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Fire in the Unnameable Country

by Ghalib Islam

The Modernist tradition does not exert a powerful influence over Canadian literature. Although this country boasts a number of important Modernist writers – F.R. Scott, Ralph Gustafson, Dorothy Livesay, and Earle Birney among them – the predominant mode for 21st-cenury Canadian novelists remains naturalism, often filtered through Ondaatje’s historical romanticism or Munro’s rural Gothic.

The influences apparent in Ghalib Islam’s debut novel, by contrast, are rare among Canadian fiction writers: Borges, Rushdie, Márquez, Kafka, Burroughs. A sprawling, labyrinthine edifice replete with blind corners and dead ends, Fire in the Unnameable Country exists somewhere on a continuum between magic realism and fabulism, drawing on literary sources both Eastern (1,001 Nights, Aladdin, and Scheherazade) and Western (Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel are namechecked specifically, as is Shakespeare’s Caliban, and there are hints and suggestions of everything from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Alice in Wonderland).

The story takes place in La Maga, a city of ambiguous geographical location that has survived the ravages of colonization only to fall prey to American bombing raids and the scourge of domestic terrorism. At the centre of the tale is Hedayat, who was born on a flying carpet after gestating in his mother’s womb for more than eight years. Hedayat is a glossolalist, possessed of a variation of the Pentecostal “automatic tongue” that allows him to narrate the history of his family and his country, to “fly fantastical lines without consideration or worry for [his] surrounding listeners.” Hedayat’s narration resembles an M.C. Escher drawing, twisting back upon itself in patterns that repeat and refract one another, keeping readers constantly off guard and resulting in the written equivalent of a trompe l’oeil.

Fire in the Unnameable Country shuttles from the present to the distant past and back again, touching on Hedayat’s experience as a drug runner, ferrying black pepper (the drug of choice for the city’s denizens) through a series of underground tunnels that runs beneath the metropolis; his grandfather’s aborted career as a poet and experience working for the Ministry of Radio and Communications’ shadowy Department 6119; and his great-grandfather, Amun, who is present when John Quincy, the colonial leader, murders his wife, a crime for which Amun is blamed.

Islam’s novel is hugely ambitious, written in a fractured, unfamiliar style that feels frankly impenetrable in its early stages, but becomes more easily navigable the longer it goes on. Rhythmically, the prose resembles a piece of Miles Davis fusion jazz, jumping and flitting and emphasizing the off-beats, packed with strange tones and unexpected tempo changes but possessed of an underlying order that prevents the whole from descending into chaos. Moments of horror abut instances of levity, and the Byzantine governmental bureaucracy is nicely counterpointed by an ongoing reality TV show being shot in the streets of La Maga.

Ragged, unkempt, and hallucinatory, Islam’s novel is clearly not for everyone. It is, however, a grandiose and challenging riposte to the timid works of straightforward realism that continue to dominate our literary landscape.