#843 Stories of a desperate poignancy

Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth
by Anosh Irani

Toronto: Penguin Random House (Knopf Canada), 2019
$24.95 / 9780735278523

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski

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Choosing a title for a book of fiction is an art. Think: The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. Browsers of bookshelves are likely to pause at such a title, (even if they don’t know Julian Barnes, the book’s author.) Now consider Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth. Browsers who know nothing about the book will likely pause, especially if they are looking for something a little audacious, quirky, perhaps, and almost certainly funny.

Knowing, however, that the book is by Indo-Canadian Anosh Irani, some browsers will find the word “gibberish” to be disturbing, especially since the word is typically used by xenophobes to dismiss the words of immigrants as not just nonsensical, but also contemptible.

While only two of the stories in this new collection are centrally about immigrant experiences, the word, once invoked, nevertheless hangs over the whole book. Understood bitterly, ironically, contemptuously, or regretfully, it very much sets the tenor for the whole volume — even though, as it turns out, the author uses the word “gibberish” in an unexpected way.

North Vancouver writer Anosh Irani, 2019. Photo by Mike Wakefield, courtesy of North Shore News
Anosh Irani, 2007. Photo courtesy Ahmede Hussain

“Gibberish” is not the only feint in the title. The fact is that, apart from the bookending piece bearing the same title as the whole volume, there are only six stories — at least six stories with unified narrative lines, discrete characters, and separate titles. As for this two-part frame, a first-person, meditative account of a writer reflecting on his unsettling visits to Bombay over the course of his twenty years living in Vancouver, it is an entirely different beast. As the author said in an interview, it is not autobiographical, but it is “truthful.”

The Song of Kahunsha (2006)

As for “gibberish,” the writer/persona in this two-part piece uses the word to describe the “fragments” that come to him largely unbidden, sometimes in dreams, sometimes from other buried parts of himself; they are, in his words, “something embedded in my consciousness.” His role as a writer, therefore, is to “translate” these fragments into stories. “I am my own translator,” he says — and ends the sentence by direly adding, “my own doom.”

Western literature abounds with writers describing the process they go through in bringing words to the page. At one extreme, we have Keats telling us that if “poetry come not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” At another, we have those writers who see themselves chiefly as methodical crafters. Irani’s persona, however, joins those who dominate the field, at least in the popular imagination — those writers for whom writing is both an uncontrollable need and a torment. “I was on my way to becoming a flammable object. That’s what writers are,” he says, adding that his “nerves” are “on fire.” He even admits, “Sometimes I think of suicide,” but adds “there’s always that next sentence.” And, far from looking outside for the materials for his writing, he says, “The stories that I will tell ten years from now are already embedded in my DNA, and they will erupt when they need to” (Italics mine).

Dahanu Road (2010)

This darkness isn’t completely internal or confined to the creative process: Irani’s imagination is driven by a mix of nihilism, contempt for humanity, and savage humour: “What are we?” he asks, then immediately answers, “We are flesh on vertebrae. That’s about it. And yet we refuse to see that.” As for our drive to acquire wealth, it produces nothing but men “who feel the surge through their bank accounts even while they are one step away from using shit bags.” Rising to a crescendo of bitter gloom, the book concludes with a litany of grim news stories and nihilistic despair: “I see a mass of humans, all flailing as they swim — towards offices and jobs, towards terrorist cells,… towards children who may never show up when they die.”

Given the darkness of such a mental state, it is surprising that the stories in the rest of the book are no bleaker than they are. Those who come to this collection with an experience of Irani’s novels such as Dahanu Road (2010), The Song of Kahunsha (2006), or The Parcel (2016) will be familiar with works riven with pain and violence. And, more to the point, as the writer/persona would insist, for the average human such pain and violence are generally suppressed: “As a human being, I’m trying to forget.” Significantly, though, Irani couples this admission with a raw assertion of an opposite role for himself: “As a writer, I’m constantly trying to remember.”

The Parcel (2017)

As for those who are responsible for humanity’s pain, these stories contain some anger, but little of it is directed toward unjust social forces or generalized human brutality. In some stories, pure bad luck, sometimes next door to fate, is the most inimical force. Most often, though, suffering is the direct result of sharply individuated cruel or ruthless men: Quadir Bhai in “Behind the Moon” virtually enslaves an immigrant while standing in the way of his getting legal status. Sujoy’s father in “Butter Chicken” not only is consistently cold towards his wife and son, but also is ultimately responsible for his wife’s death from disease. A clutch of gangsters in “The Treasury of Sweetness” snatch away and destroy any possibility of happiness and safety for two vulnerable immigrants.

To focus and intensify the pain, in each story Irani quickly identifies a single protagonist, in some way alienated. Further, he makes no attempt to make his storytelling innovative or disorienting, but, instead, keeps his readers firmly within the fold of this single character’s pain by tapping into traditional narrative methods. In fact, with the exception of only a few sharp shifts of point of view (in “Mr. Molt”) the stories largely stay in the experiences of each protagonist, in a confined area, over a short period of time.

The Cripple and his Talismans (2004)

In many ways, in fact, the stories embrace the ordinary. This may come as a surprise to those who especially know Irani’s first novel The Cripple and His Talismans (2004). The only vestiges of the bizarre or surreal that he had employed extensively in this early novel, are here a pair of a dead women’s underpants on a clothesline that, day after day, taunts a whole neighbourhood, and, more strikingly, a zoo penguin that the protagonist in this story believes to be the reincarnation of her dead son.

Generally turning his back on the bizarre, Irani chooses for most of his protagonists some of the most recognizable characters or situations of modern narrative. One is a lonely and alienated illegal immigrant, another is sad circus clown with a lovelorn heart, a third is a man who turns to a traditional family recipe for a way or recognizing his past and asserting his present, a fourth is a small business owner terrorized by gangsters into breaking the law, and yet another is the wife of a gangster boss haunted by her private desperation. All of these are familiar narrative elements, but all, in this volume, feel fresh and real.

Italian edition of The Song of Kahunsha, Il bambino con i petali in tasca (2006)

Additionally affecting is the fact that almost every protagonist is quiet — darkly restrained, deeply internalized, and largely trapped. The readers become increasingly involved because most of the stories build in tension around these characters, until, usually with a twist or shock, they lose hope or deepen their sorrow. In the end, each story tails off into unresolved dreams, quiet embitterment, or, at best, reflective resignation. Those who know probably the most influential modern collection of modern short stories in English, James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), will feel in familiar territory, a state Joyce called “moral paralysis.”

The real achievement of the book, however, is that the pain is not in a void. For each of his protagonists, Irani clearly not only feels genuine compassion, but also, and more important, makes his readers feel a deep well of compassion for his characters — all the more compelling given the generally misanthropic bite of the introduction/conclusion. In part, that compassion derives from the gently insistent sorrow he documents: “Swimming Coach” concludes with Ulrich brooding on a life “dissolving all its memories…. moments shared with his wife and daughter turning into nothing.” Abdul in “Behind the Moon,” facing deportation, suffers “Regret and anger, and a deep realization of his own impotence.” As Sujay’s mother in “Butter Chicken” speaks of the lack of love in her life, her son sorrows for her “stinking resignation.” These experiences are vivid, and, Irani makes his readers feel, utterly authentic.

Chinese edition of The Song of Kahunsha

More resonant in affecting his readers, though, is the way the author concludes each story with a kind of desperate poignancy, all the more deeply felt because each of his characters trembles between a glimmer of hope and desolation. “Circus Wedding,” for example, concludes with its protagonist on his hands and knees in the dust, looking for the wedding ring he had given the woman he so impossibly loved — busying himself doing “anything to prevent him from looking at the face of his beloved, where he knew exactly what he would find, more shapes, more shadows.” “The Treasury of Sweetness” concludes with Majid, accepting that he is almost certainly doomed, allowing himself to figment a delusion of escape, one where he “sat in silence and waited for the real angels to come.” Yet…yet: the narrator/persona concludes the whole book by saying, “Perhaps there’s only a small movement towards healing, a sparrow step, the way a baby curls its tiny palm around your finger and gives its entire being to you, without even knowing who the hell you truly are.”

In an interview the author says, “Far too often, books end up being clever but have no soul.” Whatever else readers of this short story collection might feel, they will almost certainly retain a lingering sense of having read a book with soul.

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Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Theo is the author and illustrator of popular guide, travel, and hiking books including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island — Volume 1: Victoria to Nanaimo, and Volume 2: Nanaimo North to Strathcona Park (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018), reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen in The Ormsby Review no. 384, September 25, 2018. He has also written a Kindle book, When Baby Boomers Retire, and you can learn more about him here. Theo lives at Nanoose Bay.

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Author’s inscription in the German edition of The Cripple and his Talismans. Courtesy AbeBooks

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