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Saul's new fiction an ingenious read

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READERS more familiar with Ottawa-born John Ralston Saul's non-fiction than with his fiction will be delighted to know that his imagination has not suffered since his last novel in 1988.

With crisp dialogue and evocative descriptions, Dark Diversions is clever enough to keep the literati from dismissing it, yet entertaining enough to keep the popular press from ignoring it.

Saul is an acclaimed intellectual, essayist, public speaker, award-winning author of 13 previous works and current president of PEN International.

He is also the husband of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, whose tete-a-tete encounters with international celebrities must surely have been the catalyst for at least some of the encounters depicted in these pages.

Saul's latest offering is, however, more than just a series of smartly fictionalized biographical sketches gleaned from those experiences.

Dark Diversions follows a print journalist as he searches the world for political stories. Sometimes dark, often cynical, always intriguing, the novel is a compelling view of the privileged lives of broken-hearted bluebloods and despotic demigods seen through the eyes of an astute, initially anonymous narrator.

Perceptive though he is, the narrator maintains his unbiased journalistic stance, and keeps enough emotional distance between himself and the characters with whom he interacts to make getting to know him one of our more challenging tasks.

The search takes him from Chicago, where a foreign princess is living with a horrible secret, to a political rally in Madrid in honour of Franco, to Cuernavaca, where a society maven turns the tables on a husband who has a plan to have her murdered, and to New York, where our narrator encounters a man who is dying from veganism.

Like the hero of Henry Fielding's iconic picaresque novel The History of Tom Jones, Saul's narrator encounters various characters engaged in ordinary events. And like Fielding, Saul appears to have relied heavily on real people as templates for his characters, international celebrities he ostensibly met during his tenure as vice-regal consort.

But are these simply real people masquerading as fictional characters? Or has Saul used his considerable powers of imagination to create them?

Just as the reader is certain the narrator has revealed himself as an avatar for the author, the jarring chapter "The Narrator Pauses to Reflect" appears, and doubt is cast: "I may well be the author dissembling as the narrator. You can't be certain, and why should I remove any doubt?"

The intrusive narrator, that wink from chronicler to audience that says there is a shared secret between them, also appeared in Saul's 1992 non-fiction work Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.

To have successfully used such a device in both fiction and non-fiction is ample evidence of superior talent. But Saul takes the role of narrator even further in Dark Diversions.

Not content to let one character's story play out to its logical end, the narrator goes beyond mere intrusion. He steps in and alters the outcome.

An ingenious read, Dark Diversions will be a solid end-of-summer choice for a wide and varied audience.

 

Angela Narth is a Winnipeg writer and literary reviewer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 15, 2012 J9

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