Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: The Panic Button and The Rajapaksa Stories, by Koom Kankesan

The tragedies and farce that led the small nation of Sri Lanka down the road to chaos and war loom large in Koom Kankesan’s two published works. Both The Panic Button, a novella released by Quattro Books in 2011, and The Rajapaksa Stories, a hybrid novel/short fiction collection published by Lyricalmyrical Books in 2013, use Sri Lanka and its political and ethnic angst as a springboard for Kankesan’s prodigious imagination. I’ve been acquainted with Koom personally for a while now (he and my wife were in school together) but nothing in our relationship prepared me for what I encountered in these two books.

The Panic Button, on the surface, tells a very familiar tale of immigration to Canada. Our narrator, who goes by his persistent nickname “Thambi”, has been smuggled out of Sri Lanka along with his mother and his older brother, Roshan, and into the drab but safe community of Scarborough, in east Toronto. Thambi’s father is unfortunately unable to make the journey with them and remains trapped in Colombo as the conflict there intensifies. The years pass – more than 25 of them –  and the boys grow older as their mother works to keep the family afloat. Their dad, meanwhile, remains but a voice on a telephone line paid for with calling cards.

Thambi and Roshan acclimatize well to their new home in Canada, but one pressure from the old culture continues to persist in their lives: the pressure to get married to a nice Sri Lankan girl. This works out for Roshan when he meets a sweet (if sometimes overbearing) girl named Lakshmi, and they soon become engaged. Thambi, meanwhile, starts an illicit affair with a white girl named Emily, whom he meets through his job as an IT support for a company that sells, among other things, an electronic device comically named The Nipple. Needless to say, Thambi must keep his tryst with Emily, which, weirdly enough, includes elaborate sexual encounters that involve the use of carrots, a secret.

There is an expected twist to the story as Roshan and Lakshmi’s wedding day approaches: Thambi and Roshan’s father is finally able to free himself from Sri Lanka and reunite with the family in Canada. The results are disastrous. The old guys does not approve of the way Thambi and Roshan have been raised, and he does not adapt well to having sons with minds of their own and who are not above defying their parents. This tension comes to a head on the night of Roshan’s bachelor party, when the various strands of the novella come together in what has to be the quintessential screaming match between father and son.

Kankesan’s does a really great job of creating compelling relationships between the characters - especially Thambi and Emily - and uses the strength of those relationships as the fuel to move the story along. The tension that comes to the household after Thambi's dad arrives from Sri Lanka is truly palpable. I also liked the relationship between Thambi and Roshan - it struck me as very true of brothers, the skylarking and competitiveness, but also the deep bond and expectation each one had on the other.

But if The Panic Button is compelling, its narrative is also played up serious and straight. Yet we learn, diving into Kankesan’s second book, that his real talents lie in comedy, in farce, in the games an author can play when fiction’s reality becomes elastic and malleable. The Rajapaksa Stories is unlike anything that I have found anywhere else in Canadian publishing. Here, Kankesan inhabits the very consciousness of Sri Lankan overlord Mahinda Rajapaksa, who ran the country for 10 years starting in 2005 and did everything he could to scupper the peace process. Kankesan intersperses his antihero’s narrative with the voice of Rajapaksa’s dead mother, who chimes in to offer the reader obscure Sri Lankan recipes as a way of counterbalancing her son’s lunacy.

Rarely does a Canadian work of fiction tread such wildly comic and unpredictable terrain. The Rajapaksa Stories offers a playfulness similar to that of Rushdie, a humour that is almost Wodehousian, and a sexual charge reminiscent of Roth. The only work I can truly compare this book to is Julian Barnes’ short, dialogue-heavy novel The Porcupine, which takes us inside the mind of a committed authoritarian. But whereas Barnes’ work was an experiment in earning a reader’s sympathies toward someone with dictatorial leanings, Kankesan is happy to keep his protagonist in the realm of the repugnant.

In this collection of stories, Rajapaksa has all manner of adventures as he tries to maintain his grip on power. He is delusional as he jostles with various family members for control of the country. He gets involved in an online sexual tryst that turns out to be with his own brother. He even travels into space, where the wide expanses of the galaxy prove too small to hold the scope of his ego or his sexual energies. The insouciance in which Kankesan constructs this reality is anything but scattershot. By setting its prose in a perfectly chosen comic key, this book allows all things to be possible.

But the best section in this remarkable book is when Rajapaksa travels to Toronto in 2013 and ends up forging a relationship with its notorious mayor, Rob Ford. These scenes are among the funniest of any I have ever read in literature. The two men end up, among other things, stealing a typewriter from a fellow politician, buying dope from a prepubescent, carving their names into a tree as if they were in love, and painting their faces to resemble the members of the rock group Kiss. These scenes are a cornucopia of delicious boobery. Kankesan then skillfully swoops us back to the serious when Rajapaksa and Ford begin talking candidly about which of them is a worse human being. In a moment that is both comical and deeply horrendous, Rajapaksa wins the discussion by informing Ford that he is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of civilians, a feat that Ford admits he cannot match.

The Rajapaksa Stories is beyond a doubt one of the most creative, exuberantly written, wildly imagined, and flawlessly executed works of comic fiction I have ever read. It is, sadly, also probably one of the most obscure. I was hitherto unfamiliar with its publisher and knew nothing about this work, and I suspect that if you're reading this, you are in the same boat. But if you can seek it out, I can’t encourage you enough to do so. It is one of craziest, most accomplished books I’ve read in a long time. You will not be disappointed if you part its pages.

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