Author: M.G. Vassanji
Format: Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC)
Publisher: Doubleday Canada (imprint of Penguin Random House Canada)
Pub Date: September 20, 2016
Summary from Publisher:
From one of Canada’s most celebrated writers, two-time Giller Prize winner Moyez Vassanji, comes a taut, ingenuous and dynamic novel about a future where eternal life is possible, and identities can be chosen.
In the indeterminate future in an unnamed western city, physical impediments to immortality have been overcome. As society approaches the prospect of eternal life, a new problem must be confronted: with the threat of the brain’s storage capacity being overwhelmed, people want to move forward into the future free from redundant, unwanted and interfering memories. Rejuvenated bodies require rejuvenated identities–all traces of a person’s past are erased and new, complete fictions are implanted in their stead. On occasion, though, cracks emerge, and reminders of discarded lives seep through. Those afflicted suffer from Leaked Memory Syndrome, or Nostalgia, whereby thoughts from a previous existence burrow in the conscious mind threatening to pull sufferers into an internal abyss.
Doctor Frank Sina specializes in sealing these memory leaks. He is satisfied in his profession, more or less secure in the life he shares with his much younger lover, content with his own fiction–a happy childhood in the Yukon, an adulthood marked by the influence of a mathematician father and poet mother. But one day, Presley Smith arrives in Frank’s office. Persistent thoughts are torturing Presley, recurring images of another time and place. As he tries to save Presley from the onslaught of memory, Frank finds clues that suggest Presley’s past may be located in war-torn, nuclear-ravaged Maskinia, a territory located in the southern hemisphere, isolated from the north by fiercely guarded borders and policy barriers. Frank’s suspicions are only intensified when the Department of Internal Security takes an interest in Presley. They describe him as one of their own, meaning his new life was one they created for him, and they want him back. Who was Presley before the Department remade him, what secrets are buried in the memories that are encroaching upon him?
As Frank tries to save Presley from both internal and external threats, cracks emerge in his own fiction, and the thoughts that sneak through suggest a connection with the mysterious Presley that goes well beyond a doctor and his patient.”
- From Goodreads
Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanji is part fiction, part prophecy, and partial plea. It speaks of a not-so-distant future that enables society to eradicate old memories in place of creating fictonalized, new ones for a new, and in some cases, renewable identity.
Of course, with any bio-technology, especially that which tinkers with the brain and memory, it seems only natural for problems to arise, as it does in this novel in which its characters are conflicted between pursuing an immortal life through that of a Rejuvenist—obtaining a new body, new memories, and in essence a new life—or through those who are known to be BabyGens, the ones with existing, biological families; born, but engineered with near physical perfection.
Not to mention the protests of religious groups, which abhor the idea of man intervening with the natural process of life and death; a process preferred to be left to the work of a higher being, namely God.
But, the novel not only speaks to the morality of life and its longevity, and the means of manipulating memory in individuals, but also speaks to the wider issue of the disparaging view towards people and cultures that suffer from environmental chaos, financial poverty, government neglect, and political unrest.
The characters represent these dissident voices: the doctor whose role it is to provide new memories for eligible candidates that wish to remove themselves from the current life they are participating in, to analyzing those who suffer from Leaked Memory Syndrome, otherwise known as Nostalgia, when memories from one’s unknown past leak into the conscious mind threatening to unravel the person’s mind and body altogether.
To the BabyGens, whose “newness” to the world resents the longevity of their Rejuvenist predecessors who continue “living” through renewable and fabricated memory, as well as their continual hold on society’s financial privilege and power.
Then there are the Purists, who can neither afford Rejuvenist treatment, nor desire their memories eradicated for new ones, but would rather die with their true memories and original bodies in tact even if that means a living a shorter life span.
There are also the Monotheists, who protest the Rejuve Movement, which goes against the wishes of an Almighty God who planned a fixed life span for each soul. For the Hindus and Buddhists, rejuvenation interferes with karma and the cycle of rebirths.
And lastly, there are those in militant groups behind the lines of poverty who fight for societal change through the means of violence.
The plot in the book is simple, yet quietly cunning, while not overly immersed in action, still moves the story forward in pressing the dangers of pure government autonomy and memory manipulation.
Yet, the turn of the plot also seemed far too easily contrived rather than a natural conclusion. The odds of the plot unravelling as it did in the novel seems somewhat far-fetched. It was far too coincidental to seem naturally realistic, though it provides the reader with a surprising and entertaining epiphany.
The novel’s style of narrative is easily readable, indicative of its male protagonist’s voice with his inquisitive and analytical nature as a doctor specializing in memory implantation. And while the dialogue was fairly scarce in the entirety of the novel, there was nothing jarringly out-of-place to irk readers into feelings of mistrust or disbelief.
These features all work together to pose the inevitable questions to its readers:
How far should society go in prolonging life, both in body and mind?
Is it morally correct to eradicate original memory in place of fictionalized ones? Does this constitute a “real” and “genuine” life even if the Rejuvenist is unaware that his or her memories have indeed been replaced?
In lieu of technological advancement, is it fair that only some people can have access to so much, while others only so little?
How does society bridge the gap between such discrepancies and how can it do it successfully depending on their geo-political location?
And what moral obligation does society have in protecting people against memory eradication?
While these questions seem oddly futuristic and somewhat irrelevant to society’s current technological condition and boundaries, the novel, Nostalgia, does its job as potentially becoming self-prophetic if we don’t, as readers, pay careful attention to its exciting, yet dangerous possibilities.
Characters: 3 stars
Plot: 3.5 stars
Language/Narrative: 3 stars
Dialogue: 3 stars
Pacing: 3 stars
Cover Design: 2.5 stars
About the Author:
M.G. Vassanji is the author of seven novels, two collections of short stories, a travel memoir about India, a memoir of East Africa, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. He is twice winner of the Giller Prize (1994, 2003) for best work of fiction in Canada; the Governor General’s Prize (2009) for best work of nonfiction; the Harbourfront Festival Prize; the Commonwealth First Book Prize (Africa, 1990); and the Bressani Prize. The Assassin’s Song was also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Prize, the Writers Trust Award, and India’s Crossword Prize. His work has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Swahili. Vassanji has given lectures worldwide and written many essays, including introductions to the works of Robertson Davies, Anita Desai, and Mordecai Richler, and the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi. In June 2015, MG Vassanji was awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize for the Arts.
M.G. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He received a BS from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, before going to live in Canada. He is a member of the Order of Canada and has been awarded several honorary doctorates. He lives in Toronto, and visits East Africa and India often.