canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Golden Goa
by Grant Buday
ECW, 2000

Reviewed 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:

"Then one 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).

The merchant 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.


Buday makes 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 claim.

Buday will stay the same, is happy to stay the same, and it's hard not to love him for it.


Something 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.

"Being obsessively 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."


Confessions 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.


Golden 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."


Buday's book 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.


If Buday's 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.

After nearly 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."

Buday, it 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 disappearing.


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.

Buday finds 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.

Ken 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.







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