Flight Paths of the Emperor
by Steven Heighton
The Porcupine's Quill, 208 pages, $12.95
This is the season of self-congratulation in the arts, when singers, actors, and writers stand before their peers (and sometimes huge TV audiences) to accept statuettes or cheques and thank their parents and partners. A recent arrival on the Canadian literary scene is the Trillium Award, worth $10,000 to the winning Ontario author.
Ten books, fiction and non-fiction, are competing for this year's prize, to be announced on Wednesday, April 7. Some are by established writers, including Michael Ondaatje and Sandra Gwyn, others by relative newcomers such as Steven Heighton. If one aim of the Trillium competition is to focus attention on work that might otherwise have slipped through the critical net, we must be grateful for the occasion to assess Heighton's marvellously intelligent first collection of stories, Flight Paths of the Emperor.
Several stories have already been singled out for awards and reproduced in literary anthologies. But it's only now, with Heighton's work gathered in a single volume, that we can appreciate the extent of his talent, even as we become aware of his weakness.
Most of Heighton's stories revolve around Japan, a country that has obviously captured his imagination. In a dozen different ways, he tries to show how one particular place and not another enters a person's consciousness and transforms his life. The narrator who appears in several stories is a young man very like the author, a teacher of English for a year in Osaka and a sympathetic student of Japanese life and language. In The Son Is Always Like the Father, the school radio announces the arrival of the first day of the rainy season. This reminds the narrator of his unhappy mother at home and her unwitting role in sending her son to Japan. Desperate to recapture the affections of her husband, she studied bonsai, after he took up karate. "She began raising the tiny trees on the back porch and in the basement and so far as he knew it was the one hobby she had never deserted - so now for him to tell her that something she'd done to make the family closer was driving him away. . . ." She brought a glimpse of Japanese culture into her son's life. He left her to experience the real thing.
In Sounds of Water, another parent provides the introduction to exotic Asia. Jason's father, a travel writer who's rarely home, gives him two Christmas presents - a globe and a book, A Journey Through Asia. When his parents fight, the young boy sits in the bathroom, his ears plugged and his eyes covered, pretending to be far away from Brampton, Ontario. "His mind roams without agenda over an uneven past and through the Asia of his Christmas reading - and finds Asia by far the more hospitable locale."
In one of the book's more compelling stories, Adam Fuller and his daughter Sharon Aiko travel to a remote Japanese village to deposit his wife's ashes on her family plot. Fuller, once a missionary in Japan, now works for a Vancouver importing firm. He's Caucasian but speaks fluent Japanese; his daughter, who looks like her mother, speaks only English. The journey turns into a nightmare, a painful exploration of confused identity, of the person you become when you speak another language, of the unbridgeable gap between father and daughter.
Often the stories begin with a Japanese proverb or a quote from a Japanese newspaper, a few lines that set the mind flying. For instance, from an ad for the Clean Cemetery Company that appeared in The Japan Times, December 10, 1987: "From now on, Japanese who are too busy or live too far from family grave sites can pay to have professionals visit and clean the graves and burn incense in their place." We return to Canada and the funeral of the narrator's grandmother in North Bay, another culture grappling with the rituals of death.
In Heighton's work, travel propels the imagination homeward and provides fresh insight into familiar experience. He begins in one place and time, then moves back and forth across continents and generations. Is this collection, one becomes aware of the excessive use of this technique. Too many objects or events are endowed with the attributes of Proust's madeleine, the power to shape memory. Occasionally the narrative breaks under the strain of forced connections.
Still, each story is beautifully told, the language always precise, reflecting Heighton's past as a poet and his current role as editor of the Kingston literary magazine, Quarry. In many ways he's like the young Ondaatje, also a poet and editor, a superb craftsman at ease in foreign places and distant times, a sympathetic and watchful traveller able to sift through scattered experiences until they acquire meaning.