Homer in Flight (Goose Lane, 300 pages, $18.85 trade paper) by Rabindranath Maharaj is an intelligent, balanced, deeply felt book-recommended reading for anyone seriously interested in what it means to be an immigrant rather than a tourist.
Maharaj, author of two story collections, The Interloper and The Writer & His Wife, captures the frustrations and humiliations of the immigrant experience with uncanny precision, but avoids cheap shots and easy accusations.
Homer Santokie, thirty-three, is a file clerk in Trinidad, an organized, efficient, tidy man who wants order in his life, which is why he comes to Canada, the land of cleanliness and sanity, or so he expects. When his welcome at his cousin's house wears out, moves to a shabby highrise apartment in a Toronto suburb and finds a job at the Nutrapure juice factory. It is a menial, taxing job, one that exhausts him in body and spirit. As he notes in his journal, "I feel that all my blasted diplomas.are useless." As the going gets even tougher in his adopted country, he sustains himself "with images of Trinidadian decrepitude," but by the time he's been in Canada eight months, he is panicked by the recognition that Canadians and Trinidadians are "intrinsically alike," and that "Canada was just a nice, neatly packaged version of dirty little places like Trinidad." Later on, after a failed marriage, a long bout of unemployment, and various esteem-deflating occurrences, Homer wonders whether he was "any happier here than he would have been in Trinidad."
But Maharaj doesn't settle for examining the obvious. His understanding reaches beyond simplistic dogma or self-righteous finger-pointing: "Maybe it was not really the strange faces, the different languages, the alien cultures which distressed him but the changes he saw within himself: the dismantling of all the comfortable assumptions with which he had lived for so long." And Maharaj doesn't ignore the hypocrisy of some successful immigrants either, the haughty ones who are confident that they've made it, they've been accepted, they fit in; the ones who have forgotten that they "had once been in the same position as the desperate immigrants who disgusted them so much. It was as if they were afraid that their success would one day be repeated by those they scorned."
Maharaj's eye for characterization is impeccable, as is his ability to find humour amid the grim, the sordid, and the dreary. He doesn't over-sentimentalize either Homer or Homer's circumstances. In clear, straightforward prose he delivers an indictment of contemporary society's attitudes in general-not just Canadian or Trinidadian-which is all the more scathing for its evenhanded fairness. He documents the disdain of various groups toward other groups, each group assuming it's better than the others. He explores various small and large disservices we do to one another, the prejudices we harbour. Yet he also pays tribute to our amazing capacity for survival, the dream of connection that continues to spring in us despite the fact that whatever culture we belong to, we are each essentially alone.