Review of Richard Cumyn’s The View From Tamischeira
Vancouver, BC: Beach Holme Publishing, 2003, ISBN 0-88878-441-1, 130 pp., $15.95 Cdn/$11.95 US paper.
by Raywat Deonandan
Nov 12, 2004
This article was originally published on the Prairie Fire website and appears here with the author’s permission.
“At the dawn of the twentieth century, a disparate group of travellers are thrown together in the Caucasus mountains, fabled land of Argonauts, Amazons, and Cossacks.” That’s how the summary begins on the back of Richard Cumyn’s The View From Tamischeira. A lover of great historical adventure and romance, I was immediately drawn to this unique premise. The travellers in Cumyn’s tale are real historical figures: British MP Henry Norman, Canadian radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden (whom some historians have dubbed “the father of radio broadcasting”) and Katherine Waddell, who, according to Cumyn’s fiction, was the lover of Fessenden’s dead friend, Ottawa poet Archibald Lampman. Cumyn writes in the Acknowledgements, “While I have drawn aspects of my characters from descriptions of the real people, this story is meant to be nothing more than a flight of the imagination.”
The voyagers have come to this remote area of the world for a variety of personal reasons, which may or may not be historically accurate. The first half of the book plods along with jerky character development and awkwardly unfolding exposition, culminating with the seeming kidnapping of Ms. Waddell by a shifty local named Sergei. There is uneven pacing in this half, as the storytelling jumps from slow intimate conversation to sparse events spanning months, just a paragraph away. For example, told from the perspective of Mr. Norman, the remaining adventurers ride off in search of Ms. Waddell, when Mr. Norman suddenly says: “I returned for the opening of the fall session of Parliament . . .” (67) And just like that, time has jumped ahead many months, leaving the reader still waiting by the Black Sea for a conversation to ensue.
Fortunately, the second half comes alive with proper pacing and truly fascinating interactions between Ms. Waddell and Sergei, allowing the reader to learn much about both the culture of villages in Georgia and Armenia and about Ms. Waddell’s subtle psychology.
This is a daring and ambitious novella, not so much for its exotic setting, or for its use of known protagonists of whom some readers might still have living memory. Rather, Cumyn has taken a chance by choosing thick, slow, colourful and poetic language to tell his tale, supposedly as a device to convey a sense of both the time and its romanticized rendering. Consider the following passage describing the postscript to sexual congress in a bathtub:
O pungent scent, never again to be reproduced. I would have only to smell it once to die in ecstatic shudders, weeping, uncontrollably fitful, wracked by the remembrance of what we birthed, the sloshing overflow, the primordial mix. To drop the tip of my tongue to the surface again, to lap it as a cat laps her ilk–please, gods, medicine men, charlatans, my life for that taste again, however brief. Give it. Give it up to me that I may take my leave of this life at last. (84)
Such a flowery approach is certainly appropriate given the overall tone and timbre of the book, which is often told less as a narrative and more as an introspective exploration from each character’s point of view. This style does tend to interfere with efficient processing of the narrative, however, and at times feels overwrought and indulgent.
In the end, I was left unsure of what this book was about or what I was meant to feel, though I surely appreciate Cumyn’s tremendous effort and his ease with language. One scene will remain with me for some time, that of two villagers, Irini and Ibrahim, engaging in beautiful nuanced flirtation by the well. This scene is a testament to the book’s true value, its sensitive portrayal of Caucasus village life. It displays subtlety and a reflexive understanding of pacing that many writers would do well to learn.
Raywat Deonandan‘s short story collection Sweet Like Saltwater was published in 1999, and his novel Divine Elemental in 2003, both by TSAR Publications.
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