contemporary Canadian literature is hot right now. Sweet like
Saltwater fits neatly into this fairly new niche in literary
culture, as a man of "Indian ancestry, Guyanese origin and Canadian
citizenship", Toronto writer Raywat Deonandan marks his fictional
I approached the
collection with anticipation, wanting to be swept away to a strange
yet familiar landscape, a vacation without leaving my cozy bed. I
really really wanted to like this book. I really did. Sixteen little
worlds in which to enter, with fascinating names like 'Children of
the Melange', 'El Dorado', 'Camel's Lips' and 'Motherland'; I could
already smell the flowers and spices, the ocean, hear the tigers and
Sweet like Saltwater with an introduction, where he sets up
the characters of his stories, and the Indian people in general, as
a "conquered people" rather than allowing his audience to come to
their own conclusion. Is Deonandan "contemplating the Indianness of
our new societies" or grasping for "a reconciliation [that] must be
made between one's chosen home and the ancestral memories that
scream from within the veins."
Saltwater offers no resolution. His stories, whether set in
Guyana, "Back Home", the new world, or a colony on another planet in
the future (!) have characters trying to determine how they belong,
pondering the space between independence and displacement. But the
tales have a detached quality. Technically, the narratives are apt
and at times, even adept, with a strong voice. His dialogues with
the different dialects are especially skillful. But the competent
details do not completely add up to a satisfying whole, attracting
interest but failing to sustain it.
And at times, he
succumbs into the obvious. In Nataraj, for example, Deonandan mixes
beauty and the banal in his language, evoking stars and planets, but
then plunging back into the unoriginal:
As the sun
climed to its apex high in the sky, Shakira had wailed in the
agony of childbirth, as her mother and grandmothers had done
before her. She had panted and pushed, had felt the ripping of
baby's flesh from her own. She had held Nataraj against her
heaving bosom as she awaited the afterbirth, had wiped the wetness
from his eyes and had bathed in the glory of his wails.
confronts the endless circle and repetition of life, but all he
reincarnates is the recycling of clichés.
In one of the
more absorbing of the tales, The Rhymer, a man named Bort earns his
living by creating verse for his clients so that, among other things
"my meat will be sweet, and my profits sweeter." A woman rhymer
appears one day to challenge his position and livelihood. The
subject matter affords such great scope to explore on many levels
such things as male/female relationships, or what is poetry and how
does it affect/benefit society?
Deonandan is unable to ponder any of this as once again clichés
riddle the text: "The roar of applause was thunderous if not
deafening." To employ a common writing workshop lament, he does too
much telling and not enough showing. The tale ends with Bort
exhorting his challenger: "Don't you see," he said, searching for
the explanation whilst giving it, "you've got to know your
advice, but at the same time it can inspire the difference between
success and mediocrity.
Patra Reiser lives in Montreal.