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(This review was originally published in the Sri Lankan Anchorman newspaper – May 2019 edition)
A chilling tale that pits a black & white refugee determining process against the nuances of war, where civilians are trapped in the middle, not knowing that the decisions they make for self-preservation in their war ravaged homeland can make them inadmissible in the land they have fled to.
Based on a true incident, 500 Sri Lankan refugees arrive off the coast of Vancouver in a leaky ship and seek asylum. There is a rumour that many on board are part of the terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers, that recently lost its 26-year civil war to Sri Lankan Government forces. What follows is a lengthy and painstaking eligibility-determination process where the new arrivals are subjected to a battery of hearings while being housed in a prison in Canada. The mood of the Canadian political establishment is that they don’t want refugees jumping to the head of the line, especially ones with terrorist ties, and the more of this batch that can be deported the better.
The narrative is covered from three viewpoints: Mahindan, a widowed mechanic in Sri Lanka who has escaped on the boat with his five-year old son Sellian; Priya, a Canadian-born law articling student whose Sri Lankan father and uncle share disparate views on the civil war back home; Grace, the third generation Japanese adjudicator who is battling her own family’s demons caused by their incarceration during WWII.
Mahindan comes across as the most credible and interesting character, for through him we are able to visit the horrors of the final years of the Sri Lankan civil war. We witness the stranglehold the Tigers had on the freedom of their citizens, where forcible conscription took place for children as young as ten. We witness the fall of Kilinochchi, the Tiger stronghold, in 2009, and the retreat by surviving civilians to a strip of land between the ocean and a lagoon where the Tigers made their last tragic stand. Mahindan is a survivor, doing anything that will save his life and that of his son, whether that involves fixing Tiger vehicles, or stealing ID papers of dead people for resale to those looking for escape to foreign lands. Mahindan’s “never give up attitude” and his unflagging love for his son are bright lights in this dark narrative. Priya is conflicted with her role as a budding lawyer and is more concerned with what field of law she should follow after she is called to the bar; her family history in Sri Lanka, which is dredged out slowly—especially her uncle’s dark secret—is more colourful than her own life. Grace, politically appointed to “send them back,” comes across as a cold-hearted, disinterested and distracted woman who has no sympathy for her refugee claimants. She suspects everyone; it is Grace’s mother, Kumi, suffering from dementia, and Grace’s twin teenage daughters, who keep alive the spectre of injustice that was committed by Canadian authorities on disenfranchised Japanese during WWII, and maintain a semblance of grounding for the adjudicator. What is clear is that whatever conflict it was that made a generation of refugees flee their homeland, living in Canada tends to dull those emotions over generations of that family’s residence in this country.
Scenes alternate between prosaic ones in Canada (children organizing birthday parties, teenagers arguing with parents, families playing card games etc.) and diabolical ones in Sri Lanka (civilians being bombed to smithereens while forced to act as shields between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan military). The Canadians are unable to understand what these refugees have gone through as they view the foreigners’ experiences through domestic lenses. Mahindan is exasperated, “These Canadians, with all their creature comforts, have such meagre imaginations.” Gigovaz, the refugee lawyer, replies to Mahindan, “You have come to a place where people are spoiled. It is easier for them to call you a liar than to believe what you say is true.” Mahindan sees that in his own son, who in a matter of months of arrival, is becoming “Canadian” by the day and distancing himself from the traumas that had once united them.
As the months go by, some refugees, especially the women and children, are gradually released into Canadian society while others go through many failed detention hearings, and others are summarily deported. Not everyone takes kindly to a deportation; some verdicts lead to tragic outcomes, and the adjudicators wonder whether they have indirectly become judge, jury and executioner through this process.
I was a bit disappointed in the inconclusive climax and wondered whether by ending where she did, the author was indicating to us where Mahindan’s own case was headed, and therefore why not leave us with him enjoying his best day in Canada with his son? Or whether she wanted each reader to figure out Mahindan’s fate given the flawed refugee determination system we had been exposed to in this novel? The one chilling certainty is that the process hasn’t been refined yet, and the next boatload of refugees arriving from a war zone where allegiances are hard to determine will be faced with the same set of dilemmas.
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In this debut novel, we are introduced to George Orwell’s distaste for an Empire on which the sun was beginning to set and to his desire for Socialism as a panacea for colonialism. Burmese Days reminds me of novels Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene might have written in the later stages of their careers had they been trapped like timber merchant Flory (a proxy for Orwell) in an obscure Indian station with no way out.
Orwell spent five years in the Imperial Police Force in Burma and drew heavily from his experiences in that period. The fictitious station of Kyauktada is a miserable place for British colonials. Surrounded by jungle, festering in drought that is only alleviated by drenching rain, irritated by prickly heat that breaks out over white bodies at random, isolated from the natives who surround them and who are still dominated by the yoke of a fading Empire, these Brits have only the traditional Club in which to centre their activities and drink copiously to drown out their loneliness, decay and self-pity. When Dr. Veraswamy is touted to be the first native to gain membership in the club, given the relaxing of colonial laws in favour of locals, and his rival U Po Kyin, a corrupt local magistrate, is all out to thwart the appointment, the stage is set for an eruption of violence fuelled by the seeds of discrimination that engulf colonial and local alike, with tragic consequences for both sides.
The Brits at Kyauktada are unapologetically racist. Characters like Ellis, a manager of a colonial company, thinks nothing of bribing witnesses to lie, or torturing locals, and shooting them, all if it means that British hegemony in the area is preserved. And Mrs. Lackersteen is the quintessential burra memsahib, lording it over her domestic servants, trying to keep an eye on her alcoholic husband and his frisky hands with the ladies, and hatching brazen plots to snag a husband for her impoverished and orphaned niece, Elizabeth. Elizabeth too has all the trappings of a budding memsahib; she is materially and socially focussed; she prefers horse riding and hunting to reading and mixing with the locals. Flory is madly in love with her and rescues her from wild buffalos, leopards and crazed mobs, but she spurns him for the wastrel, Verrall, commander of the Military Police detachment sent to Kyauktada to fend off a loomimg local rebellion being secretly organized by U Po Kyin. Why is Elizabeth so stupid? Because Verrall has “Honourable” attached to his name and is considered to be going more places than Flory will ever do with his sympathies for locals such as Dr. Veraswamy. Flory too has his demons; one particular loud and cunning one is Ma Hla May, his former mistress, who embodies the warning: “hell hath no fury like a woman spurned.”
Some of Orwell’s observations are didactic and more like condemnations:
1) The British official holds the Burman down while the British businessman goes through his pockets.
2) The army provides protection to the British fools who work in the colonies.
3) Colonialism is despotism: you are free to be a drunkard, coward, fornicator, idler and back biter, but you are not free to think for yourself.
4) The Oriental hates himself and looks to the Britisher; the Britisher hates himself and look to the Oriental.
5) The key to success is to sell out your partner in crime.
6) Half-educated people (those in the colonies) develop late in life, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life.
Descriptions of village life, the jungle, the empty club life, and the eternal arguments about the filthy natives are well drawn. After some earlier scene setting, especially through racially charged arguments in the British club that provide us with the lay of the land on each person’s sensibilities and sympathies, the action moves at a fast pace towards a thrilling climax. Yet the device of the omniscient narrator—one who not only jumps into everyone’s heads to tell us what each is thinking, but who also attempts to explain certain plot points to us—gives this book an amateurish feel. Perhaps these devices were allowed in the 1920’s when Orwell wrote this novel; perhaps, this being his debut offering, Orwell needed the crutch of the omniscient narrator to get him through the writing of it.
As the omniscient narrator sums up in the end, each character gets his dues, deservedly or not. The opportunists come out ahead of the honest ones, and even Mother Nature intervenes to thwart some of the best laid plans of master Machiavellians such as U Po Kyin. Kyauktada shrugs off its wounded and dead and continues to fly the flag of its colonial master, chewing up those who are not resilient enough to play the survival game; and all its denizens, colonials and natives alike, continue their roles as pawns in the service to this vast business empire on whom the sun eventually was to set a couple of decades later—unfortunately, it was not to be in this book! I came away feeling like a total sucker for having pledged allegiance to the Union Jack as a fellow colonial myself. I wish I had read Burmese Days when I was a teenager living in the colonies.
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I hope this is the last and most explicit of Roth’s creations, for I don’t think I can take any more. Portnoy is a boy scout romp compared to this book which is a dark celebration of the life force embodied in the sexual drive.
Mickey Sabbath is a 64 year old ex-puppeteer, unemployed and broke, yet virile as ever, grieving the death of his lifelong lover Drenka who had an insatiable sexual appetite, one stoked by Mickey and unleashed upon the world until it consumed her and left him bereft. Sabbath has plunged into a depression with her death and flees his recovering alcoholic wife, Roseanne— someone with whom he once also enjoyed a vibrant sex life, before things cooled—to visit his past, before intending to commit suicide. And yet, his life force is so strong, his lust for carnality so vibrant, that suicide is a tough sell.
There is a flimsy story line as Sabbath traces his path back to New York, visits his old pal Norman, defiles Norman’s house and family with his out-of-control sex drive, then retreats to his childhood neighbourhood to retrieve his dead brother Mort’s belongings (Mort died at age 20 during WWII), drapes himself in the flag and tries to “off” himself, all the while lamenting and reliving his sexual escapades with wives Nikki and Roseanne, and lover Drenka, and the myriad of younger women he entrapped into threesomes with his wives and lover over the years. As Norman says, “You live in the failure of this civilization, the final investment of everything in sex. And now you reap the lonely harvest.” What also lurks and poses the question behind Sabbath’s rampant sex drive is a dead mother who haunts him and will never release him from the guilt of being the survivor brother.
No act is too shameful or private to be revealed. It is almost as if Roth wants to grind us down into our basest instincts, into the piss, shit and sweat of human stain, making us acknowledge what we are capable of even though we choose to gloss over them, or even deny them, while elevating this activity to art. Thus we have acts of phone sex, polyamory, urination, masturbation, fetishism, and necrophilia that go on for pages, written in energetic and frenetic prose that elevate it from formulaic erotica. The sardonic humour that drips from the stream-of-consciousness sentences and situations Sabbath gets into help soften the pungency and differentiates the narrative from pornography. But, like Sabbath, Roth is skating on pretty thin ice here. All the while I wondered whether master puppeteer Roth was yanking the reader’s strings and asking the question, “Have you had enough? Shall we take this up another notch?” On the other hand, I wondered whether he was sticking it into the noses of the literati, suggesting that he could stretch literature beyond its existing sexual boundaries that had only been periodically broken and extended by novels such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita— maybe another course correction was being called for.
I guess Roth, like Sabbath, chose sex to be the linchpin of his work, and Sabbath’s Theatre seems to be a comic appraisal of that work to say, “Well, see where this has gotten you to? This is as high as you will ride this gig.” His books that followed Sabbath’s Theatre show the decline of the life force as the author ages and the sex drive diminishes, and regret for what is lost dominates that later work.
That Mickey Sabbath is an unforgettable character, a villain with a conscience and an uncontrollably frisky penis, is never in question. His complexity sustained my interest because there is only so much one can read about sex before losing one’s hard on, so to say. Sabbath’s planned epitaph seems to sum him (and the book) up:
Beloved Whoremonger, Seducer,
Sodomist, Abuser of Women,
Destroyer of Morals, Ensnarer of Youth,
1929 – 1994
This is a long book. Too long. Dickensian it is, and I wondered whether Donna Tartt was also being paid by the chapter like Dickens was, for it indeed took a chapter to describe something that may have been covered in a page, or in even a paragraph. In these attention-deficit times, that’s a bit of a stretch, literally. The fact that this book won the Pulitzer Prize only five years ago made me wonder whether the prize jury was signalling that it was time to return to the long sentence and the long novel.
The premise is great: a bomb explosion in a museum turns a child victim into an art thief. In the process we are treated to a glimpse into upper crust New York society, lower tier Las Vegas society, the art world with its customs, rituals and codes, and the criminal underworld that specializes in using stolen art for collateral on drug deals. We are also introduced to a plethora of mind numbing recreational drugs and their damaging effects.
Theo Decker, a 13-year old, sees his mother die when the museum explodes while he is visiting. In the ensuing melee, he dazedly grabs onto a priceless painting, The Goldfinch, whose creator also died in a fire in the 17th century. Theo hangs onto the painting as it’s the only memory he has of his mother’s last moments, and keeps it safe for several years, only to discover that it is priceless and on a list of paintings that were considered thefts from the museum at the time of the explosion. Theo is torn between the upper class but dysfunctional world of the Barbour family that temporarily houses him, and his alcoholic father who descends from Las Vegas to claim him. Life in Las Vegas is a very unhappy one for Theo who finds companionship with Boris, another abused but worldly teenager, who is no stranger to alcohol and drugs and even a bit of crime on the side. The amount of drugs and alcohol these two teenagers consume is enough to keep a whole village on a permanent high for years. At the heart of this indulgence is a desire to wipe out the emptiness in their loveless lives. Theo’s heart lies with Pippa, a girl who was also in the museum at the time of the blast, and whose uncle died in the blaze. Before breathing his last, the uncle gives Theo a ring as an introduction to his business partner, Hobie, who is to become Theo’s mentor and business partner over the years to follow. Hobie is the only father figure who represents masculine strength and integrity while Mr. Barbour and the boys’ fathers are all losers.
After a few wasted years in Las Vegas, Theo returns to New York to finish his education and join Hobie in the business of art restoration. His conditioning by Boris in the dark arts soon turns him into a seller of art fakes. One thing leads to another, and we wind up in Amsterdam where Theo and Boris end up fighting for their lives against a bunch of hoodlums. They are intent on restoring the Goldfinch to its original state in the museum and be absolved of the stain of art thieves.
What was disappointing was that for all the length of this book with such a few plot points and twists, even though some issues were resolved, we were left hanging on others. I never understood whether Theo’s unrequited love for Pippa was resolved, or whether he ever got married to the “other woman”, Kitsey, whom he was never in love with and who was cheating on him. And what of Boris? Or does Boris remain the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist? And are all these loose ends a foretelling (heavens forbid!) that another 850 page Goldfinch II is on the horizon? And what the heck was that last chapter about the merits of the Goldfinch painting all about—what a way to end?!
Even though the writing was fluid and the descriptions minute, this was a too long a book for the length of its story. It could have been halved and would have carried the same story with the same heft, and possibly more impact.
Combining a host of literary figures with a well known literary work such as Dante’s Comedy, and a murder mystery, seems like a sure shot way to entertain, educate and enlighten via the novel. Also a guarantee of best-seller status.
Matthew Pearl has hit on this formula and his first three books cover Dante, Poe and Dickens mixed in with the dark shadows of a whodunit in each. In The Dante Club, his debut, we are introduced to literary luminaries such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J.T. Fields, all stalwart members of the Dante Club, a loose association of intellectuals connected with Harvard University. Led by Longfellow, the club is intent on translating the works of Dante into English for publication in America, much against the desires of the Harvard Corporation and other Boston Brahmins (local aristocracy) who want to maintain their Unitarian and Presbyterian beliefs and do not wish to be polluted by Catholic and sinful Italian literature.
The earlier part of the book dwells on the political and literary challenges facing the translation and gives us a glimpse into the lives of the principle characters, mainly into the life of Dante, a man exiled from his beloved Florence, who wrote his masterpiece while under banishment, and who was never allowed to reunite with his lover Beatrice. “Dante writes like Rembrandt, with a brush dipped in darkness and a gleam of hellfire as his light.” We also get a good depiction of post-civil war Boston, with its demobilized and discarded union soldiers struggling to survive, it’s intelligencia, it’s academic hegemony, its divided police force, and its rivalry with New York for supremacy in publishing. We learn that black police officers were not allowed to wear uniforms or arrest a white person without another officer being present! We even get some choice period words like “lushington” and “delirious tremendous,” uttered by the inebriated lower classes. Pearl, being a Dante scholar, spares no pains in painting this period thickly in a clunky vintage narrative style. A bit too thickly I thought, if the other side of this book—the murder mystery—was going to quickly engage into gear and take us at a faster clip.
And when we do finally engage, people start dying, in ways that resemble Dante’s journey through Hell. The deadly contrapasso falls upon each of the victims based on some bad deed they had committed during their lives. Whether being eaten by maggots while alive, or being buried headfirst with feet afire, or being sliced up and left to die, or being buried alive in ice, the killings are brutal and is the work of a maniac. The victims are all opponents of the Dante Club’s project, and its core members who are men of letters and not of action are soon bumbling along head over heels in search of this elusive killer who is able to pre-empt the next chapter of their translation and kill according to its narrative.
That’s when the plot deteriorates into contrivance. The killer’s ability to listen in on key conversations of the Dante Club and the Harvard Corporation, and his ability to be everywhere at once is a bit of a stretch. So is the sudden attack of hoof and mouth disease that conveniently (or inconveniently) lands all the city’s horses in quarantine. I also wondered how Dr. Holmes, an asthmatic, was able to outrun his attacker and crawl into narrow underground spaces with little or no air. The author also has some difficulty with stagecraft when it comes to actions scenes, especially when many players are on stage and many voices are talking in the same scene. I am hoping that his later books tackle this element better, for it is not an easy skill to master.
Of course, all is revealed at the end, and the literary luminaries of the Dante Club go on to greatness as the history books will attest, and this little episode will be conveniently excised so that it remains only in the annals of fiction. I found this novel an engaging spotlight on the lives of Longfellow and Co., a good primer on the interesting bits of Dante, and a revelation on the conditions of the American North at the conclusion of the civil war. It appears that America had its own Inferno during that disastrous war, and that the poets of the Dante Club, with access to the survivors still proudly wearing their uniforms if nothing else, could have written a “Made in America” version of the Divine Comedy to rival the original.
Shane actively reads and reviews books by other authors. Below are his most recent reviews.