by Grant Buday
by Ken Sparling
First of all,
Grant Buday is a great storyteller. He's a charmer. He lets you
into his life, confides. He sets up this conspiracy in the intro
to his travel book, Golden Goa:
night, alone in my room that overlooked an alley, I was studying
the atlas. It was 1990, I was bored with being serious, and
desperate to escape the rut of depression caused by my recent
divorce. Seeking escape via my 1963 Reader's Digest atlas, I
found the island of Diu."
He chats people
up, is what Buday does. He steers the reader, in much the same
way he steers the people he meets throughout Golden Goa.
The wonderful thing about getting steered by Buday is the surprising
turns he takes.
I like that
Buday sticks to his guns. Sticking to your guns can be dangerous.
It could turn you into a curmudgeon. Early in his adventure, Buday
confronts this danger head-on. A persistent gem merchant wants
Buday to come back to his shop and look at his gems. Buday refuses.
Refuses and refuses. But the merchant won't give up. Finally,
Buday says - smugly, pleased with his logic: "Why do you want
me to look if I have no intention of buying? Why waste your time?"
(curmudgeon city - especially when said smugly).
says, "Because I love my gems. And I want you to love them, too."
Buday is humbled. But that's not what I want to tell you. What
I like is that Buday isn't afraid to admit (in print!) that he's
been humbled. But at the same time, he makes no claim to have
changed in any way because of the exchange with the gem merchant.
One gets the sense that, if confronted with the same situation
the following day, having learned the lesson of humility just
hours before, Buday would still behave the same.
Buday is a
rock, something solid the reader can hold onto. This is what Buday
gives us: his own solidity in the liquid world he paints.
no claim to have changed, ever, for anything he encounters. He
gives us little details, little revelations about his own character
(revelations he suddenly has about himself, as though we are right
there with him having the revelation; yet, he doesn't hand us
a revelation, he hands us the moment, the action surrounding the
revelation, and we live the revelation as he lives it). The fact
that he chooses to give us these revelations is enough to tell
us they mean something to him. He doesn't have to say, "This means
something to me." It's just that, where another (many an other)
would claim to have grown from the incident, Buday makes no such
stay the same, is happy to stay the same, and it's hard not to
love him for it.
changes in Golden Goa. Everything changes in Golden
Goa. Everything Buday gazes upon - everything this unchanging
rock gazes upon - changes with every turn of his gaze. Perhaps
Buday can't change. Perhaps none of us can. Perhaps we are what
we are. Buday wrestles past his never-changingness - the fact
that he feels himself as a certainty, as a sometimes disappointing
inevitability - by moving, changing his view, so there remains
a newness. The landscape, both geographic and human, is Buday's
entry to the other, to otherness, to what is other than what is
always. Other to his inability.
cheap is somewhat analogous to my being left-handed," Buday tells
us. "I could change, but it would be just too much work and would
never feel quite right."
of someone who never changes, is proud of never changing, yet
somehow lets the changing landscape inform the book fully. I think
Buday has managed what Kiekegaard was after. To give up, then
start in again in that suspended moment that only giving up allows,
that only faith can accomplish, that only having the faith to
give up and keep faith in the act. Buday gives up again and again
in this book and the reader floats on Buday's abandon.
Goa starts off, as it ends, with Luis de Camoens, who had
been "a rising star in Lisbon, a poet and playwright who'd been
welcomed by the royal family. Then everything fell apart. He lost
an eye in the army, and then he lost the love of his life, Catherine
de Ataide." This first Camoens scene, like most of the Camoens
scenes throughout the book, is short, and we are soon in India
with Buday, who, like Camoens, has recently lost at love. Buday
makes no attempt to argue that he has lost the love of his life.
He has simply lost. "I laughed silently - I'd got away! It didn't
matter that I hadn't been pursued. What mattered was that, divorced
and directionless, I'd got away from Vancouver, a place that reminded
me of the past."
is being hailed a travel book, but it's more an escape book. Buday
wanders, as we all do, through life. He wanders more than he travels,
and if he is trying to escape his past, the self he knows too
well, he isn't successful - unless escaping your past is something
like finding out again who you are, confirming what you knew all
along, remembering, maybe, in the sense Socrates talked about
remembering, remembering what you were born knowing, but only
now found out you were born knowing.
ability to leave conclusions to the reader is his strength as
a writer, his willingness to face himself as he is at every turn
is his charm. Perhaps the strongest example of Buday's willingness
to face himself comes with his "Man on the Sidewalk" anecdote.
On his first trip to India, Buday finds himself going back day
after day to look at this man on the sidewalk, a dying beggar
who never seems to move, but whose fingers are growing shorter,
Buday realizes, from being gnawed by rats.
a week, Buday goes back to discover the dying beggar is gone.
He then tells of his walk to Mother Teresa's hospital, and of
"telling myself the convenient half-lie that I was sympathetic,
that I wanted to help." He stops halfway to the hospital when
he realizes: "I wanted to experience death from the safe place
of life. I wanted to watch. I wanted to get high on their deaths."
turns out, will offer conclusions, but he is stubborn about offering
them only concerning himself. He never tells the reader what to
think; he shows us India as he saw it, in bits and pieces, from
cheap hotels, crowded onto trains, trapped in the derailed car
of a train that has crashed, listening for hours to a man with
a broken back wailing outside the train.
After he gives
up on his journey to see Mother Teresa's hospital, he walks us
through his suspension:
"On the way
back, I wandered slowly along the river, feeling drained by
the late-afternoon lassitude made all the worse by the heat.
Barges and freighters rode their anchors, and enormous iron
buoys marked the channel. A launch dangerously overburdened
with passengers set out with only inches of freeboard. Eighty
kilometres south, the river branched through the Sunderbans,
a marshy jungle where each year the Bengal tiger ate a few villagers.
It was low tide. Women bathed in the brown water, their gold
saris streaming out on the current. Their children, meanwhile,
lay on the bank fanning their arms up and down and making dark
angels in the mud."
What I come
away from, in the end, is a feeling that Buday had no plan in
creating this book. At the very least (and the very most) he had
a plan that he didn't impose on his reader, and that's what I
love about Buday. Camoens simply appears and then disappears throughout
the narrative, much as we appear and disappear in this life, and
if we are going to take a message away from Buday, that's it.
We arrive, we run, we are gone. We run to get away from whatever
it is we want to get away from, from ourselves it turns out, but
all the running can't save us - neither from ourselves, nor from
At the end
of Golden Goa, Buday creates two parallel scenes. (Maybe
they're parallel. Or maybe they're just beside each other.)
In one of
these scenes, we're with Buday in modern-day India, his last few
days on his fifth and final trip and he's on a train. It doesn't
matter where the train is going, because the book ends before
the train gets there.Buday
tells you where the train is going - or at least, where he hopes
to get by taking the train.
himself sitting across from three Indians. One drunk, one philosophical,
the other virtually silent. The drunk badgers the silent one for
a while before falling asleep. He wakes as the train crawls almost
to a stop. He becomes agitated, stands, sits, paces, and finally
jumps out of the slowly moving train and rolls away down the gravel
embankment. "Is he gone?" the philosopher asks. "Gone," the silent
one replies. "It's peaceful," he adds. "It is," agrees the philosopher,
who goes on to say, "But I suppose we better go collect him."
And off they
go, down the embankment, after their friend. There. That's what
reading Buday is. If you're willing to jump down the embankment
and go after him, you're in for a real adventure. But don't expect
to get where you expected to get when you got on the train.
Sparling is the author of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall and
the fiction editor of Broken
Pencil. His fiction was featured in The
Danforth Review #1.