Review of Raymond And Hannah (Unedited Version)

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Review of Raymond And Hannah (Unedited Version)Review of Stepehen Marche’s Raymond And Hannah

by Raywat Deonandan
July 4, 2005

This is the pre-edit version of a review which appears in Ideas magazine.

I once went to a party where I met a doctoral student in English literature who bored me to tears with talk of his thesis (on “despair in the works of Spenser”.) As painful as this was, the situation worsened when he was joined by another English doctoral student who added her insights on the “deconstruction of the post-Renaissance motif” or something like that. Now, English doctoral students are among my most favourite people –they tend to be engaged, intelligent and thoughtful– but listening to them talk to one another is less preferable than yanking out one’s pubic hairs with a tweezer.

I don’t know if Stephen Marche is an English doctoral student, but it would not surprise me if he were. The first few pages of Marche’s first novel, Raymond And Hannah, brought back terrifying memories of that evening in which I despaired for Spenser and for the humourless generations who have deconstructed his work. Fortunately, the terror was not sustained, as Marche’s smart, original love story quickly sheds most (though not all) of its literary pretense and settles into a tight, parsimonious and almost Zen-like narrative. And like a Zen choan, the tale is told in meta-poetic stanzas that hint at deeper meaning. It is the story of Raymond –an English doctoral student!– who has a week-long sexual affair with Hannah, who is seemingly a professional Jew, since her obsession with discovering Judaism is described as one would a vocation. After their week together, Hannah spends nine months in Jerusalem, and the pair must sustain their fragile love through emails. It is, however, as much a tale of life in the cities of Jerusalem and Toronto as it is one of romantic struggle.

Initially, one’s sensitivity to the stereotypical pretenses of English doctoral-ness is justified, as Marche has chosen to tell his small story by using a peculiar visual technique: he has titled each stanza within the book’s margin. For example, a portion titled “Conversation in a taxi” consists of exactly four lines of dialogue which are, not surprisingly, spoken inside a taxi as Raymond and Hannah begin their affair:

“I live in a basement.”
“I have an attic.”
“Can we go there?”
“I think yes, there.”

The eyes roll, the forehead is slapped and one settles in for an excruciating adventure in urban literary pretension. But –thankfully, surprisingly, gloriously– Raymond And Hannah lifts itself above such mediocrity and becomes something entirely unique: a truly modern romance for the age of globalisation. Our protagonists, like so many of us struggling to find human comfort within the ever expanding isolations of modern city life, collide in a happenstance of sexuality and mistake their gonadal good fortune for genuine organic human love. That their proto-love is interrupted by a separation of thousands of miles, yet sustained through daily, casual electronic communication, is a character of our specific time and place in history, wherein the illusion of intimacy can happily and invisibly co-opt the reality of solitude.

Raymond And Hannah is, of course, an imperfect work. With a plot that is necessarily thin, the narrative is flushed out with seemingly pointless asides. The titular pair takes a side trip to Hebron, site of Jewish-Palestinian violence. It is a ripe opportunity to suggest something revelatory and metaphorically about Hannah’s relationship with Raymond. Instead, the journey is notable only for a star cameo: “Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes waltzes through with his coffee.” But Marche’s true persistent failing is that the intellectual diversions of his protagonists are not very interesting. For example, Raymond’s thesis on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is particularly snooze-inducing, yet Marche has dedicated many paragraphs to its description and to the uninteresting quirks of Raymond’s thesis advisor. I’ve often said that writers writing about writers can be unbearably boring. I think the same applies to graduate students writing about the graduate student experience.

Despite these stumbles, Raymond And Hannah is an intriguing experience. It is said that all stories are essentially love stories. As the most Spartan of love stories, then, perhaps Raymond And Hannah is an elemental literary impulse, the purest of cogitative expressions upon which one might layer one’s own experiences and desires. For those who have loved and lost and loved again, and for those who have endured and reveled in the dramatic changes of being that life in a foreign place inspires, this is a story that will touch a place somewhere between the heart and the head, and perhaps even leave a smudge somewhere on the soul, as well.


Raywat Deonandan is the author of Divine Elemental (TSAR Books, 2003) and Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999), winner of the national book award of the nation of Guyana. www.deonandan.com.

Champion Of Her Silly Activity

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Champion Of Her Silly Activity

by Raywat Deonandan
July 4, 2005

This article was published in the July 29th, 2005, issue of The Toronto Star. The author retains all copyrights.

 

Occasionally, in a genuine effort to do the right, sensitive thing, people make the stupidest decisions. A few years ago the band, The Barenaked Ladies was banned from performing at Toronto’s City Hall because the name of the band was deemed sexist. Their detractors were too self-congratulatory in their crusading zeal to realize that the name was an innocent reference to a laddish predilection. Continue reading

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Overdue for a Pandemic?

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Overdue for a Pandemic?

by Raywat Deonandan
March 1, 2005

This article was commissioned by The Toronto Star on Feb 25, 2005, and was published March 2, 2005, under the title, “Are we overdue for a pandemic?”

According to the World Health Organization, more than three dozen people have thus far been killed by the new strain of avian flu in Asia. While each death is tragic, the sum of mortalities is nonetheless seemingly paltry when compared to the 3.1 million deaths from AIDS in 2004, or the 2.7 million from malaria or the 1.7 million from preventable diarrhea. Yet the medical world is restless over this particular strain of influenza, with the head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Julie Gerberding, declaring last week that avian flu represents “a very high threat” of becoming a deadly pandemic. The WHO’s Western Pacific regional director concurs: “We at WHO believe that the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic.” Continue reading

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On The Cutting Edge

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On The Cutting EdgeOn The Cutting Edge
Toronto’s Desh Pardesh Festival has a unique and genuine voice

by Raywat Deonandan
Feb 24, 2005

This article was published in the June, 1995, issue of India Currents Magazine.

Despite the technical blunders, a screeching microphone and uncertain lighting, California’s pioneering Indian-American writer Kartar Dhillon launched this year’s Desh Pardesh festival with great warmth and hominess. Her simple and soft feminist tales were a gradual introduction to a creative event that would feature works for whom such adjectives might even be considered insulting.

In its fifth year in Toronto, Desh Pardesh (sometimes translated as “home away from home”) claims to be an “intra-national festival/conference exploring the politics of South Asian cultures in the West.” It is well-regarded for providing a venue for the most marginalized of South Asian artists –feminists, homosexuals and purveyors of the working-class creed. It is a forum for all manner of art: poetry, literature, film, theatre, dance, photography and music –all free from the cultural baggage that tends to accompany Indian arts festivals: the compelled humility, religious and familial themes.

“We are unique,” says departing Desh executive director Steve Pereira, “in that we bridge the activist world –people who are involved with social justice issues– with the world of art.” The festival glories in its role as a haven for activist movements, offering workshops in such topics as sexual assault prevention, lesbian flirtation techniques, trends in immigration laws, AIDS activism, ecological denigration and the role of politicized art in the milieu of general South Asian culture.

Desh is particularly relevant this year because it marks the 150th anniversary of Indian presence in the Caribbean (and hence the West), the 10th anniversary of the Air India explosion, and the first anniversary of free South African elections. Day 2 of the festival was accordingly devoted to Indo-Caribbean content, featuring Guyanese-Trinidadian music proceeding under the name “Nagara Into Chutney”. It is on this day that Desh‘s brightest theatrical light is seen: Errol Sitahal’s dramatization of a scene from Samuel Selvon’s novel “A Brighter Sun.” Sitahal movingly captures the tragedy of the indentured service system while giving the character of Sookdeo a rare and tangible human dimension.

Another story that was touched upon by a number of performers –from poets to film-makers– was the tragedy of the Kogamata Maru. It was on this vessel in 1914 that a shipload of Sikhs was turned away from Vancouver harbour to face death on the seas. These pieces would herald a subetheral anti-colonial sentiment that would make its presence felt throughout the festival.

Indeed, at times a resentment of Western racism and British imperialism would become undisguised anti-white hatred. Odissi dancer Ananya Chaterjea would present a simply stunning interpretation of the Raj’s prostitution of Indian dancers; poet Raj Pannu would pronounce her disappointment with those with “insufficient skin melanin”; and members of the All India Collective theatre group would declare shamelessly –and somewhat naively– that George Bush had wanted to control Indian women’s bodies.

The espousal of such unabashed extremism culminates on the closing night with a reading by local poet whose work is entitled “Trying Hard Not To Hate White People.”

But such scapegoating aside, Desh was a wonderful cabaret of hidden talents. Phinder Dulai, a gifted poet and chronicler of the Kogamata Maru saga, reveals to us that “when you’re brown-skinned and speak of your disenfranchisement, you’re politically correct; when you’re white [and do the same thing], you’re cool.” Sadhu Binning, a simple and humble man, presents remarkably accessible verses as touching as many of Longfellow’s soft salvos. Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, another local writer, delivered an effortless and unrehearsed performance that was part literary reading and part stand-up comedy. And bhangra musicians Dhamak provided a suitably loud and rhythmic close to the four-day affair.

But by far the most engaging and memorable of Desh‘s offerings this year was a reading by poet Rajinder Pal whose amiable and accessible delivery evoked impressions of such realism that the audience was compelled to cling to his every word. He was able to elicit in many listeners ancestral memories of the India we’ve never seen.

The quality of the presented works was variable, of course, but the power of Desh lay in its unique and genuine voice. There was little of the self-serving pretense that usually pollutes such events, only the grateful strains of participants thrilled to have been allowed expression. In response to racist attacks on his children, one poet realized that he had “a choice between the gun and the pen (but not the computer)”. For him, it is clear, Desh was much more than another line on his C.V.

And despite the occasional anonymous caller who would complain bitterly about the representation of South Asian culture by a largely homosexual contingent, Desh Pardesh continues to grow, and promises to be an even grander affair this time next year.


Raywat Deonandan is a prolific author and freelance journalist. Visit www.deonandan.com.