19 March 2000
Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain
By Jeffrey Moore
From Canada, With Fabulism
What do Shakespeare, Shakuntala and Shaka (name of a Zulu chieftain) have in common, you might ask. They can appear on a single page of an alphabetically ordered reference book, says the innovative writer Jeffrey Moore, and thereby hangs a multicultural tale, appropriately from Canada. Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain has just won the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2000 for the best first book in the Canada-Caribbean region. That is a thousand pounds worth of acknowledgement for an adventurous novelist who teaches in the Translation Department of the University of Montreal. Moreover, this novel is in the running for the bigger international prize to be announced in New Delhi next month.
If you know your Shakespeare, you note with satisfaction that the title of Moore's novel is from Venus and Adonis. You remember further that the immortal bard had problems with a mysterious Dark Lady-who, by the way may not have been a lady at all. With another tug at the imagination, you look for native parallels and think of our own great bard, Kalidas, writing his story about Shakuntala and Dushyant and the lost ring. The point is that a tale of love can never run smooth, so why not collapse time, location, historical and mythical concepts, and play cheerfully with that essential duality-man and woman, caught in irrepressible emotions. Moore does precisely this. Marvellously, seductively, he engages the reader in a rapid-fire story of exaggerated passions, the timelessness of love being expressed by rich echoes from popular myths.
At the centre of love's misdemeanours is Jeremy Davenant, whose destiny draws from a hastily torn out Page that contains a list of 'S' names. Curiously, he lives out many dimensions of their stories as he bungles his way through an attachment to Milena, a sort of Dark Lady. Here is the Indian connection: "My mother was from India, my father's Czech... My mother emigrated to Canada, my father emigrated to-or at least ended up in-Ireland. My mother went to Ireland on a holiday with her Canadian boyfriend, met my father, then dumped her boyfriend." This Milena, scrawny, boot-clad and Bohemian, is a far cry form our modest Shakuntala but she is as lost as our Kalidas heroine. Davenant alternately romances her and forgets her, then longs for her awkward presence.
The Page guides him through many confusions but in a postmodern world there is no semblance of order, only the hope of signs. So there are African masks, faded photographs, inked-out words in diaries, random quotes from epical poetry, inundating Jeremy's thoughts on life, love, death. Equally, there are tyro figures, a rapscallion "uncle" Gerard, a murderous step-father, several foul-mouthed friends. Jeremy, moving in time and through literary allusions, also travels to a lot of places-Toronto, Paris, London and finally to Ukraine, the last destination culled from the S-list which features "Shakhtyorsk: city (1957 pop. 51,000)... in Ukrainian legend known as the City of Fools' Errands."
The fool, the lover and the lunatic are very difficult to tell apart, as Moore reminds us in this Canadian version of an eternal saga, cleverly using Canada's multiculturalism and postmodernism to an advantage. Marshall McLuhan had called Canada a "borderline case" and Northrup Frye had dubbed it a "bush garden." Authors of this relatively new country have celebrated, not bemoaned, the "ex-centric" position, seeing in it the possibility for experimentation. Understandably, Canadians are marvellous novelists, or rather fabulists-daring and cunning in designing their imaginary worlds. Moore's new novel holds a special appeal for Indian readers because the strange Milena can set "the heart beating like a tabla," even as we wonder about her sexual and cultural ambiguities, her bindi and bootstraps.
(Malahri Lal heads the Department of English, University of Delhi.)