Review of Divine Elemental by Kulpreet Badial

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Review of Raywat Deonandan’s Divine Elemental

by Kulpreet Badial
Feb 6, 2010

 

This is a delightful read. The locale is Bihar in north-eastern India and the cast of characters is not quite what one might expect. Kalya, a Canadian, is out to find her roots and place in the world. Iskander, another westerner, is an entomologist studying wasps and in a manner typical of graduate-students, does a lot of exploratory research in areas that are directly-related to the topic of their thesis. Greek History. Meaning of Life. The interconnectedness of it all. And he is high on local booze for the most part; resulting in some amazing vignettes of stream of consciousness type writing:

Iskie looked upon this world without the benefit of a Lamas observant discipline, but rather with the time-dilation effects of premature drunkenness.

The book starts with a ghost-tale and for some time it is a bit of a struggle to come to grips with the setting and the believability of the characters. But science comes to the rescue. The best writing comes in various discourses where science clears the mist like only science can. It is here that the writing is precise; the logic unflappable and the characters are in their element.

The scientist on romance:

 

Romantic love –its desperation, futility, ecstasy and agony– is best observed amongst the insectoid angels.

 

On infidelity :

One part of the biological imperative is to obtain the best possible genes for ones offspring while simultaneously securing the best resources from ones mate. You see? Often that combination requires infidelity.

I have to remember this one.

 

On religions:

Christian, Islam and Judaism were all desert religions whose fundamentals were established upon Vulcans searing Middle Eastern forge, hence insisting upon their austerity, their hallucinogenic contradictions, and their water worship, despite the inapplicability of such things to the myriad environments to which the faiths had spread. Madness, it all was madness.

 

Write fiction in English and set it in rural Bihar. It is a challenge that could easily see the best of even the established literary stars fail miserably. The author cheats somehow by transplanting his characters from the west but once you give him that, the rest is fantastic. The chemistry works; and so does the entomology. Hell, there is even a bit of casual sex with a woman amazingly liberal for the eco-system of the place. I grew up in a place like that and we had none of that; but then again, maybe there was.

I will let the author have the last word:

 

It is the arrogance of men that prevents them from perceiving the imperceptible, from allowing themselves to consider that which is not obvious.

 

Read it. Divine Elemental is unconventional, edgy, funny. And you will learn a thing or two about the amazing sex-life of the fig-wasp.

 



 

 


Kulpreet is an Ottawa-based tabla player and all-around gadabout. Visit him at Tandoori Beavertails.

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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.

Review of Emergent Voices

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Review of Emergent Voices

Review of “Emergent Voices: CBC Canadian Literary Awards Stories 1979-1999” (edited by Robert Weaver)

by Raywat Deonandan
September 5, 2001

This article originally appeared on the Prairie Fire website. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Someone once described the CBC CanLit Awards as being reflective of the diverse literary landscape of the country. While the prize’s administrators have never purported to be rewarding anything more than simply the best story submitted in each given year, I think it’s fair to say that the stories that have won this prize represent the CBC’s very specific vision of Canadaor at least its vision of Canadian literary quality. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But the distinction must be made between a body of work that mirrors the Canadian ethic and a body that satisfies a predetermined template of national character and supposed diversity.

Having expressed that caveat, I must say that the stories contained within this volume are exceptionally well written, their writers sampled from the most prominent of Canadian literary names: Michael Ondaatje, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Janette Turner Hospital and Carol Shields among them. But a good anthology is more than just a collection of good stories. A good anthology is bound by a compelling and meaningful theme. While one cannot fault Emergent Voices for its glorious and timeless literacy, it nevertheless renders a disappointing and predictable theme of Canadian pastoralness, informed, dare I say it, by the CBC committee ethic. It seems that the stereotype of Canada as either an untamed wilderness or a pioneering prairie country has been warmly and unconsciously embraced by the juries of the CBC contest. The first two stories, Sen Virgo’s “Les Rites” and W.D. Valgardson’s “A Matter of Balance,” are good examples of this ethic-tales of Canadians suffering and mastering the outdoorswhile stories like Kent Thompson’s “A Local Hanging” (though beautiful in its brutal simplicity about vigilante justice) and Budge Wilson’s “The Leaving” (a wonderful, non-condescending portrait of an oppressed housewife) expound upon that other Canadian stereotype, the provincial, isolated and navel-gazing small town.

Littered among these otherwise finely crafted works are the obviously pandering tales. Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “The Other Country” is manipulatively patriotic, dreadfully dull and pretentious, seemingly tailor-written for contest jurors. The two stories by Janice Kulyk Keefer (“The Wind” and “Mrs. Putnam and the Planetarium”) are well written, but, to be blunt, pointless and without depth. Janette Turner Hospital’s “Queen of Pentacles, Nine of Swords” is another entry that sings with seeming relevance, but finally fails to make a point. In fact, this is a criticism that is oft shouted at these pageswhere is the depth? Truly timeless tales, stories that would reflect the nation in a guttural and global sense, would echo across many levels of society and of the human experience. Instead, this collection offers a proliferation of small topicsfamily strife, interpersonal angst and the lot-without even a hint of a grander context. Two powerful exceptions were both written by ex-patriate Ernst Havemann (“Bloodsong” and “An Interview”). Both of Havemann’s winners comment upon African societies while describing small personal interactions. It is a shame that it took a change of scenery to another country to achieve such depth and universal interest.

The big names are particularly disappointing. Michael Ondaatje’s “The Passions of Lalla” is lyrical and complete in a way that is unique to the genius of Ondaatje. But the story is surprisingly uninteresting, meandering and somewhat overwrought, saved only by its fanciful setting in Sri Lanka. Carol Shields’s “Flitting Behaviour,” a story about a writer with a dying wife, is tiresome for its predictable characterizations. For my money, there is nothing more boring than writers writing about writers.

Thankfully, the collection ends on a promising note. Bill Gaston’s “Where It Comes From, Where It Goes” tells of a non-traditional healer who, because of his uncertain status as possible fake, struggles for purchase within his community. Gaston’s is a small-town story with an appreciation for the existence of the surrounding urban sprawl. This wonderfully evocative tale is a reminder that CBC prizewinners are not necessarily indicative of the entirety of Canada’s literary potential, but are becoming so. Despite an obvious obsession with the stereotypes of wilderness and domestic strife in prairie households, the industry is awakening to the accelerating prominence of urban strife, global vision and true diversity .

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