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Once upon an Elephant

by Ashok Mathur

The title brings to mind a fairy tale, but the author is being unnecessarily modest, as if trying to cram a mighty, incandescent genie into a very ordinary bottle. Once Upon an Elephant is certainly fantastical. But it’s also epic, shrewd, funny, convincing, sexed-up, and – in its own way– full of a kind of glittering gravitas, a respect for the invisible forces at work in mortal affairs. It’s also the first – probably the only – genuinely psychedelic novel to be set in Alberta. Which is not to say that there isn’t plot or characters. One of the nuttily manifold achievements of this book is that it’s a page-turner.

Two bodies are found by a river; one of the corpses is a headless elephant, and the other is a headless man. The action unfolds like a conventional whodunit, until the Crown produces a suspect – a diminutive, teak-coloured man with bow legs and the head of an elephant. When the suspect is found not to speak English – worse, when the courtroom is confounded by a series of elephantine honks – a sort of fractured magic takes over the proceedings. All the key players – the cops who discovered the bodies, the media people, the lawyers and translators, and the East Indian cultural “experts” – are caught up in a vast pinwheeling mesh of events owned and operated by at least three Hindu gods, all of whom may or may not be manifestations of Ganesha, the Lord of Placing and Removing Obstacles. Ganesha is the Vedic god with the head of an elephant, now alive and well and shapeshifting indiscriminately in the outskirts of Calgary. He’s telepathic, and interested in mini-doughnuts, and he has hundreds of little votive minions in local East Indian households that sit on shelves and watch TV. At the end, after much graceful chaos, the humans triumph, and the gods do too.

Stories like this are often killed off by unfunny jokes, zero narrative skills, and trying-too-hard pop culture references. But Mathur – who understands that the affairs of the gods (and humans) are partly touching, partly awe-inspiring, and partly the work of sitcom writers – never lets the dialogue become too knowing or the action too farcical. This is skilled fun, with more multicultural significance than a thousand earnest memoirs and more captivating dizziness than the phrase “head trip” can properly convey.