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by Thomas Wharton

Thomas Wharton’s first novel, Icefields, came via NeWest Press’s Nunatak Fiction. The imprint’s slim books – new writing by new writers from the West – lack the flash and budget of ones launched like smooth-skinned debutantes by Toronto presses. And Nunatak titles do not promise mortgage-buster advances or gossamer movie deals.

The press helped fledge writers such as Yasmin Ladha, Hiromi Goto, and Méira Cook, and published the treat, Elephant Hook and Other Stories, by Martin Sherman. The sticky tape binding imagination, history, and narrative structure motivates these writers. They are more likely to blush and accept the Commonwealth Writers Prize than dress snazzy for the Giller bash.

Icefields didn’t stay humble, though. Set in the late 19th-century Rocky Mountains, Wharton’s novel showed the magic that can happen when writing is treated as art. Wharton was praised for the book’s beauty. His name appeared in sentences alongside Ondaatje. His new novel, Salamander, is more audacious, more wonder-filled with way more words; but let us not forget its origins in the enchanted and dangerous land of small presses.

Salamander is about making books; it’s about why we read and what happens to the chain of our lives when we do; it’s about making – and living – the book to end all books, a book of everything. “Sometimes the reader places her ear close to a book and hears a distant sighing of waves,” Wharton writes. “The ribbed and sloping paper itself seems to invite her. She wades in cautiously,her naked feet moving like snails over the sharp stones.” No, this is
not Alberto-Manguel-Christmas-market bookishness. Books are metaphors and symbols and nautilus shells of meaning and they are bound with Wharton’s intelligence, which is also a book of everything.

Salamander is a fabulous fairy tale and so excuses itself from more drab conventions of characterization and setting and plot structure. Wharton has acknowledged the influence of Borges and Calvino, and the sensibilities of both exist in the fantasies that trip the story from scene to scene.

At its core are other ways of storytelling: the book refers to La Fontaine’s Fables, A Thousand and One Nights, and Gulliver’s Travels and then mimics their realms, “imaginary kingdom[s] in which everyday things blossomed with wonder.” Salamander’s kingdoms – including Canton and London – are peopled with porcelain automatons, high seas scoundrels, and a six-fingered compositor at work in a castle who says, “This is not a castle, this is a system.” And as in Icefields, Wharton welcomes historical figures and then confounds them through imagination.

The story is never simple. It is mostly the quest of a girl, Pica (named for the type), to find her mother and to find the words to express her own story. Pica’s father is a printer with a puzzle: make a book that is infinite. Salamander refers, in a sense, to Pica who is amphibious, able to submerge, breathe, stop time, and live under water. The title also links Pica to a scene from before her birth.

Her mother, Irena, comes upon the printer/soon to be lover, Nicholas Flood, as he experiments with inks and paper. She notices the symbol of a salamander on the burning paper and asks why Flood would choose it. He calls it “the little dragon that dwells in fire” and supposes it is “a reassuring thought for people who work with paper.” Irena brings him a real salamander from the castle’s crypts and he wonders at the creature’s ability to regenerate, to propose infinity with its body. As well, he becomes aware of the word “alam” buried in “salamander,” which in the compositor’s language means “everything … all world.”

When describing books and printing and bindery, Wharton belongs in a sentence along with Ondaatje. In China, in the Garden of Heavenly Perfection in the City of Porcelain, a gardener confesses, “I take up the volume and the rough, thorny binding hums in my hand like a beehive. In the rustle of its paper I hear the nocturnal stirring of owls.” Like Ondaatje at his most lyrical, Wharton has an ear for the excellent noun and for verbs that barely fit.

Salamander is not a book, it is a system. The honours it will receive, the praise and even the maudlin criticisms – it is long, confusing, and sometimes opaque in its allusions – are part of its universe. So too are the small Icefields and the press that risked it.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 370 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-8833-7

Released: May

Issue Date: 2001-5

Categories: Fiction: Novels