McClelland & Stewart put out a special, hard-back edition of this short story by the author of Such a Long Journey (winner of the Governor General’s Award) and three other books, with royalties going to World Literacy of Canada. The story is an old man’s monologue that starts with his being awakened in the night by a scream outside his window.
Although set in India, the narrator’s concerns are universal as he struggles with his declining abilities and his growing conviction that his family is secretly working against him. He believes, for example, that they put ice on the cement ledge where he likes to sit, making it even colder and more uncomfortable for him. He relates how they pretend that the servant is his grandson, even letting him sit at table with them. He uses long and unfamiliar words—fifty-cent words such as caliginous, hypogean, galimatias, sesquipedalianism—to demonstrate that he still has his wits about him and is still smarter than his family.
The language is superb, such as the narrator’s description of sleeping all together in the back room, before he was banished to the front room. He speaks of listening all night to “their orchestra of wind instruments, their philharmonia of dyspepsia”. I loved the small details of daily life, such as the description of the chanavala selling gram and peanuts, with his tin can of spices.
The book is illustrated by Tony Urquhart using different types of paper, including the marbleized paper sometime used for endpapers of books, tempera and gel pens. Dreamy and slightly abstract, the illustrations add depth and texture to the story. For example, illustrations with snippets of a keyboard tumbling through the air contribute to the sense of disorientation, the fear that one cannot trust reality.
As I approach a significant birthday, I find myself thinking a lot about aging, about the small gains and losses each year. I appreciate this rant, this raging against the fading of the light, more than any sweet, consolatory fairy tale. However mistaken the narrator may be in details, his sense that he is being left alone to suffer the ravages of age and his belief that something is being stolen from him are only too real.
I met a man yesterday who claimed to have died and come back to life. He was being taken to the hospital when his ambulance collided with a firetruck. Pronounced dead at the scene, he was taken to the morgue in a body bag. Being an organ donor, he was taken from the morgue to have his organs harvested. By the time he regained consciousness, having been told (he claimed) that it was not yet his time, the doctors had removed one of his kidneys. I found his story hard to believe and almost asked, Thomas-like, to see his scar, but his story did make me wonder about negotiating with death.
This week I am mourning the sudden loss of a friend, beloved by many, gone too soon. I will miss him, and miss too the further wonderful things he would have accomplished had he lived a bit longer. Thinking of this story, I realise that much as I fear going too soon, I fear even more hanging on too long. I fear dementia more than death.