Dogs Barking in the Cool Damp Distance, Iron Nails Rusting in the Tree

Julian Samuel's Passage to Lahore reviewed
By Gregory Shea

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Like all books that grab me, I got a little divine shiver after coming to the last page of Julien Samuel's Passage to Lahor. I kissed the portrait of him on the inside of the bookjacket. This was my way of thanking him for a good read. The photograph on the backcover depicts a serious intellectual type—an Asian radical with incendiary raised eyebrows and a balding bean. Looking into the dark compassionate eyes of this talented writer, one might be tempted to take the novel as a grand plea for love—a long open letter to the exile community in search of his Lahori or Arabian bride...

Under an abrasive facade which skewers as many pet peeves as can fit on a page, the author reveals a tenderness reserved for a hypocritical, ignorant and confused humanity. Samuel has no patience for those not aware of the consequences of capitalism's hegemony and imperialistic muscle. He is a political animal, crusader, thinker and shit disturber. Not afraid of playing these roles, he aims his belligerent arsenal at a convenient target while letting us inside the minds of Arabs, Bengalis, Palestinians and Pakistanis. These points of view, rarely noted in the West, are welcome, refreshing, comical and vibrantly full of defiance and humour.

Samuel's autobiographical sketches are woven together into a pleasant journey of sorts. It is the voyage of a mind over a decade— a decade spent smelling the greasy smoke of restaurant exhaust near Montreal's anglophone and immigrant intellectual hub; a decade of observing the conservative Reagan-Thatcher era from behind the cozy economic walls of fortress North America. The odious side of complacency among his fellow citizens is a constant bone of contention. Utilizing a combination of damning criticism and tenderness Samuel slowly allows us a foothold inside his exiled head.

A profile emerges of a cross pollinated cultural hybrid. From the early years in Lahore, Pakistan, we see the author among his secular Christian upper middle class family. Perhaps if he would have stuck it out in Pakistan, he would have ended up a comfortable army officer with a bevy of servants at his command. This complaint about the loss of privilege might explain the testiness and tension in the prose. Accepting the status of a 19th century petty bourgeois in the home country would be too humiliating for an avowed Marxist. But at the same time there is a whiff of glamour and nostalgia for the home land and an unrequited desire to bed the women of the seductive Pakistani aristocratic class.

An adolescence spent in England woke the author to the bane of racism. From a privileged boy in the home country he had fallen in status to 'dark skinned wog' harassed by brutish boys with plumbers for fathers and mothers who straightened table cloths for tea time. Samuel seems to believe that if he had remained in the racist England of the 1960's, he might have turned into a bitter intellectual hooligan.

But Canada was his final destination. His years spend in Toronto suburbs further transformed his personality with a substructure of underlying niceties. As it stands, I admire the hybrid—just enough over the top irreverence to skewer complacent collaborators, blended with enough of a Canadian type of self-deprecating humbleness that is kind of infuriating but human.

Part of me is calling Julien Samuel a son of a bitch because my work sometimes looks so pale beside his. But I have to remind myself that I'm trying to portray a pale anaemic kid, victim of the Canuck 'muddle' class, while Samuel has the luxury of being the 'man of colour' anti-hero. Samuel seems to inhabit a lot of the intellectual headspace I've wandered through, and articulated it in animated, incisive prose. He is a great lampooner of academia, queer politics, race relations, feminists, and himself, and it's great to see it out there on the printed page.

I remember seeing Julian Samuel's film on the Algerian conflict and feeling it was much too angry, too overblown. A kind of indignation that one scorns in other people was present in that work. It was not polite; it was charged. I haven't seen Samuel's subsequent work in film, but the book recapitulates all his jealousies, rants, faults and strengths in a wickedly funny way. It is interesting to be treated to the foul language of the Urdu and Arab world. These colourful languages cannot be outdone for smut and degrading metaphor.

I know Julien Samuel has lots of enemies. Every time I try to enthusiastically promote his book among expatriate Montréalers, I get raised eyebrows. Has his provocative manner managed to offend would-be admirers? Are his charges against those in academia found in the book preventing him from gaining a cherished position at a post-secondary institution? I had the feeling that Abouali's story of going through the motions at a politically correct job interview was very thinly disguised autobiography.

It is good to see academia has not swallowed Julien Samuel. If he did indeed obtain some fat cat posting, he might get soft. That post-colonial grunge goatee of his would definitely be an aesthetic hazard as he negotiated his way between tenured fossils and the arrogant avant garbage intellects who pose as our illustrious cultural ambassadors. What more can I do but suggest, no, urge you to read this comically abrasive pundit of Boulevard St. Laurent?

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Gregory Shea
Gregory Shea is a writer and critic.
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