Renowned author returns to his novelist roots for the first time since 1994
While best known for his philosophical work, most notably The Doubter’s Companion, John Ralston Saul has also authored five novels.
Dark Diversions: A Traveller’s Tale, published in the fall of 2012, is a reworking of a novel that had previously been published exclusively in French.
The novel — his first in eighteen years — is a work of black comedy told from the perspective of a morally-suspect journalist who loses himself during a series of jet-setting misadventures among dictators and socialites.
Photo by Karry TaylorWhile the novel isn’t biographical, Ralston Saul says that many of the characters are loosely based on people that he has encountered over a long career as an author, essayist and philosopher.
A long-time champion of the freedom of expression, Ralston Saul was elected in October as the president of PEN International, an association of writers that promotes literature and freedom of expression.
A former journalist, Ralston Saul says he became interested in PEN after spending extended periods in Africa and Asia in the ’80s. There, he witnessed writers suffering from government suppression of freedom of expression.
Born in Ottawa in 1947, Ralston Saul is married to former Canadian Governor General Adrienne Clarkson.
His work has been translated into 22 languages across 30 countries.
Renowned both in Canada and abroad for his work on political and economic thought, Ralston Saul has also written widely on issues such as bilingualism, poverty and public education.
Ralston Saul recently sat down with Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor to discuss his latest work and the power of the word.
Many readers may not associate you with novels, yet this is actually the fifth one that you have published. Where did the idea for Dark Diversions come from?
The novels are sort of in a different world, in a way, because they were put out by separate publishers. So, that may be why they are not as familiar.
This itself is a very strange book. It really is a picaresque novel. A lot of people will ask what a picaresque novel is. It’s an idea that takes you back to the roots of the novel, to oral storytelling.
I think it is kind of interesting to go back to those roots because that is what life is really like. As you wander along, things happen to you. You go down a street, and then you go down another street.
I always think of myself as a novelist. I have always said Voltaire’s Bastards is a novel, and The Doubter’s Companion is one too. They are written like novels.
Often things happen to me, and I feel what I have done isn’t allowing me to say what I want to say. So instead of continuing, I sort of go off to the side.
As part of this life and wandering about in the ’80s and ’90s, I was seeing things. I was seeing all this money and what it was like and what was happening. I was seeing these dictators and wondering what that all meant.
I just had this need to talk about the things that I was seeing and sensing. I wasn’t quite sure how it was all fitting together or what the nature of it was.
Then, I realized what I was doing at the time was thinking a lot about the shape of the novel. All my novels have an organic beginning to them.
What power do novels have as agents of social change and social commentary?
Photo courtesy of Penguin CanadaI will give you the president of PEN answer. PEN includes poets, essayists and novelists.
People always ask me why PEN matters — especially the novels. I tell them that it’s really strange.
As a writer’s organization, we don’t have any guns or tanks or an army. We don’t control any banks or TV and radio stations. We have no element of recognizable power. We are nothing and we have nothing.
Given that, why is it that there are currently about 850 writers in jail? Why are they in jail if the word is not so powerful? The word, obviously, frightens some people.
The novel is the successor to storytellers. The storytelling tradition, which we happen to call the novelist at the moment, has a very particular power. I think that the novel on paper, or perhaps on a machine, has a power that nothing else has.
The relationship between the reader and the novel is a totally free relationship. If I am reading a novel, you can’t get between me and the book. Nobody can interfere.
A good novel is like a world into which the reader can go and is totally free to do with what they want. But, you don’t tell the reader what to think; the reader is thinking for themselves.
They are totally in control of their lives when they are reading. I think the novel still has that power.
What is it about black comedy that makes it so difficult to translate into writing?
I think it’s because black comedy is not slapstick or baroque. It’s deadly serious, which is what makes it so funny.
There is a kind of meanness. There is no moral redemption. Things are what they are.
Black comedy has a level of irony, which I think in the last 10 to 15 years has gotten a lot harder to do because we are not a very ironic civilization. The past 30 years has been much more about slapstick and romantic comedy.
Film has done better in some ways at black comedy. But, it’s not allowed to have the Hollywood ending.
Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.