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Nostalgia by M.J. Vassanji

Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock

The premise of this unsettling dystopian novel is simple: immortality is, at long last, in reach.

And it comes at a price.

With a combination of organ replacement and genetic therapy, science is able to double or triple the life expectancy of those who undergo treatment. There is, of course, a downside: while bodies can be kept young and alive indefinitely, doctors soon discover the human brain can only hold a single lifetime's worth of memories. As a result, anyone who opts to become "rejuvenated" must also be rewritten; old memories and history are completely erased, and newer, cleaner memories are inserted in their place. Ironically, as so many religions preach, immortality can only be achieved through rebirth.

Narrator and protagonist Dr. Frank Sina specialises in medical cases where old memories refuse to be completely erased, and seep into the lives of patients through flashbacks and insistent, repetitive thoughts. Leaked Memory Syndrome, or nostalgia, is fairly common and usually easy to fix. At the novel's opening, however, Dr. Sina is faced with a patient whose leaked memories sound eerily, uncannily familiar. Despite warnings from the government to drop the case, he finds himself caught up in a whirlpool of lost memories and political intrigue—some of which belongs to his patient, and some of which may well be his own.

Sina and those like him are lucky—lucky to have been born into their first-world country, and lucky to be able to afford the life-extending procedure that comes to define as well as prolong their existence. Others, however, are not so lucky; the novel's privileged nation butts directly up against a third-world nation ruled by starvation, disease, and infertility. The citizens of this underprivileged nation can barely afford to make it through a single lifetime, let alone several—and where is the sense or fairness in that? Sina struggles with this, although perhaps not as much as he ought to—uneasy with the fact that his existence may come at the price of someone else's, and yet unable to abandon or even truly critique his privileged life.

The elephant in the room, which Vassanji never truly addresses, is that this "immortality" is not truly immortality at all; while their bodies live on, the lives of citizens are completely erased. Their thoughts, loves, dreams, hopes, fears, and plans all disappear forever. For all intents and purposes, rejuvenated individuals have died. The only thing they are allowed to carry into their new lives is wealth. Here, perhaps, is the true moral of the story: people cannot live forever, but money does. This is a poignant and timely social critique; the governments of the novel don't care about lengthening the lives of their citizens unless there is profit in it, and only allows the procedure to become popular because it allows them to rewrite and reroute individuals for their own purposes. A chilling thought—and yet one that Vassanji backs off from making entirely clear. The novel, instead, is caught up in the mystery of who Sina's patient was in his old life—by all accounts an entertaining narrative, but one that lacks the claws and teeth of history's great dystopian novels.

This novel can't quite fill the shoes of Brave New World or 1984, but it comes close. Vassanji's play with memory is especially intriguing - and unsettling. What value do we truly place on personal memory? National memory? Cultural memory? What cannot be forgotten? What is the price of trying to forget? These questions all ring uneasy and true in contemporary Canada, as we attempt to come to terms with a history of colonialism and navigate real-life issues with immigration, foreign aid, and the ageless struggle between the young and the old.

Nostalgia was published in 2016 by Doubleday Canada.

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