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Fraser, Keith.

Toronto, Stoddart. c1985. 320pp, paper, $12.95, ISBN 0-7737-5042-8. CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by Patrick Dunn

Volume 14 Number 5
1986 September

Keith Fraser's Foreign Affairs is, without question, an exciting, tremendously rich collection of seven short stories and three novellas. While his settings range from Vancouver to New Delhi, from the interior of British Columbia to the coast of Southern India, from Kitsilano to Kampuchea, the tales themselves explore the geography of the mind and heart. Fraser charts, with telling insight, the powerful emotions, the secret thoughts that enmesh (and often overwhelm) those who people his exceedingly palpable landscapes, whether foreign or familiar. The title itself is a clever pun that suggests the author's abiding interest, his overriding concern. On one hand, most of the stories revolve around an "affair," a particular passion or desire, whether adulterous ("The Emerald City") or anorexic ("The Punishment of Luxury"), fraternal ("Teeth") or familial ("Merit of Ours"). On the other, each drama is enacted on foreign soil or involves foreigners of one ilk or another. In the final analysis, Fraser would seem to suggest that we are all strangers, aliens when it comes to understanding the territory of the heart, our own or others.

Although a collection, the work as a whole possesses an extraordinary organicity, for the individual stories are interrelated, often ironically, both psychologically and circumstantially. In “Waiting," Rajam, a Hindu waiter in an expensive Vancouver restaurant, imagines himself an actor, particularly when doing his "gavotte around flambeed quail, fiery omelets," hungry for the recognition denied him by a paternalistic, racist society. In "Here," Bridget is a highly successful Canadian actress who has sold all her considerable material possessions, abandoned her critical acclaim to come to a tiny island off the southernmost tip of India to play philanthropist to the starving millions.

Furthermore, a central image (the crow is one of Fraser's favourite symbols and figures in many stories, particularly "Here") in one will find literal or expanded meaning in another, A forgotten bicycle chain and lock, so encrusted with rust as to be totally useless, standing for nothing if not the deadened emotional state of the male lover in "There Are More Dark Women in the World Than Light." prefigures the chains that fetter the doomed prisoners in "The History of Cambodia."

This novella is, in my estimation, one of the best, if most disturbing, pieces included. Through the eyes of a female newspaper correspondent, held prisoner by Khymer Rouge guerillas for five years in and around the ruined temples of Angkor Wat, we witness, with mounting horror, the violence, the astrocitics, in short, the genocide visited upon the villagers by the communist cadres. Having somehow survived the living nightmare of the jungle, she is next forced to endure the further hell of prison in Phnom Penh after its fall. Finally, all that remains to sustain her as she lies dying, as a result of her horrific interrogation, is a vivid childhood memory of Vancouver.

For the most part then, this and other stories paint not a pretty picture of the human condition. ("Foreign Affairs." for example, the novella that gives the book its title, has as its protagonist. Silas, a promising young diplomat, who has had his brilliant career cut short when stricken with multiple sclerosis. Yet for all these unflinching, unflattering portraits, Fraser slops short of cynicism. For me, "13 Ways of Listening to a Stranger" proves the point. In this short story, seven of the occupants of a large Vancouver boarding house contribute to a Father's Day celebration for Gerry, one of the few in the group old enough to have been married at one time. During the course of the evening's festivities a telegram arrives bringing Gerry a declaration of love from his long lost son. Everyone, particularly Gerry, who weeps unashamedly, is moved. However, later that night we learn that one of the boarders is responsible for the message when Gerry acknowledges that his son had died at an early age. Far from being upset at what might well be construed as an exceedingly cruel joke, Gerry is simply overwhelmed by the realization that someone cared enough to want to make him happy. The narrator, as well, shares Gerry's feelings:

I value these sleeping men. I love them just as Gerry does. God, none of us knows the source of a thing like smell, or where kindness comes from, or where evil dwells. No more than we can fathom the vanishings of these.

For his magical narrative, Keith Fraser has been nominated for a Governor General's Award. Whether he will receive this coveted prize remains to be seen. What cannot be denied is the fact that he possesses a most remarkable, highly original talent. Without exception the writing is exquisitely crafted, intellectually stimulating; politically mature, refreshingly entertaining. Ignore him at your peril. A must, an absolute must lor any self-respecting high school or public library.

Patrick Dunn, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.
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