A place with char­ac­ter


National Post (Latest Edition) - - ARTS & LIFE - David Chau


The Nightin­gale Won’t Let You Sleep Steven Heighton Hamish Hamil­ton 352 pp; $ 24.95

The soli­tude of a writer’s life, sug­gests Steven Heighton, is largely a com­mit­ment to work. Cre­ative en­deav­ours with words re­quire vast time alone.

This sense of ab­sence may shape one’s ma­te­rial but, Heighton adds, ro­man­tic no­tions about process are best avoided. His finely crafted nov­els, how­ever, fea­ture char­ac­ters ex­iled in acts of self­p­reser­va­tion, who seek to rec­og­nize some­thing last­ing and true.

The Nightin­gale Won’t Let You Sleep, his fourth novel, main­tains this tem­plate and demon­strates the vi­tal­ity that marks his fic­tion, verse and crit­i­cism. Here, Elias Tri­fan­nis, who en­listed in the Cana­dian Forces hop­ing to buoy his dy­ing father, is sent to Cyprus to re­cover from an atroc­ity com­mit­ted by coali­tion forces in Afghanista­n. A tryst with a Turk­ish jour­nal­ist that ends in gun­fire leads Elias to the re­stricted zone of Varosha, a re­sort quar­ter that was aban­doned in 1974 due to the Turk­ish in­va­sion of Cyprus, where he is taken in by a mot­ley crew of dis­en­chanted set­tlers. The plot fol­lows his sub­se­quent stay, in the wake of re­ports of his death.

Pre­sent­ing cus­tom­ary mo­tifs of Heighton’s lit­er­ary out­put — bonds forged in ex­tremis, his­tor­i­cal res­o­nance — this vol­ume broaches tur­moil in the Mid­dle East, also a key con­cept in The Wak­ing Comes Late, his 2016 po­etry col­lec­tion that re­ceived the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award. Heighton notes that a con­ver­gence of per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests fos­tered the newly re­leased novel. “Some­times you get an idea for a char­ac­ter,” he says, reached at home in Kingston, Ont. “Or you hear some­one say some­thing. Or there’s a premise or a set­ting. For me, it was all those things.”

First read­ing about Varosha in 2011 in Alan Weis­man’s book, The World With­out Us, Heighton im­me­di­ately saw its po­ten­tial as a nar­ra­tive back­drop. There was also an­other more per­sonal artis­tic fac­tor: af­ter stag­ing his nov­els After­lands ( 2005) and Ev­ery Lost Coun­try (2010) in sub-zero con­di­tions, Heighton wanted to imag­ine warmer climes in long-form fic­tion.

He was drawn as well to ex­plore, through writ­ing, ties to Greece and its cul­ture. Cur­rently l earn­ing the l an­guage again, Heighton, born in Canada to a mother of Greek de­scent, has made nu­mer­ous trips to his an­ces­tral home­land, and re­cently vol­un­teered with the refugee ef­forts on Les­bos.

He was un­able to en­ter Varosha dur­ing a visit to Cyprus six years ago, but was es­corted across the bor­der into the coun­try’s Turk­ish side thanks to a Turk­ish Cypriot politi­cian who served as his guide. Ob­tain­ing sim­i­lar treat­ment on the Greek side, Heighton, ac­knowl­edges that “No­body was talk­ing then about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and re­uni­fi­ca­tion. But they are talk­ing about it quite se­ri­ously now.”

In the rel­a­tive calm of Heighton’s Varosha, Elias strug­gles with the psy­chic wounds of de­ploy­ment. “He senses the play­back might go on ev­ery night for years — an un­face­able fu­ture,” Heighton writes. “Maybe it’s loop­ing in the back of his mind twenty- four hours a day, wait­ing from him to re-en­ter the cin­ema of sleep.”

To vividly con­vey Elias’s ex­pe­ri­ence in Afghanista­n, Heighton con­sulted sev­eral mem­bers of the mil­i­tary but al­lows that dates were mod­i­fied “for rea­sons that have to do with the eco­nomic de­ba­cle in Cyprus, and the tim­ing of the novel. I just plead that it’s fic­tion,” he says. “It’s not a chron­i­cle of those years in the Mid­dle East.”

Though the pro­tag­o­nist of these pages is Elias, the char­ac­ter Heighton favours most is Erkan Kaya, the debonair Turk­ish colonel who is fully aware of both the dwellers in the re­stricted zone and Elias’s pres­ence there. Con­ceal­ing this in­for­ma­tion from the rest of the au­thor­i­ties, Kaya aims to sus­tain his leisurely life­style, es­pe­cially when it risks be­ing dis­rupted by a col­league’s in­sis­tence that Varosha be searched for the Cana­dian sol­dier.

Ex­ter­nal forces en­croach­ing on self- suf­fi­cient ter­ri­to­ries are as much a sig­na­ture of Heighton’s nov­els as the care­fully con­sid­ered words and ob­ser­va­tions that lend his lines their volt­age. Since 2002, when he be­gan After­lands, a riff on the Po­laris ex­pe­di­tion, Heighton has re­flected on eth­nic na­tion­al­ism and what he terms “is­sues of borders and be­long­ing. They’ve come into the last three nov­els for sure,” he says. “In­evitably, I’m touch­ing on those con­flicts — some­times in a mood of hope­ful­ness, other times in a mood of hope­less­ness.”

Nightin­gale, he em­pha­sizes, was con­structed from ob­ses­sions, trav­els and mem­o­ries. The lat­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, “self- cor­rupt in the same way that Varosha it­self is slowly de­grad­ing and fall­ing apart.” Ru­ins nev­er­the­less can of­fer in­spi­ra­tion.

“It’s ac­tu­ally very use­ful to a fic­tion writer,” Heighton says. “Let your mem­o­ries be­come over­grown with vines and creep­ers, and you end up with some­thing that’s your own, that for bet­ter or worse, no one else will write.”


A pub­lic beach in the Turk­ish Re­pub­lic of North Cyprus ( TRNC) next to for­mer, de­cay­ing ho­tel build­ings that stand in­side the For­bid­den Zone of Varosha, the set­ting for The Nightin­gale Won’t Let You Sleep.

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