CanLit sweetly satirized
Mr. Singh Among the Fugitivesis a short novel written in the form of a parable. It takes such a form because its subject is the Canadian literary establishment and, specifically, the role within that charmed circle played by identity politics.
And, as many Canadian authors have shown — think of Russell Smith’s Muriella Pent or André Alexis’s A — the best (and safest) way to approach such touchy matters is through the lens of fiction.
Author Stephen Henighan is one of Canada’s most outspoken critics of our literary culture and his tale of Mr. R.U. Singh, an Indian immigrant who has come to Canada to make a fresh start in life, is biting and sharp. Almost immediately on arrival he reinvents himself, on a whim, as a Sikh. The turban gives him an aura of exotic mystery and valuable multicultural cred, so it’s not long before doors are opening to exciting new romantic and professional opportunities.
Though he goes to law school and becomes a quietly successful smalltown lawyer, Mr. Singh is drawn to the literary life. He has dreams of being a genteel man of letters, a squire of “loiterature” in the best clubby, nineteenth-century style.
The bite in Henighan’s satire comes from his observation that, in pursuing such a dream, Mr. Singh has come to exactly the right place: The CanLit establishment, after all, is still very much stuck in the 19th century. The mandarins of culture rule over what is symbolized with a cosy garden party that Mr. Singh crashes by stepping through a hedge.
Immediately he feels at home realizing that “Canadianness — the Canadianness I loved and embraced — was rooted in sedate aristocracy.”
Mr. Singh has a place within that aristocracy not because it is colourblind, but because it isn’t. He escapes racism by way of tokenism: “by ascending into a milieu where prejudice was displaced by the genteel desire to socialize with diversity.”
What makes Henighan’s satire work is its measured tone and ambiguity. His representation of the cultural elite as lazy and complacent, corrupt and entitled, greedy, hypocritical, privileged and vindictive, is unmistakably fierce, but it’s presented in a reserved manner that allows for subtle moral shadings.
The other layer to the satire comes through Henighan’s revealing a transfer of cultural power from the creators to its managers. Though a member of the literary establishment, Mr. Singh has no inclination toward writing. What he aspires to become is a board member, director, teacher or media spokesperson.
The ultimate goal is not to become a bestselling, critically-acclaimed author or public intellectual, but rather a university president. Welcome to the great CanLit machine. Alex Good is a frequent contributor to these pages.
Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives by Stephen Henighan, Linda Leith Publishing, 275 pages, $18.95.