Kenneth Radu's visit to Dorothy and William Wordsworth's cottage informs and enlightens his reading (and rereading) of Kathleen Winter's exquisite Undersong.
The Importance of Reading Phillip ErnestKenneth Radu
20 May 2020
Happily reading two novels by Phillip Ernest, I couldn’t help but consider personal connections almost to the point of occasionally seeing myself as a silent character who follows the footsteps of main protagonists like an invisible but friendly stalker. His second novel The Far Himalaya, takes place in Toronto, and in my four years as a student at the University of Toronto I walked on every street mentioned in the book, and entered almost every actual building (with the exception of the John Robarts library, not then open). Of coincidental and startling interest is the Philosopher’s Walk, a tree-lined path between the Royal Ontario Museum and The Royal Conservatory of Music, leading from Bloor Street to Trinity College. Significant events in The Far Himalaya occur on that path, and I have just completed a story that mostly takes place there as well. The specificity of Toronto street geography and landmarks perhaps makes the narrative more engaging to me, but that may also be attributable to the Ernest’s energetic writing which renders many scenes in both novels, well, vivid.
My personal connection with his first novel The Vetala is more metaphorical and allusive than geographic and specific. Nonetheless, aspects of the story are as real to me as the visions experienced by the main characters in both novels. I have seen The Vetala categorized as a Sanskrit horror romance. Not entirely certain what determines a “horror romance,” let’s say it’s about a love affair that goes horribly awry due to exceptional circumstances, and the lovers pay a horrible price, but not to be confused with Shakespearean tragedy. I think of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, or The Postman Always Rings Twice, except in a horror romance there’s usually a supernatural element, which consists of more than everyday betrayals and lies, more than hallucinations engendered by guilt and remorse. In addition, essentially good characters trying to live life according to their beliefs in a horror romance confront an evil creature invading the bodies and consuming the identity of their victims.
In The Far Himalaya, Ben Doheney, our gifted, homeless student of Sanskrit faces the psychopathic malice of the vicious but tenured Professor Boylan and a sadistic campus police officer, who both abuse the lad, verbally or physically. One can compare the professor, almost Dickensian in his loathsomeness, and whose “face radiated cold menace,” with the creature in The Vetala with “its living red eye…slightly smiling mouth and lupine fangs.” Dreams and/or hallucinations, some drug-induced, appear in each novel, but mercifully Ernest keeps them brief and thematically relevant, thereby not straining the general reader’s credulity or this reader’s literary patience.
If there is no supernatural element in the ordinary sense in The Far Himalaya, aside from allusions to Indian myths and deities, there certainly is in The Vetala, wherein the title character, a vampire, malevolently lives off living souls from one incarnation to another. I remember the dramatic relish with which my stepfather used to tell me stories of vampires that terrified local villagers in Transylvania, although he himself grew up in a different part of Romania. I wonder if those childhood stories influenced my decision to read this novel, just as the stories of Elizabeth Kostova’s father influenced her decision to write her Dracula novel, The Historian, which I have also read. The fact is that The Vetala, a Sanskrit horror romance written by a Canadian rather than an English or American or European author, aroused curiosity, especially if one is abysmally ignorant of literature in Sanskrit, as I assuredly am.
The influence of the undead in whatever form is the source of much literature and memory. Several years ago, I visited Castle Bran in Romania, not far from the city of Brasov, a castle associated with legends about the historical Vlad the Impaler, often considered a prototype of vampires, and a place by the way Bram Stoker never saw himself. I was as intrigued by the castle’s role in the love life of Romania’s legendary Queen Marie as I was by Vlad’s peculiarities. Literary influence, however, is often more subtle than overt. This has little to do with Phillip Ernest except that he confesses to have brushed against Stoker. In an interview published in Salon .II., he remarks that he had purchased a used copy of Dracula and read a few pages but was not inspired by Stoker’s writing, which does not surprise because Dracula, which I have read, may be many things, but inspirational writing it is not:
One day, walking home from the preparation academy where I worked in Pune, I happened to stop at a raddi depot (raddi means waste paper in Marathi) to check out their used books. Among the English books, there were many belonging to the new generation of vampire fiction that I vaguely knew to have developed since I had left Canada in 2004. I also saw Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I had never read: in fact, even though I was fascinated by vampires during my illiterate boyhood, the only vampire novel I had ever read was Steven King's Salem's Lot, along with a few of his other novels, during a brief burst of literacy when I was thirteen. I left the shop without buying anything, but I soon found myself wondering if vampire fiction was popular amongst English-reading Indians, and whether anyone had yet written an Indian vampire novel.
If not style, then clearly Ernest was gripped by the entire concept of the literary treatment of vampires. The word literary is important here. Books and libraries are necessary elements in both novels, and he places The Vetala firmly within the ancient tradition of India’s mythologies and Sanskrit epics, which renders it a more convincing tale. It’s a tribute to Ernest as a writer and scholar living in India that his descriptions come alive. Consider the succinct, vivid details in this passage in The Vetala about the monsoon season. Nada experiences it as “the familiar season of clothes never quite dry and umbrellas rarely closed, of shining streets hissing with traffic, of dogs that slept the day away curled and shivering in the refuge of sheltered walls and unused doorways, of a rich greenness that possessed the hills and the Institute’s hermitage-like grounds overnight”(105).
Both works also strongly remind me of the time I lived in Rochdale, an experimental College on Bloor Street in Toronto, opposite the graduate student residence where Aditi, Ben’s beloved, lives in The Far Himalaya. Rochdale was home to alternative educational and political thinking, as well as eastern philosophies. Indeed, several of the living quarters were called ashrams, but I doubt they were as spiritually significant as they are Ernest’s novels. Many students, some of whom were of course hippies of the day, assumed Hindu postures and paraphernalia, inhaling one kind of mind-altering drug or another and sitting cross-legged in meditative trances. Ernest depicts westerners who are intellectually and emotionally committed and devoted to Sanskrit and India in serious and scholarly ways without pretence, not as passing fancies or cultural experimentation, whether it’s Nada Marjanovic, a Croatian Sanskrit scholar, or Ben Doheney of no fixed address who pretends to be a doctoral student as he immerses himself in the language and literature in the Department of East Asian Studies.
Rochdale also opened its doors to runaways and disaffected youths, and if it had still existed as a college when young and unhappy Phillip Ernest left his Northern Ontario home at the age of fifteen, I like to imagine that he would have found shelter in a college ashram. Although Ernest does an impressive job of rendering the lives of the disenfranchised and homeless in this novel:
An Anishnabe man, probably not more than five years older than Ben, but as decrepit and hobbling as if he were sixty, came and sat on the chair to Ben’s right, bearing along with him the familiar miasma of piss, shit, sweat, and Chinese cooking wine. Despite the heat, which was barely mitigated by two large humming fans, he wore the long winter coat of brown-stained tweed that must have kept him alive through the winter, and whose pro- tection would soon be welcome again in the post-heatwave nights of August and beyond (7).
The novel’s focus, however, is not on Ben’s homelessness per se, but on his emotional and spiritual development. Partially an autobiographical character, Ben is no ordinary boy. He loves, studies, and physically fights his way to spiritual and intellectual strength, struggling his way out of the pits of despair, even as he maintains his individuality and authenticity without compromise. And Ben is very much a physical being, deeply aware of his body’s needs and smells in the way someone who lives on the street can be. No matter how much time he spends at the Scott Mission to eat, or sleep on a bench, or wash cars at his part-time job, Ben possesses an extraordinary mind receptive to the beauties of Sanskrit and the complexities of The Mahabharata.
By undead, Ernest means precisely that: neither alive nor dead, similar to the state of European vampires, although unlike Dracula the vetala doesn’t nourish itself on blood. If it’s not pushing a point, Ben remains neither alive nor dead until, to some degree salvaged by the love of Aditi, he ultimately enters into his authentic life as a Sanskrit scholar. The vetala is a problematic kind of creature because it assumes corporeal shape when it parasitically possesses the mind and heart of a real human being, imbuing them with extraordinary powers and changing them for the worse. It’s almost impossible to dislodge a vetala without abstruse knowledge of how to do so, and that’s what so chilling about the creature or monster, for want of a better word, in The Vetala.
In both novels, a passionate, perhaps obsessive, love affair is a motivating force for much of the action. Nada in The Vetala is committed to pursuing and destroying the vetala who killed her beloved, for her love has survived his death. Similarly in The Far Himalaya, Ben is passionately in love with Aditi, a PhD candidate of Indian literature, and wants only to be with her and help her succeed in the face of the malevolent Professor Boylan’s opposition. As one character says of Ben and his beloved: “This is going to work. You and Aditi have a destiny together, a bond formed in past lives. Like you and Professor Chamberlain” (199).
In other words, Ernest takes the familiar subject matter of the vampire and leads readers, many of whom are not Indian, into an entirely unfamiliar world, one in which the author has been immersed most of his adult life. We accept what the narrator says, even if it challenges credulity or flies in the face of our conventional beliefs, because we trust the writer’s expertise and don’t let our own ignorance interfere with fascination. That is no mean accomplishment.
Although the plethora of words from more than one Indian language (e.g. Marathi and Hindi) might cause confusion, they are to be expected in a novel about Sanskrit scholars working on Indian texts, and Ernest provides an index at the end of The Vetala so all becomes clear. In addition to classics like the Ramayana, a few of the texts with multi-syllabic titles are fictitious (e.g. Avinashalatacharita or Vetalaviveka) but necessary. Stories involving the shadowy world of the undead very often require a magical or revelatory text as part of the plot. With the help of colleagues, our intrepid scholar is on a mission to discover a lost text that will liberate her beloved and put the vetala to rest because, like Ben, Nada “had had enough of being harassed and thwarted by the motiveless malice of this stranger who had invaded her lover and warped his love only because he had cherished her too passionately… And she wanted her tormentor destroyed” (152-53). One might say literature saves the imperiled lives of the characters in both novels, lives in the plural because belief in reincarnation is also crucial to understanding the relentless power of the vetala, whether it’s a parasitic spirit of the undead or mind-rotting despair.
Ernest is also very good at depictions of chaotic and terrifying violence, as the bus scene in The Vetala and brutal beatings in The Far Himalaya amply testify, but they serve a purpose. Whether supernatural or human, whether a slaughter of innocents in The Vetala or a specific murder in The Far Himalaya, the eruption of brutal violence is proof of the perennial presence of evil as a force working against reason and goodness, perhaps like arbitrary and irrational evil in fairy tales, although that may be stating it too baldly.
The Vetala moves at a brisk pace, perhaps faster than one would like, because one wants a bit more development of character and feeling, as we get in Ernest’s second novel, The Far Himalaya, but the speed of the narrative serves to heighten suspense and to some degree reflects the spiritual urgency at work here. If the vetala is not destroyed, it will continue to destroy the lives it possesses, from one incarnation to another. The creature is fully aware that it is being pursued, that its survival depends upon destroying the magical text before the professor and her associates find and decipher it, and will attack the living to protect the dead, if I may express it that way. A novel of dramatic effects, rather than a novel of psychological depth, The Vetala presents characters sufficiently outlined to drive the plot forward.
Ernest gives himself more time to develop characters in The Far Himalaya, less concerned with the supernatural, although equally aware of alternative lives and other ways of being in the world. A lengthy passage from the novel illustrates a profound insight into human identity beneath the appearance of things. The complicated character Moksha plays an important part in Ben’s development, although initially he’s described in negative terms:
Who could have guessed that the stinking dwarf lying in a drunken coma on the grass of Philosopher’s Walk or under the Conservatory fire escape was a published poet and performed playwright, the founder of a still current major poetry journal, once an auditor with a prosperous middle-class income—the first in his working-class family to have one—a onetime Catholic monk and many-times resident devotee in several Canadian Hindu and Buddhist temples, a proficient self-taught musician, a proficient self-taught scholar of the ancient sacred language of India, and a onetime translator of the difficult philosophical poem Yogavaasisistha—besides being an impoverished, self-destroying alcoholic and multiple failed suicide?
Who could have guessed that Ben was what he was? And Moksha and Ben were actually not that extraordinary on skid row, which had a substantial subclass of once highly accomplished people whose lives had been derailed by tragic circumstances. Again and again over the years, Ben had heard some bum or bag lady open their mouth and utter words that provided a glimpse of such a tale of shattered potential, superficially incongruous with their present form. Who could have guessed (49)?
In some respects, Ben is a rather odd character, but that may be attributable to the fact that he’s a prodigy, not like other teenagers at all, and certainly within the context of Canadian novels, unique. Yes, like Nada of The Vetala, albeit for different reasons, Ben does go to India, an inevitable and interesting journey, which Ernest handles with the skill of someone who has lived there for many years. I confess, however, that Ben’s perambulations through Toronto neighbourhoods, his familiarity with my familiar haunts in a previous life, so to speak, impress me as much. As a student I lived on a very tight budget. Always hungry, occasionally I snitched an orange or apple, for like Ben and Aditi I often “turned into Kensington Market, still uncorrupted by gentrification, walked past storefronts with their tables of wares—fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, fish—traversed the park, and reached Dundas via sidestreets and lanes” (68).
After considerable tribulation, some of it horrifying in nature, Nada discovers the missing text, defeats the vetala, and enters into a new life with a renewed love. Ben and Aditi and Moksha survive to be what they always wanted to be, and perhaps it takes more than one life to achieve. It matters not a whit if readers believe in reincarnation; what matters is that the characters in these novels do, something Aditi acknowledges: “‘It was our rnabhara, the burden of some debt in past lives,’ she said softly. ‘But we must have done something right, somewhere along the line’” (113).
Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Net Worth (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC in the not too distant future. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.