Raywat Deonandan’s review of Home Movies


Raywat Deonandan’s review of Home Movies

Review of Home Movies by Ray Robertson

by Ray Deonandan

September 7, 1999

This article originally appeared in Paragraph Magazine (Toronto) in December of 1997. The author retains all rights.

James Thompson is Canada’s Buck Owens, a soon-to-be 25 year old country-and-western singer who’s never seen a cow or ridden a horse. His two albums of songs have adequately described the small town Canadian experience, despite James’ having established his abode within the urban frenzy of downtown Toronto. But now James is unable to find words to go with the music for his next album, and so, compelled by his bellicose boss, he returns home to “find his roots.”

Home is Datum (perhaps a thinly veiled Chatham, the author’s home town), Ontario, a place comedically unimpressed with James’ unintentional big city ways, but an appropriate setting for a small mystery than pervades the narrative: who exactly was James’ father? The elder Thompson had died on his wedding night, and James had never known him. James relatives had been frustratingly reluctant to talk about the family’s history, but his Uncle Buckly had promised that he would reveal all on James’ upcoming 25th birthday.

As a first novel, Home Movies is reasonably well written with small town and C&W metaphors aplenty. But for the stickly grammatician, it suffers from an overabundance of parentheses, clauses and very long sentences. Often, this style is humourous and cute, a la Douglas Addams, but ocassionally inappropriate in scenes that could benefit from a thicker air of seriousness and punctuated events. Make no doubt, however, that Robertson weilds an effluent wit that is exercised frequently and effectively:

James tried on a smile that would have made a good before-photo for a laxative product.

Home Movies is intended to showcase the Ontario border-town experience, yet its descriptions of Toronto linger more strikingly in the reader’s memory. Like Russel Smith, Robertson splatters his novel with casual veiled references to cool Toronto niches: “The Holy Ravioli” (The Rivoli) and “Spooky Doo’s” (Sneaky Dee’s), for example. Datum, Ontario, only comes alive during James’ recollections of youth, often brilliantly accentuated by hockey metaphors that push pure Canadiana through the haze of an intended American readership.

Robertson has given great thought to his supporting cast of characters, especially to their roles within this hockey-playing milieu. Most important are Uncle Buckly and James’ new crazy girlfriend Melissa. These are sympathetic and engaging individuals, but sadly rarely evolve beyond their superficial traits and quirks. Characters, in general, are described more than they do. With the exception of Melissa, they are introduced in James’ rich recollections of histories and eccentricities, then are asked to perform in this biased arena. Most disappointing is Uncle Buckly to whom entire chapters of description are dedicated, who rarely actually says anything.

Sadly, Robertson’s considerable talent with situational description and clausal structure have not yet translated well into dialogue. Much thought, or perhaps a greater emotional investment, has been put into the main characters’ speech. But supporting agents suffer from forgettable cliches, such as this line from a bartender:

"I figured I'd be seeing their ugly mugs around here once the bars closed down."

Has anyone since Bogart used the words “ugly mugs”?

Admittedly, the second half of the book enjoys both greater maturity of character portrayal, and a higher degree of action rather than dialogue. The culmination of the carefully cultivated mystery of James’ father’s life is unfortunately disappointing, but serves to accentuate the greater importance of James’ return to Datum.

As a first-time novelist, Ray Robertson shows true talent crafting sentences, situations and interactions. His future works, if characters are allowed to ripen, and if separate moods can be sustained without the need for humourous undercutting, are sure to be impressive indeed.

Raywat Deonandan's website is at www.deonandan.com

House for Mr. Biswas


House for Mr. Biswas

V.S. Naipauls A House for Mr. Biswas

by Raywat Deonandan

Feb. 11, 2002

A version of this article first appeared in India Currents Magazine in February 2002, under the title, “A Jewel In A Sparkling Collection.” It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

I was a teenager when I first read V.S. Naipauls A House For Mr. Biswas. That was 17 years ago. It was an assigned book in my Toronto highschool English class. Ours was a programme of rare multicultural outlook, thanks to my teacher Ms. Anne Carrier. You see, back in 1984 it was unheard of to be exposed to Asian or Caribbean literature in a North American highschool, an oversight which still seems trivial to White or non-immigrant Americans and Canadians today. But make no mistake, then as now, there is inherent value in an enriched global reading list. Written in 1961, Biswas was an unanticipated treasure of validation, a fresh alien gem atop the well-thumbed Faulkners, Salingers and Twains.

My family had immigrated from Guyana 15 years earlier during a time when Asian Indian culture was mysterious enough to the mainstream. Indo-Caribbean language, history and behaviour were yet years away from entering the awareness of the general public, and would prove a near impossibility to explain or to describe to friends and teachers. As any immigrant child will attest, there are few things more isolating than cultural loneliness. It serves as an impenetrable barrier that separates one from friends and colleagues, and compels both a heightened closeness and subtle resentment towards family members, ironically the only people who truly share the condition.

So the discovery of an Indo-Caribbean literature at such an impressionable age was doubly important. I recall well the awe, nervousness and excitement elicited from Biswass opening pages. It was set in Trinidad, mere miles from my birthplace of Guyana! Its major characters were Indians descended from indentured servants, the same as me and mine! The books cadence of angst and subdued anger –an alternation that ripples through all post-colonial societies, yet is missing from most American literature– kept beat with the displacement in my own heart. And, most interesting, the rhythm and tonality of the characters speech was the singsong Caribbean patois with which I had grown up. You see, that way of talking was a source of shame to many early immigrants; Jamaican cool was yet to reach North America and give public resonance to the Caribbean modality. To have discovered its usage within the pages of a book validated by no less than the Toronto Board of Education was to truly realize personal cultural arrival.

The book itself tells a simple story. It begins with the emergence into this world of Mohun Biswas, six-fingered and born in the wrong way, foreshadowing the bad luck he would have and cause. A poor journalist turned civil servant, Biswas lives a brief humourous life punctuated by battles with his in-laws and a strained relationship with his writer son, the essence of his angst symbolized by his quest for a house of his own. Naipauls genius is in elevating the seemingly mundane and comedic to themes of timeless importance, injecting his writing with subtle imagery and allegory. His hated in-laws the Tulsis, for example, live in a home called Hanuman House. That Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god is Naipauls sly intimation of the houses more zoological or chaotic nature.

The allegory of Biswas is an inspiring one. Mohun Biswas is compelled toward a rebellious nature through various cultural traditions for which he has little patience. Biswas is at the bottom rung of society because of his work, family history and poorness. He is further at the bottom of the pecking order in his extended family, kept there by the weighty demands of his culture. But a modern hero infected with frequent emotional outbursts, his aspirations are never quelled. After enduring a beating by an in-law, Biswas declares, I am going to get a job on my own. And I am going to get my own house too. I am finished with this. The goal of any descendant of indentured servants has yet to be better or more simply stated.

In many ways, Biswas is the Indo-Caribbean archetype, a man from an ancient cultural tradition of castes and unnavigable religions whose sudden proximity to the world of Western modernity fills him with hope for more. His behaviour is sometimes reprehensible, but his predicament is one with which so many of us, particularly Indians caught up in a new world, can relate. His quest for a house of his own mirrors well the quest of colonized peoples for a nation and an identity of their own. To appreciate the plight of Biswas is to understand the history of his nation and that of the entire Indo-Caribbean milieu: a people uniquely positioned between the rich traditions of the East and the commercial demands and promises of the West, yet tragically benefitting from neither.

V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, taking his place among literary immortals like Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Rabindranath Tagore. They say he was honoured for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories. Certainly, A House for Mr. Biswas is but one jewel in the sparkling collection of the lifes work that earned him the award, as it slyly tells of Indo-Caribbean emotional history within the modern dynamic of cultural collisions. It is generally agreed that the story of Biswas is largely autobiographical, with Biswass writer son being Naipauls literary avatar. Hence Biswas is likely the tome for which this great writer will be most fondly remembered throughout the ages. For those unfamiliar with his books, Biswas is an excellent beginning point. It was certainly mine, and started me on a marvelous path of literary adventure and self-discovery.

Raywat Deonandan is an owner of The Podium. His personal website can be found at www.deonandan.com.