Friday, September 2, 2011
by Dimitri Nasrallah
A novel of immigration. A narrative that transacts with Canada, but it is not about Canada. A novel that explores multiculturalism, but it is not bound by Trudeau- or even Mulroney-era pieties. A novel about the New Quebec that doesn't mention nationalism (or at least Quebecois nationalism). A novel of immigration that speaks to the world.
Niko is a boy born in Lebanon during that country's civil war in the 1980s. His father owns a camera shop. It's bombed. His mother writes scripts. She's killed. The boy is six, and what is the father to do? They scramble to find a way out. They make it first to Cypress, then a small Greek Island. Nobody wants them, and their money is running out.
Taking advantage of the best offer available, Niko's father ships him to Montreal to live with his late-wife's sister. He promised to come for him as soon as possible, then he takes a job on a cargo boat. The job provides money, but it doesn't get him any closer to Montreal. His passport has long since expired. He seems permanently cut off from his son, so he signs up for the first boat heading for the Americas. If he can only get across the Atlantic, he will walk the rest of the way. The boat, heading for the southern hemisphere, sinks and Niko's father drifts in the ocean until he is rescued.
There are other major plot points that I won't give away. As you can see, however, while the book may be titled after the boy, a great part of the story is about the father. Once the father is lost in South America, though, the reader's focus returns to Niko, now a teenager and shoplifting food in Montreal. His aunt and uncle are anxious to secure their citizenship, so that they can finally begin anew in their new country. Eventually, they all conclude that Niko's father is dead, but an unlikely reunion is on the horizon.
Written in swift, clear prose, this book clips along nicely, covering vast personal, political and geographic territory. It is also a tremendously tender book. Love pulses from cover to cover. The pain caused by the separation of individuals, both physical and ideological, is the subject and cause of the book. Niko and his father are separated by geography. The warring factions in Lebanon (and elsewhere) are separated by the failure to recognize each other's humanity. In the various diaspora's around the world, these differences do not disappear, but they are more easily contextualized, minimized, and set aside in favour of more essential human bonds.
Niko is a lovely novel and a significant achievement by a young writer with much to say.