Pico Iyer Journeys

Howard Norman

Yet deeper than those surface features, he is a Canadian writer insofar as his theme, explicitly, is healing, putting missing pieces together to build a tempered whole. In Dennis Bocks’ The Ash Garden, Pugwash, Nova Scotia (and Toronto) are the places where Hungarian refugees, among others, try to rectify the damage and repair the fissures created by the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Toronto is where refugees from Nazi Europe come to try to reconstitute their lives in a new tongue and a young, hopeful setting. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient famously centers around a bandaged invalid being nursed back to memory during the Second World War in Italy. With an earnestness and unity not so apparent in either Europe or the U.S., Canadian writers, like many Canadian human rights activists, have made it their business to make the world better again.

But when you read Alice Munro, say, on the small towns of rural Ontario, a tiny territory she often seems happy to return to in her fiction, you feel a much larger sense of space because her protagonists (generally women) are usually trying to break out of their straitened circumstances, eager to be out in the modern world, determined to stake out new destinies outside the reach of 19th century provincialisms, and the action of her stories often follows characters who suddenly remake their lives and take flight from a world that doesn’t agree with them. When, on occasion, they settle for boring, everyday husbands, it is with a shrewd and unillusioned sense of the other options they know finally to be more damaging.

Norman’s stories, by comparison, can feel much more claustrophobic and muffled; his people do not seem to sense, and certainly often lack the courage to claim, the larger opportunities around them. His themes and settings may be Canadian, but in this respect be seems to belong much more to the East Asian school of suppression and circumscription explored by such writers as Kazuo Ishiguro and Chang Rae-lee. Indeed, it’s striking that the epigraph to his first book, The Northern Lights, comes from Natsume Soseki, and, in the opening words of an introduction to a new edition of that book, the author he cites, a recurrent favorite, is the Japanese master of melancholy, Ryonosuke Akutagawa. I was reminded, reading his book, of the professor of Japanese (cited in Liza Dalby’s recent book, East Wind Melts the Ice), who, watching a flamenco dancer and a geisha dancing side by side, notes that the Spanish form is all “fire over ice,” the Japanese “ice over fire.”

Devotion, like all Norman’s novels, holds one’s attention constantly, covers a lot of ground in its small compass, and stays in the mind with its spare imagery. But it also raises the question of whether its own artfulness is not the source of its airlessness. The sentences are rigorously carpentered, and there is scarcely a stray detail in the book, but sometimes one begins to long for a stray detail, or something that lies outside the control of its over-determining maker. Often the reader, like the characters he’s reading about, feels he scarcely has room to breathe.

This is doubly odd because the book is to some extent about chance and the way it plays havoc with our neatly organized plans and responses. The thrust of the novel is to show David that he is too introspective, too passive, not clear or original enough in his acts. And yet it also (seemingly contradictorily) rewards him for his patience and his selfless tending to his injured father-in-law, his devotion. It speaks in favor of the love, qualified and measured, that comes after and not before disillusionment. Norman builds his boxes beautifully, but there’s a sense that they are all variations on the same small theme. His next project, according to a recent statement, is a journey for National Geographic magazine to follow in the footsteps of the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho, author of a book sometimes translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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