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Book Review: The Assassin’s Song by M. G. Vassanji

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Nikos Kazantakis wrote one of most beautiful books on the life of Jesus Christ that I have ever read, The Last Temptation Of Christ. I first read it after finding out it was on the Vatican's list of proscribed books, which struck me as a great recommendation if I'd ever heard one. When I finished the book, what puzzled me the most was why the Vatican had considered it so horrible.

Not once in the book does Kazantakis ever question the divinity of Christ or any of the miracles. The last temptation is that while Jesus is on the cross the devil shows him what it would be like to marry and have a normal life. On the cross he lives out his days as a mortal man but in the end accepts his destiny and dies on the cross, not in his sleep.

Maybe the Vatican didn't like the fact that Jesus openly questioned his fate throughout the book, or maybe the whole debate about predestination and fate that Kazantakis raises irked them. Personally, although it was beautifully written, I found the book far too dogmatically Christian for my taste and came away knowing that Kazantakis was as devout a believer in Christ as anyone I'd ever read.

It may seem odd to begin a review about a Sufi Muslim in India with references to a book on Christ, but in M. G. Vassanji's latest release The Assassin's Song, published by Random House Canada through the Doubleday imprint, the central character faces an almost identical struggle to Christ's.

Karsan Dargawalla's family have been the keepers of a shrine to a Sufi mystic since medieval times. The eldest male in the family has always been groomed to be the Avatar of the God on earth.

The family lives in the compound where Nur Fazal, The Wanderer, finally settled and where his remains and those of his descendants are buried. They are the direct descendants, supposedly, of the God's first follower, Arjun Dev. It was said that Dev had a vision that called him forth from sleep to welcome Fazal at the gates of Patan Anularra in 1260 AD.

Fazal turned to Dev's family when he needed someone to act as his representative while he lived, so that after his death the tradition would continue. But it’s now the 1960s, and the world is a far different place than it was even during the time of Karsan's father's ascension as Saheb of the shrine. Men are traveling through space to the moon, and there is knowledge in the world that far outstrips the accumulated writings and texts in the shrine's library. How can Karsan be expected to spend his days pondering the deeds and wisdom of The Wanderer, with all that awaits him beyond the compound's gates?

While part of him loves the shrine and wants to fulfill his destiny as the anointed heir and future Saheb, Karsan also desires the learning and enticements offered by the material world. When he applies for admission to Harvard University in the United States it's not with any real hope of being accepted, or, even if that miracle were to happen, of being able to attend. But when the unthinkable occurs and Harvard offers him a full scholarship, including airfare, how can he turn it down?

He knows that if his father forbade him he would stay, and not even be too resentful, but he is allowed to choose for himself, in spite of his father's worst misgivings. He assures one and all that he will return to take up his duties when his schooling is done, and he is certain that spending time in the world beyond their village will enable him to serve the people with even greater wisdom.

India is also different than it was during Karsan's father's youth; for one thing it is now India and Pakistan, Muslim and Hindu, and that gap is too wide for the way of the Sufi to straddle in safety anymore. During the first Pakistan-India war it starts to become apparent to even Karsan that things aren't going to remain the same as they once were.

At their shrine, the family does not worship Allah, but their names are Muslim, and across the road from their shrine is another, a Muslim shrine, where the body of the Sufi's grandson is entombed and worshiped. For some, the conclusion is only too clear: if you are not one of us you are one of them. Yet for a time, peace is kept in the village, and the sanctity of the shrine is respected.
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Karsan is determined to leave everything behind, including thoughts of the ugliness that lies beneath the glamor of India. He too is offered the temptation of worldliness over Godhood, and he steps across the line in reality and accepts the offer, completely turning his back on what he was supposed to have been.

The Assassin's Song is not based on the life of any real mystic, according to the author's note at the end of the book. It's rather an amalgamation of stories told about Muslim seers who came to India in the 11th and 12th centuries AD preaching a benevolent practice of worship based on neither the Muslim nor the Hindu faith, while freely recognizing both. Through this invention M. G. Vassanji has brought to life a world that very few of us in this age will recognize. In our ignorance we might call the prevailing attitude blind faith, and wonder about people today who still believe a person can be the avatar of a god.

This is a beautiful book about duty, faith, and the search for self-awareness, and how they are all related whether we know it or not. Like Jesus who is given the life of a husband and father as a temptation, Karsan yearns for the ordinary, but unlike Jesus, Karsan's final choice is made for him by fate or chance.

Sometimes it is only when we are stripped down to nothing, or hit bottom, that we truly begin to understand ourselves and where we belong in the world. Vassanji doesn't tell us what to believe; he merely shows us the various stages of a person's exploration of self. At the conclusion, where we might have expected the prodigal son to return and take up his destiny, we are left without the certainty of a final ending.

Endings only come with death, not while we still live; that, more than any other, is the lesson Karsan has learned from his travels. From what he's seen of the world, and the ruinous consequences of people being certain their way is the only right way, perhaps a little uncertainty, a little doubt, is what the world needs more than anything else.

Canadian readers can buy The Assassin's Song either directly from Random House Canada or from an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • akash

    hi, great review

  • sarah

    thanks a lot :)