ON BOTH of my visits to Europe I took along a notebook to record my impressions of the continent and its people. And both times I tore up my journal in frustration after just a few days of trying to describe the Vienna Staatsoper or Paris's Greek quarter. Everything I wrote reeked of pretentiousness and insincere emotion. It seems that exotic locations bring out the latent poseur in a writer, whether attempting fiction or travelogue.
Cary Fagan's latest book of fictions, written on a brief trip to France during the Gulf War, largely manages to avoid these potential pitfalls, although there is the occasional overblown metaphor: "What is so beautiful I about coffee in a cup? ... Why does this cup make the world smaller, more human?"
If the reader can forgive these musings on the ineffability of espresso, The Little Black Dress is a welt-crafted collection that explores how travelling can affect human relationships. "Domesticity" is the story of a young couple who learn that even the most mundane quibbles can drive a wedge between people who travel together. In "You'll Be Glad to Know," a woman writes to her son who is studying overseas. While insisting repeatedly that she has "nothing to write," the mother sabotages her son's trip by spreading her parental tentacles across the Atlantic. One of the finest stories in the collection is "Woodenheads," in which an itinerant puppeteer relinquishes artistic control over his shows, allowing his audience to decide their outcomes.
Fagan skilfully employs several narrative voices in the book; men and women, old and young, are all handled with a polished prose style and a strong ear for dialogue.
None of these qualities surfaces in Cyril Dabydeen's Jogging in Havana, a sorry combination of atrocious writing and shamefully inept editing. Even readers who are patient enough to overlook the dozens of typos, punctuation errors, and spelling inconsistencies will regret the effort. And a Herculean effort it is. Dabydeen changes tense in mid-paragraph, employs ellipses, semi-colons, and dashes as if they were interchangeable, and generally writes in a muddled prose style that makes Finnegans Wake seem breezy by comparison:
In the interchanging dark and light the music playing, the band warming up; one member of it distinctly longhaired, he with dark glasses on. And everyone else kept talking, muttering, then occasionally laughing loudly.
While many of the stories deal with important issues, any redeeming qualities are overshadowed by serious flaws in the narrative. In "Places" and "Relations," for example, Dabydeen presents two lively characters who have the life squeezed out of them by family members. Unfortunately, what one remembers are the careless oversights (the main character in "Places" is named only once, in passing), and the redundant descriptive passages (one character is both "silent" and "taciturn"; the villagers "constantly kept guessing" his whereabouts).
The stories that make up Jogging in Havana are set in Guyana, Cuba, and several other locales, but Dabydeen fails to establish a sense of place in any of them. Even the book's editor seems to have been confused by "Ain't Got No Cash," the story of a Canadian in the Bronx. On the same page, the word "neighbo(u)rhood" appears twice - once with the American spelling and once with the Canadian.
The Spanish-born Montrealer Yann Martel has collected four outstanding fictions in his new book, including the journey Prize-winning title story. "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" is a clumsy title for the wonderful story of a university student who is forced to watch his 19-year-old friend, Paul, die of AIDS. In order to cope with their ordeal, the young men set about inventing a series of stories, using 20th-century history as a blueprint: "It would be a story in eightyseven episodes, each echoing an event of one year of the century."
Martel effectively portrays the struggles of both characters: as Paul's stories become increasingly morbid, the narrator fights to counterbalance them with forced optimism. Ultimately, the storytellers realize that the 20th century is a litany of senseless tragedies of which AIDS is but one.
In the other stories, Martel experiments with unconventional techniques. "The Mirror Machine" is a kind of contrapuntal sound poem that attempts to weave three continuous narratives. The remarkable "Manners of Dying" is a series of letters from a prison warden to the mother of a man whom he has just hanged. With black humour, each letter gives a new twist to the condemned man's last hours.
The ease with which Martel handles these diverse stories is quite extraordinary. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories is as successful as it is ambitious, which amounts to high praise indeed.