Let us neither over nor under-state the case— this is a beautifully written book. It reads like a hot curry balanced against a mango relish. The central flavour is dark and filled with fire,while all about it is a sweetness that keeps the palate happy and willingly engaged. Beggar’s Feast is so finely etched and filigreed that it actually causes me to consider a new literary theory.
Which is this: I’m finding that the books I read by authors from or within a generation of the Asian sub-continent have a certain elegance, a means of describing the events of day-to-day life in terms that are not mundane and unnecessary but rather fresh, well-chosen and illuminating of one’s own life. In other words, what books are supposed to do.
My clunky theory is that the stronger the extant oral history, the better the written literature. We lost that verbal storytelling magnitude in the west a long time ago. We read, therefore we think. This is not to be interpreted as a criticism. Good Lord, Marshall McLuhan would have turned 100 the week I’m writing this, and if there’s one aspect of his teaching we can all agree with, it is that the medium of communication affects the message.
The oral storyteller quickly learns that the audience greatly appreciates three things:
1) A plot that is clear and can be caught up on if the concentration wanders.
2) Details delivered in quick, clear succession that do not bog the story down but make each scene shine as real.
3) A moral argument that gives us something to argue about afterwards.
I’m starting to suspect that the reason the ‘literary’ books I’ve read in the last two years are predominantly Asian or African is because oral storytelling is still at least a memory in those cultures, or possibly a present arts form. In particular I refer the reader to last year’s Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani, equal to Beggar’s Feast in terms of a story spanning generations, yet neither book is bogged down with a series of interweaving relationships. Jaspreet Singh’s Chef shares with Randy Boyagoda’s novel a similar richness of texture while again being the story of one life and how it came to be.
But enough of the anthropological guesswork: So how’s the book? Beggar’s Feast is a triumphant entry into the classic genre of the multi-generational epic, contained in one man’s life. In this case, the man is Sam Kandy (1899–1999). His birth name was Sanjith but he rejects that name at thirteen in favour of a concoction of Sam and the name of the nearest city to his home village in Ceylon.
Sam is not a very nice person. He wheels, deals, blackmails and black markets; he treats his families— marrying thrice— like pictures at an Exhibition to be visited when the mood strikes. He is also a murderer. Outside of all that, Sam’s a hell of a guy.
The most fascinating aspect of the novel is Sam’s relationship to his home village. He had been taken from it at age ten, when his father dropped him at the door of the Buddhist Temple. Sam does not want the village to recognize him for who he was, but darn well wants to be recognized for the wealthy man he becomes. He needs to conquer this place and rather than letting anyone else define him by his past, he alone will define who he is and what he does. He comes to this decision quite early, when after a time at sea Sam finds himself taken in by a wealthy family in Sydney Australia:
[Sam] had already decided he would not stay here a second night, sleeping beneath that portrait’s secret gaze, sleeping above what particular secrets of sadness and rage and wrongs were this family’s. Which weren’t his, weren’t anything he wanted to be touched by. For symmetry’s sake, Sam Kandy would take a man as he asked the world to take him.
There is a whiff of Charles Foster Kane about Sam Kandy. Both relentless men seeking status and security. Both needy men driven by an early separation from family. Both absolutely hopeless when it comes to sharing intimacy with women. Sam is married three times in his life, yet he never tells his life story until very, very late in the game.
Coming back to the oral history, one repeating device Boyagoda uses to fine effect is using unnamed villagers as a de facto Greek chorus, commenting to one another about Sam when he comes churning into town in his great black motorcar. Slightly less effective is the author’s use of lists. Boyagoda loves lists the way Walt Whitman did. The first extended one shows up on page 121 and enumerates all the wares Sam sends out from his Colombo shipping office. It is terrific and much too long to completely repeat here. However, here is just a selection of this train of arresting, perfectly chosen images:
… from port to port came city-sized ships groaning with Burmese rice and German cannon, Saudi wool and racehorses, Ceylon cinnamon, British cars and umbrellas and children’s tea-party sets, American cars, American cannon, crated jungle cats and sitting rooms, coca, cocoa, coke ovens, coconuts, carousel horses from Austria, Chinese tea and oranges, cosmopolitan rats and newborns, Leon Trotsky, rabbis and near-whole congregations from Riga and Kiev destined for Palestine on the Lower East Side….
And so on. One wonders if Leon Trotsky was more intrigued by the carousel horses or the American cannon. That of course is the beauty of the passage. You can’t help but start putting the pieces together in different shapes.
The problem is that Boyagoda obviously liked that list so much he chose to repeat its form on several later occasions to diminishing effect. A writer’s show trick is like a wrestler’s finishing move— if it is used more than once in a given book or match it starts to look less impressive.
I suppose that I should raise one possible criticism that may emerge from those seeking completion regarding every butler or taxi driver who wanders into a novel. For the vastly greater part, characters who are important players in Sam’s 20s, 30s or 40s are dropped as soon as the scene is done. This is not one of those books where the lead shuffles around a street corner, probing with his cane, only to find— ‘My word! It’s old Twigglesworth! ’Aven’t seen ’im since sixth form!’ Not in Beggar’s Feast. Once a character’s function is completed, out you go. This I think is entirely fair. It is Sam’s attitude so why should the writer behave any differently?
Still, it takes a great writer to conjure up a loving portrait of an unlovely man. Mordecai Richler of course did it pretty much every book and in some ways Sam Kandy is Randy Boyagoda’s Duddy Kravitz; two young men who burn with desire for respect which they will receive by any means necessary.
An excellent novel. You could knock me over with a feather if it doesn’t end up on various prize lists.
Viking Canada | 384 pages | $32 | cloth | ISBN #978-0670065639