John Ambury is part of the Writers and Editors Network Toronto and the Ontario Poetry Society.
Braz Menezes, already a recognized writer, emerges here as an adept and highly skilled long-form storyteller as well.
The story is that of Lando, from his early days as a Catholic schoolboy in Kenya until that country’s independence in 1963. (His origins and family history are covered in more depth in the first book of the trilogy, Just Matata: Sin, Saints, and Settlers.) There is little doubt that it is Menezes’ own narrative, based on his experiences and impressions augmented by family legends and careful research. Central to the book is the profound and sensitive love story that is woven through Lando’s life, in unobtrusive episodes, from age 10 to his middle years. But this is much more than a tale of one life and one love.
In his after-note, the author says his intention is to enrich the existing literature on Indians in East Africa (by M.G. Vassanji, et al.), by bringing to light the extensive but little-known influence of the relatively few Goans there, migrants from Portuguese India. This he does, with great success — but without ever “teaching” history. His true-to-life characters live it in their day-to-day activities. The circumstances of life in Goa and Kenya, and the realities of the times — Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau uprising, the struggles in Africa between the disparate colonizers and native peoples and immigrant groups, developments in Europe — unfold naturally as they touch the Goan community and the lives of the characters. There is no clumsy narrator overview: the contemporary international and regional events enter the story organically, via the BBC World Service on short-wave, national and local newspapers, and of course rumours and gossip.
Menezes has an acute ear for the rhythms of conversation. He uses dialogue extensively to advance the story, to give the scenes much of their local flavour, and to enhance the characters’ authenticity. He introduces considerable suspense, and resolves it with a deft hand — in the love story, in Lando’s maturing, in the family’s internal dramas, and in the political environment.
It is a rather long book: sweeping in scope, full of details and images and background. But it is not long in the reading — it moves along smoothly and is endlessly fascinating. The reader soaks up the ambience with eagerness, and truly cares about the characters and the events and the outcomes.
Menezes tells us that matata is a Swahil word for trouble. But if you’ve hesitated to pick up this book because you guess from the title that it’s just for an “ethnic” readership — hesitate no longer. It is for every reader who loves a powerful and well-told story about real people in the real world. Including this unrepentant Muzungu (white person).