Thursday, February 09, 2006

"And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." Regaining Perspective in Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road

A man sits at the prow of the boat, talking. Twilight sets, and his listener must at first exercise patience: from the outset it appears the man's story is going to be long and tortuous, but as with any horror story, it is darkly compelling.

He talks about leaving home, and boarding a ship that takes him to a land of unimaginable savagery, where the natives know no restraint. He witnesses and partakes in acts of brutality and unmoored sexuality that shake his very identity, and threaten to completely undo him. Through this narrative comes a portrait of another man -- a companion and a cipher who has shed his civilization's integral values of restraint and wisdom, to completely embrace the horrid excesses that surround him in this alien landscape. The narrator watches this man, identifying with him, yet also drawing back with revulsion and horror. This man cannot be allowed to live; how this man dies, and how the narrator attempts to put events into perspective, is the story the listener (and the listener's reader) must come to grips with.

This is, of course, the unmistakable architecture of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This time, however, there is a breathtaking difference: the year is 1919, and the narrator is an Oji-Cree soldier who has returned, wounded, from the trench warfare in France. Never has the Heart of Darkness been more appropriately relocated.

Like Conrad before him, Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road plays with perspective so brilliantly, with such a seemingly apparent straight-forwardness, that the reader is left with a wealth of literary pleasures to consider by the novel's conclusion. Where Conrad's story stirs profound doubt as to where its "truth" is located (we are, after all, hearing a story that is filtered through not one but two unreliable narrators who don't seem to have fully grasped the significance of the larger narrative), Boyden exercises a nearly-unheard of faith in the (aboriginal?) concept of The Many Stories bringing us closer to The One Story. Xavier Bird, the soldier, tells his story with care; so, too, does his listener -- his aunt Niska, the last Oji-Cree medicine woman to live off the land. Through Niska and Xavier (two well-wrought and distinct voices -- an increasingly rare feat for contemporary authors) we gradually get a third voice and a third story: that of Elijah Whiskeyjack, the tragic Kurtz-figure. But where Conrad's Kurtz teeters precipitously on the verge of charicature, Boyden's Elijah is nuanced, compelling and persuasively tragic. When Elijah's fate is sealed, as it must be, it raises profound questions for the reader, and (I daresay) Western Civilization.

This is the sort of book that makes a noisy reader. I brought it with us to San Diego, and when my wife finally asked me why I was gasping, clucking my tongue and shaking my head, I said, "This is incredible: the book reads like a thriller." After giving my knee-jerk response a little more thought, I've concluded differently: Boyden's book reads the way thrillers ought to read. It pulls the reader in without any of the linguistic pyrotechnics we've come to expect from our literary writers, and it speaks directly to the concerns of the human heart.

One final note: I'm disappointed, if not especially surprised, to see this novel completely shut out of CanLit's big prizes. In their wisdom, Boyden's peers probably decided CanLit had exhausted Vimy Ridge as a setting with literary and emotional cache. This is not just Boyden's loss, but our own. Take my word for it when I say this novel has an appeal that transcends this country's literary regionalism. Three Day Road is an incredible book, transcendant on every level.


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