The Demon Lover

by David Arnason
ISBN: 0888012780

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Whimsical Stories Not Without Poignancy
by Padma Viswanathan

The title story of Rabindranath Maharaj's new collection of short fiction centres on a thick manuscript of homilies-as-hypotheticals. Each takes the form of an if' statement followed by a corollary but' question. In this artful tale, a struggling writer of speculative fiction finds his apartment invaded by Pegu, a bombastic, mustachioed older gentleman. Philip never figures out how Pegu got in or came to know so much about him, but the evasive Pegu eventually confesses he is fleeing the (fictional) homeland he and Philip share. He carries with him a manuscript, "The Book of Ifs and Buts". Pegu claims that it is a highly subversive book, written by Philip's grandfather, so threatening to their homeland's higher-ups that a death warrant was issued against the author and all his descendants. Should Philip be scared? He reads the book. Turns out it's no more than a collection of mild and ungainly aphorisms, such as "If we look into the stream and see the face of a stranger, we scream and run in fright. But who told us to look into the stream in the first place?'" Philip can no longer credit any of Pegu's claims, but he forces the older man to admit authorship of the book-and facilitates its publication. "The Book of Ifs and Buts" is praised by reviewers for being "deceptively simple," "filled with practical wisdom," and is passed off as "a panacea for the age in which we live" and Pegu becomes the CanLit hit Philip may never be.
The story's whimsicality and magical realist overtones are anomalous in this collection of otherwise understated tales of displacement, disillusionment, and reconciliation. Still, it's as though this story epitomizes the other stories, since roly-poly Pegu, and Philip himself, can be seen to embody the anxieties that fueled the work-Maharaj's own duel paths as writer and Trinidadian immigrant provide much of the material for his fiction. The Ajax, Ontario-based author's steady output includes a previous book of short stories and two novels. He has made the shortlists of several major prizes. His last novel, The Lagahoo's Apprentice, was funny, intriguing, full of absurd yet telling detail. It showcased Maharaj's humour and his fine-edged treatment of incipient or averted bitterness. These skills shine in the Book of Ifs and Buts' best stories, such as "Swami Pankaj".
Pankaj is a Trinidadian fruit farmer whose dream is to pack in his life and go meditate in the Himalayas. We meet him in Brampton, where he has come to recover from illness possibly caused by chemical pesticides. He has sold his farm and wants to live and work among Indians, so he gets a job as a cab driver. Indeed, he sees suburban Ontario as a first step toward the achievement of his spiritual destination in India. This mild satire on occidental fascination with the mystic east is in the vein of Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia or Anita Desai's Journey to Ithaca, though Maharaj also always invites comparisons with V. S. Naipaul. One of the funniest twists is when the Trinidad-born-and-bred Pankaj starts talking with an Indian accent, presumably part of his intended auto-conversion to swamidom. At one point, he says, indicating some seagulls, "Those birdijis are so wery wery lucky. Not a single care in the entire uniwerse." Caught off guard by the narrator's dry delivery, I nearly choked laughing.
When lured into talking about his neighbours' reactions to his farming success, though, Pankaj reverts immediately to a hard-core West Indian dialect:

"They expect me to fail because I was too small. I was stepping outa my shoes. "What wrong with that kissmeass Pankaj," they used to say. "He think he is some damn French Creole or what, with all this plantation stupidness? Take care he don't bring in a few slaves to work in the estate just now." And the rest of them used to laugh gil-gil and say that they only waiting for him to end up with his foot in the air like a dead cockroach."

"Swami Pankaj" is swift and well-wrought. The collection's opening story, "The Journey of Angels", is rambling and disjointed by comparison. Saren is an Armenian gardener in Canada who ends up semi-intentionally passing himself off as a geneticist. Saren is self-absorbed and perpetually bewildered by his relationships with others. His repeated attempts and failures to connect with others form the track of the story, but unfortunately none of them are particularly dramatic or revealing. This is an episodic tale about stilted relationships, stylistically akin to the work of Czech writers such as Bohumil Hrabal, but "The Journey of Angels" lacks the verve necessary to carry off such a literary challenge. In the absence of drama, a central character should generate sympathy, or even prurient interest, in the reader. Saren, who tells his own mildly sordid story, fails to do that. An uncompelling Chauncey Gardener, he presents himself to us as idiot and to his girlfriend as savant-he's unnecessarily ingenuous about much of what he sees or does, but tells us how he fooled this woman into believing he's an accomplished scientist by reading books on science and recapitulating facts from them in conversation.
There is the odd pithy moment. For example, when Saren attempts to improve his English by reading newspapers, he comments on a new vocabulary word: "Impeach. The word confused me at first. It sounded delicious and forbidden-something you might do to your first girlfriend when her parents were away." Unfortunately, such wonderful bits of confusion are buried by far less credible ones. It's clear that Maharaj is playing with layers of self-knowledge; the frustrated reader suspects Saren must know more than Maharaj lets him reveal.
Thankfully, that's the weakest of the stories. "The Diary of a Down-Courage Domestic"-in which letters chronicle a middle-aged immigrant's search for work as a maid and the responses of her anxious husband left pining back in Trinidad-is comical and affecting. The collection concludes somberly with "The House in Lengua Village", a story about the return of a son, long out of touch, to his family home. He doesn't know that his father had resolved not to die before seeing him again, and dies immediately upon his son's return. The returned first-born performs the last rites at the request of his estranged alcoholic brother, striking a delicate end-note to this varied collection.
To use the book's own formula: If Rabindranath Maharaj's new book had made significant strides beyond his last one, this reviewer would have been happier. But, since it does contain a few gems, can't it still be recommended?
A cartoon representation of The Book of Ifs and Buts might show it as a thought bubble shared by a young Bharati Mukherjee and a young Austin Clarke-melding the gritty introspection of the former's early short fiction with the latter's occasionally fallible ear and eye for both dialogue and imported class struggles. Both of these authors spread their wings slowly and fully, took risks, and now cast their shadow over a broad swath of the North American literary landscape. Maharaj's reach has yet to be revealed.

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