Any western novel that takes as its main character an academic named “Prin” will necessarily endure associations – intended or otherwise – with an earlier campus novel about an eponymous protagonist whose name chimes directly. To then apply the adjective “original” indicates, if not literary arrogance, then certainly a large dollop of self-confidence.
Indeed, Randy Boyagoda’s third novel bears more than a passing affinity to Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel in stories. The books’ respective protagonists are professors at fictional universities and both books are cast in a comic mode. In both cases, the authors engage in a playful critique of campus bureaucracy and both Prin and Pnin are bedeviled by erstwhile romantic interests: an ex-girlfriend in the former case, an ex-wife in the latter. More coincidentally, one great admirer of Nabokov’s novel was Flannery O’Connor; Boyagoda, for his part, claims to be “sick of Flannery O’Connor,” an assessment that has more to do with her status as an avatar of the Catholic novelist than her approval of the Russian writer.
Original Prin finds Boyagoda working explicitly in the tradition of comic Catholic writers such as Evelyn Waugh. And though Boyagoda disavows appreciation for O’Connor, the two have this much in common: both take their religious affiliation deadly seriously. It is fabulously rare, in our secular age, to find a novel that focuses so insistently and unironically on a character whose religion is not an ancillary aspect of his persona but absolutely central.
Prin is short for Princely St. John Umbiligoda, whose Sri Lankan parents immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. As Boyagoda’s novel opens, Prin is visiting the Toronto zoo with his wife and four daughters – an annual tradition to ring in the New Year. It is in this relatively non-threatening and distracting environment that Prin intends to inform his daughters of his impending prostate cancer surgery. “The plan was to take the girls to one of the more obscure exhibits and explain it there and leave it there, in a place they would never visit again.”
The surgery Prin undergoes is a success, but leaves him impotent, a situation his wife, Molly, is apparently content to abide. (Though Lizzie, Prin’s mother, is wont to approach him in public places and ask a bit too loudly how things are going “down there.”) Prin’s impotence also comes in handy when he is enlisted by his employer, the University of the Family Universal (UFU – say it out loud) to travel to the Middle Eastern country of Dragomans to deliver a lecture on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as part of an exchange program intended to stave off the academy’s impending financial ruin. The hitch? He will be accompanied by Wende, his ex-girlfriend who now works for the university in a consulting capacity.
Prin decides to take the trip because he is convinced he has heard the voice of God telling him to go. In any case, his inability to perform in a sexual capacity makes any chance of cheating on his wife with his ex-girlfriend a moot point. (This notwithstanding the fact that when they first reconnect, Wende refers to Prin as “Same old Abelard,” invoking one of history’s great – though decidedly problematic – narratives about the conflict between erotic and divine love.) Though there are universes separating the two characters – Wende is an atheist, Prin a devout Catholic – it becomes clear that the flame still flickers, leading to a moment of crisis in Dragomans.
Though not the ultimate moment of crisis. That occurs when Prin is trapped at the airport during a terrorist attack and forced to take refuge with Dawud, one of the Muslim gunmen. This final section features a stark tonal shift from comedy to high seriousness that attempts to bring into relief some of the thematic issues Boyagoda has been wrestling with throughout the novel. Dragomans is a fictional country, though the root word “dragoman” refers to translators between Arabic, Turkish, and Persian during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As Prin and the gunman talk, it becomes clear that the latter has spared two lives rather than fulfill his mandate to cleanse the airport of infidels, earning a measure of empathy from his hostage.
From a literary perspective, Wende’s ultimate fate – and thereby any conflict that might exist between her and Prin – is resolved through a blatant deus ex machina that has the added effect of punishing the atheist for her non-belief. The siege of the airport, meanwhile, finds a comically debased parallel in an earlier sequence that features a group of leftist protestors disrupting a right-wing pundit’s radio broadcast by shooting pink paintballs at the stage. The former incident, which occurs in Milwaukee on the 4th of July, quickly gets branded as “Terror at Plymouth Heights Mall.” This satirical swipe at media sensationalism and left-wing political theatre might work better outside the context of ongoing American gun massacres in the real world and an actual, fatal Muslim terrorist attack at the novel’s close.
These tonal inconsistencies throw the novel off-kilter and dilute its impact. Corny dad jokes abound – Lizzie’s new husband owns a grocery called Kareem of the Crop; the meeting room at the university is strung with banners that read, “I love UFU” and “Go UFU.” These butt up against more savage satire and literary in-jokes (in Dragomans, Prin’s lecture begins, “Ladies and gentlemen, who wants to be a butterfly” – another Nabokov reference). The one constant is Prin’s Catholicism (along with his impotence, which is not an entirely separate matter). If it is the depth of Prin’s belief that gets him into trouble, it is also, within the context of Boyagoda’s narrative, what ultimately ensures his salvation.