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Living 'in between' in chaotic 1950s Kenya

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

By M. G. Vassanji

Knopf, 372 pp., $25

For so many of us whose impressions of Kenya were shaped by two memoirs, ''The Flame Trees of Thika" by Elspeth Huxley and ''Out of Africa" by Isak Dinesen, M. G. Vassanji's newest book is a revelation. Brilliantly written and deeply felt, it is a resonant family novel that is also a brutally honest portrayal of the last half century of tumultuous Kenyan history.

Vassanji explores a group of people as vital to Kenya as the white colonialists and hunters and the black Kikuyu and Masai, a group practically invisible in the literature of the Dark Continent: the Indian Africans who came to Kenya to build the railroads and roads at the beginning of the 20th century, who lived in backbreaking penury and indescribable loneliness, whose sons were born in Kenya as British citizens and became the canny shopkeepers of every thriving Kenyan town. These ''brown Shylocks," as Vassanji refers to them several times, were forced to live on the fringes of society, much as the medieval Jews did. They and their sons inhabit the ''in-between world" of Vassanji's title, a place where ''myth and reality often got mixed up in our lives." Vikram tells us, ''I therefore prefer my place in the middle, watch events run their course. This is easy, being an Asian, it is my natural place." Yet to live in such a world is to live in limbo, and Vikram's story is heartbreaking and all too relevant in these times fraught with so much conflict about race and belief.

After a short, tantalizing prologue that introduces Vikram in exile near Toronto, we learn that our narrator is ''numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men." An ordinary man, he warns, who lived in exceptional times.

And then we are in 1953, the year Queen Elizabeth is crowned and the violent Mau Mau are sweeping through Kenya. The comings and goings of the Asian community in Nakuru, less than a hundred miles northwest of Nairobi, become as vivid, though less romanticized, as life in Thika or near Dinesen's Ngong Hills. There are Vikram's father and mother, who keep a provisions store; Vikram's grandfather, who worked on the railroad; Vikram; his sister, Deepa; and their African friend, Njoroge, who lives with his grandfather Mwangi; and Vikram's radical maternal uncle, called Mahesh Uncle. And there are the British, who refuse to recognize that the country is changing and are sometimes hacked to death by the Mau Mau for their stubbornness.

Very quickly the reader is drawn into Vikram's wondrous, troubled childhood; one can feel the breathtaking torrid landscape, yet also sense the fear building in this sometimes smug and often amusing Asian community as the blacks assert themselves. There are the killings of Vikram's British friends, the shadowy comings and goings of Mahesh Uncle, and a rising apprehension until Jomo Kenyatta becomes president of an independent Kenya, in December 1963, less than a month after John Kennedy is assassinated. By then Vikram is grown, Deepa and Njoroge have acknowledged their love, Vikram's traditional mother has meddled disastrously in her daughter's life, and Vikram's respect and love for both parents have been tested.

What makes this novel so remarkable is how Vassanji weaves the story of a family's love and betrayal and shame into the larger story of Kenya. Eventually Njoroge, who has adored Kenyatta since childhood and is now rising in the government, crosses paths with Vikram. Thus Vikram is drawn into a tangle of iniquity and corruption, presided over by ''Mzee," or elder, ''Kenyatta" masquerading as a beneficent statesman. When Vikram begins to understand not only his plight but the larger tragedy of his country, he thinks:

''But we Asians were special: we were brown, we were few and frightened and caricatured, and we could be threatened with deportation as aliens even if we had been in the country since the time of Vasco da Gama and before some of the African people had even arrived in the land.

''This abhorring of a people, holding them in utter contempt, blaming them for your misfortune -- trying to get rid of them en masse -- could and did have other manifestations on our continent. Idi Amin cleansed Uganda of its entire Asian population by deporting them, and many Africans applauded him. Little did they know what a slippery slope it was from that move toward genocide in Rwanda, and then elsewhere."

The man who writes the lines above is a very different Vikram from the passive adolescent haunted by the deaths of his friends, who lived a life apart, an emotional ''in-between" existence, distrusting the complications of love.

But the very writing of his story creates self-awareness and the ability to trust. It also creates a tragic irony. As Vikram opens himself up to Seema, another Indian exile, in Toronto, he also realizes he must return to Nairobi to clear his name. The pull of country and family honor is simply too strong.

Although Vassanji has written four earlier novels and a collection of stories, this new work is his most complex and powerful. He says, ''As I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people." By taking his time Vassanji displays his great gifts; this beautiful novel, which unfolds with intimacy and an inexorable sense of destiny, is proof that fictional truth can illuminate an epoch in history like nothing else.

Roberta Silman's latest novel is ''Beginning the World Again: A Novel of Los Alamos."

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