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Exile

by Ann Ireland
300 pages,
ISBN: 1550024000


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Exiled and Alienated
by Michelle Ariss

"In Latin America, the assassination of journalists continues to be the most serious threat to freedom of expression, with at least nine journalists murdered in 2001 alone. The victims had most often written or spoken out about official crimes and corruption or about the crimes of narcotics entrepreneurs. Few such cases are ever solved, and the official investigations are often thwarted by threats, official corruption and indifference."
PEN CANADA - Toronto, December 10, 2002

Richard H. Brown writes in A Poetic for Sociology (1977) that irony "is a metaphor of opposites, a seeing of something from the viewpoint of its antithesis. Put slightly differently, to render something ironic is to take it from its conventional context and place it in an opposite one. Through such negation we become more aware of what that thing is."
In Exile, author Ann Ireland, a past-president of PEN Canada, relies on the type of ironic apposition that Brown describes to heighten awareness of what it means to be a political exile. When, for instance, she gives her Latin-American pseudo-rebel protagonist, Carlos Romero EstTvez, a petty personal cause¨to gain revenge for having been rebuffed by a rebel with a real cause¨she reminds us that most conventional political exiles are people with the courage to offend a government in defence of a cause they believe in. By making EstTvez a poet who writes "not of politics, but of love, and daily life..," a journalist who merely copies government press releases, and a sycophant and betrayer, we remember that authentic exiles are often powerful uncorruptible writers, driven by a profound concern for the well-being of others.
Ann Ireland Ireland's use of irony also raises our awareness of the courage and tenacity of many exiles. Authentic exiles may have been hunted down for inciting revolutions or for other blatant acts of treason. By contrast, it is sheer hubris that makes EstTvez one of the most wanted men in Santa Clara, the militarily-ruled country from which he is exiled, and his one and only revolutionary act is to join a group of university students in a bungled attempt to bring a truckload of meat to the country's poor. Authentic exiles are often imprisoned in dank, windowless, rat-infested prisons with barely enough to eat, but Ireland begins her novel with EstTvez sequestered in the relative comfort of his sister's friend's former wine cellar, more than surviving on leftover food from the family's meals.
Laced with so much irony, the story is frequently funny, a sort of satire that steers perilously close to trivializing the serious nature of the topic. However, the central theme¨estrangement¨and an abundance of prison metaphors and images provide enough ballast to ensure the reader's trust in the author's approach. Early on in the book, EstTvez comments that "we are all in exile from our authentic lives: it is the state of modern man." His remark, delivered with "a philosophical shrug," stands as the novel's manifesto, for estrangement, much of it ironic and of a post-colonial nature¨post-colonial in the sense that it draws attention to the residual effects of colonization on the economy, politics and society of a now independent country¨permeates setting, plot and character. Admittedly, the notion of permanent and universal exile or alienation has become something of a literary truism, at least since Sartre and Malraux. However, set within an ironic and post-colonial context, it reclaims a certain stringency and relevance.
Santa Clara, for instance, is a contemporary Latin American country where city-dwellers like EstTvez prosper, choosing to ignore the starving lowland peasants who live in conditions that "make you wonder how any form of human life can be maintained." Canada is supposed to offer EstTvez the freedom needed to write his poetry and memoirs. Instead he feels confined and cramped. The country is to him a "remote kingdom" whose "dull streets and polite smiles" stifle his creativity, a place where he is able to produce nothing but a map of his childhood home, a diagram of rooms and furniture that "looked like the scene of a domestic murder. All that was missing was the blood and the outline of my own body." And, on an excursion to one of British Columbia's Gulf Islands, EstTvez sees the ferry as "the perfect capsule for the exiled poet: a complete world that travelled over the watery skin of another hidden world, between land forms and still places."
Like the setting, ironic juxtapositions in the plot also support the theme. EstTvez's participation in the theft of the truck is motivated not by a belief in the cause but by a desire to earn the respect of 'A slash Mario', the revolutionary who has told EstTvez that he is "too much in love with the idea of [his] own heroic nature" to be of any use to him. The truck is not carrying fresh meat as the hi-jackers assume but boxes of Doritos Extra Spicy. A peasant woman helping to unload the truck wears a Mickey Mouse apron showing the American cartoon character "lifting his paddle hands in the air." And EstTvez cites a thirty-six-inch Sony Trinitron television as a symbol of his success in his country as a poet and journalist. Such negations and oppositions introduce a disjuncture between the 'expected' and the 'actual', a disjuncture which serves to emphasize the personal and political estrangement that post-colonialism can foster.
All of Ireland's characters are "exiled from their authentic lives" in one way or another. Rita, EstTvez's primary contact in Canada, is a trained dancer who rarely dances, and feels abandoned whenever her young son leaves to visit her estranged husband. The "slash" in A slash Mario's name recalls EstTvez's realization that the alluring revolutionary "affected this earthy, campesino style and dialect" and "was just as urban" as he was. A Latin-American academic teaching in Canada dresses in "the folkl=rico uniform of the countryside." Another professor hides his homosexuality. And CAFE, the Canadian Alliance for Freedom of Expression, the group that has sponsored EstTvez's escape, unwittingly denies him any freedom whatsoever to express himself. They expect him to replace the person he is¨a successful, perceptive writer "known for a certain style, leather jackets and slim pants," a man who grew up in a stately home complete with servants, accustomed to fine dining and sexual freedom¨with their own romanticized version of a writer-in-exile. They see him as a dissident poet eager to perform his poetry in a language that is not his own, willing to give up smoking and drinking to save money, and eternally grateful for the privilege of wearing second-hand clothing and shopping for food in the reduced produce aisles.
In the character of EstTvez, from whose point of view the story is told, Ann Ireland provides us with a richly detailed representation of estrangement in general, and specifically of post-colonial estrangement: "They thought that they wanted my story," he writes, "but it was not true. They wanted their own story of me, in their own words." EstTvez refuses to play the role that he is expected to play and chooses instead to exile himself completely from society, even from his own thoughts. His self-imposed alienation and prisoner-like behaviour are reminiscent of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Unlike Gregor Samsa, however, EstTvez does not waste away and die. Instead, he comes out of it with sufficient self-acceptance, the ending suggests, to be able to write the story we are reading, the story of Carlos Romero EstTvez, and what it means to him to be an exile.
And there's the first rub. In some places, inconsistencies in EstTvez's linguistic abilities undermine the first person narrative. For instance, the English he uses while flirting with a female student reveals a weak command of verb tenses and, sometime later, we are told that he attended only one of the ESL courses that all of CAFE's writers-in-exile are expected to take. This is the same EstTvez who, in the novel, refers to the Gulf Island retreat as "an island dacha," talks of "math texts" and writes that as a boy in Santa Clara he worried he might 'flub' an exam. If, as the first person narrative suggests, he waited to write the novel until he was as fluent in English as Ireland is, the minimal attempt she makes to portray him as a learner of the language becomes an unnecessary and confusing detail.
A second slight chaffing occurs at the level of genre. Santa Clara's political history is not stated. We know that the military is in control, but who did they overthrow?¨the British, whose school uniform was the model for EstTvez's own when he was a boy, or one of the other countries¨France? Russia? Italy?¨whose language EstTvez's father values so highly, or the Americans with their Mickey Mouse motifs and Trinitron television sets? Ireland's references to foreign influences on life in Santa Clara in general, and on EstTvez in particular, suggest that he is meant to be writing from a post-colonial perspective. More of the history that led up to military rule in Santa Clara would substantiate that perspective.
Apart from these small bruises, Exile, Ireland's third novel, is a rewarding read for several reasons: because it is a new, sort of 'back to front' approach to an age-old abstraction; because Ireland sustains the reader's interest by using a varied and rhythmic approach to language; and because her dextrous use of dialogue moves the plot along at a brisk pace, as dialogue does in a well-written novel. More specifically, readers with an interest in post-colonial literature will find Ireland's sensitive portrayal of how 'the other' views and treats 'the other' wry in some places, disturbing in others, and provocative throughout. ˛
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