by the separate doorway on our left into the walled compound that was the shrine. This was Pirbaag; calm and cold as infinity. The night air suffused with a faint glow, and an even fainter trace of rose, all around us the raised graves of the saints and sufis of the past, and our ancestors . . . some well tended and heaped with flowers and coloured cloth, others lying forlorn at the fringes among the thorns. . . ."

Fiction is not the analysis of an experience - it is the experience itself. Vassanji is at his best when this novel leaves the realm of summary and settles into the lives of the characters, grounding the narrative in a particular time and place. "Shilpa stood up from her chair, went to stand behind my father, and tenderly, lovingly massaged his head, her long fingers grasping, caressing the crown, rubbing his scalp end to end, side to side. Her face was flushed from the heat, her parrot-green sari clung to her long, willowy body." If only Vassanji had done this more often. Of course, if he had, "The Assassin's Song" would have been a much longer novel. But that would have been a pleasure.

Ann Harleman is the author of "Happiness," "Bitter Lake," "Thoreau's Laundry: Stories," and the forthcoming "The Year She Disappeared." She can be reached at annharleman.com.

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