A dispassionate view of a dystopian world where memory is the enemy
As it weaves a dystopia, MG Vassanji’s new novel Nostalgia poses a question that defines the post-enlightenment phase of the human civilisation: “We who have violated personal history and personal relationships in our bid to become immortal, can we now really know for certain who we are?” The novel places this question in a distant Canada, when humans have acquired the ability to completely erase their memories, acquire an invented past and begin a new life. In a world deserted by god and faith, science is the ultimate master, as a man can acquire memories of a poet mother and an astronomer father. Deaths are few in this world of fictional past, yet there are also some “religious groups who oppose live rejuvenation”. These “pro-deathers” are “fewer in number, though they tend to be dramatic and colorful”.
This land that prides itself on being at the pinnacle of scientific glory is not free from encumbrances. Maskinia, a territory that lies just across the border, is the underbelly, the doppelgänger of Toronto. Maskinia comprises former European colonies that became independent in the 20th century. Maskinia is derived from a word that means “beggar”. Among the languages spoken here include “an evolved Hindi”, which is “spoken by a small minority”. Despite being rich in natural resources, it is among the “poorest areas in the world”, troubled by poverty, civil war, corruption and diseases, to which the residents of Toronto willfully remain indifferent.
Clearly, beneath the veneer of dystopia, the novel reads as a tussle between these two lands, between the colonised and the colonisers. The two cross paths in the clinic of doctor Frank Sina, who remedies the disease of memory ‘leakage’, a threatening situation when a human’s past life flashes before him in intervals. The apparent calm of this Canadian society is disturbed when one Presley Smith contacts Sina for certain leakages and soon finds himself being chased by the Department of Internal Security. It emerges that in his “previous life”, Smith was a terrorist in Maskinia. He was arrested, given a new life and made a “useful citizen”. But as he becomes afflicted with the disease of “nostalgia”, he is now a threat and needs to be eliminated.
Milan Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. This struggle is the foundation of Vassanji’s novel. Yet, it often gets subdued in the mechanised environment the novel is draped in. The characters leave an imprint only when they come across as humans, and not a replica of any machine. The percolation of fictional past into the present holds the potential of a minefield of emotions, but it remains unexplored. The novel hints at such possibilities in some sublime moments. Sina’s young lover Joanie, having learnt about the kidnapping of tourists in Maskinia, asks: “Do we have a responsibility towards them? Those people there, on the other side?” “Yes,” the doctor replies, “but from a distance. We must preserve our well-being now or we’ll destroy human life on the planet.” Joanie, on her part, later joins a group of young protesters who demand that since there is no place for elderly people like Sina, they should go elsewhere and die. It gives away the suppressed guilt of the First World, but the novel mostly looks at such instances from a distance or through a dispassionate eye. A slight dive, and it would be an engrossing work.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla