Szanto leaves traces of wit, mystery at York

The following article was submitted by Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant for the Canadian Writers in Person course.

For Ali Cran, tracing is a true sense, a common human property. He claims he sees a pattern of events after they occur: people leave their traces wherever they go….

From Second Sight by George Szanto

If this holds true, traces of George Szanto and his reading on the evening of Nov. 25 are now in place. Reading from the second book of his Mexican trilogy, Second Sight, the author was both humorous and professorial. A retired professor turned writer, Szanto came to York for the latest reading in the Canadian Writers in Person series.

szantoSzanto, left, encouraged students at the back of the classroom to move forward saying he had neglected to bring his hearing aid. After they shuffled forward, he admitted the hearing aid was a ruse and began his reading. The world that Szanto writes about is likewise composed of ruse and trickery: the politics of modern Mexico as he sees it.

Inspired by a one-year visit in 1985-86 and subsequent return trips, Szanto writes in the voice of his alter-ego Jorge. While the places and events in the novel are fictional, there is enough truth in the work that Mexican friends once begged for a delay in publication until a certain political situation had passed. Szanto remarked that the writing in the first novel of the trilogy, The Underside of Stones, was apparently so convincing that he received condolences from one book reviewer on the death of his wife (though Jorge is written as a widow, the author’s wife is alive and well).

cover1In Second Sight, readers are invited to put on their detective hats and “sleuth for truth” in the twists and turns of this mystery novel. The plot is centered on the disappearance of Jorge’s friend Pepe, mayoral candidate for the fictional village of Michoácuaro. However, like most things in Szanto’s representation of Mexico, there is more beneath the surface. Szanto is interested in the North/South dichotomy he experienced as a norteamericano in Mexico.

In a passage based on a real conversation, Jorge asks his former housekeeper the unwelcome question, “what’s new?” From her perspective, news implies a negative change: the loss of health or work, or, in this case, the disappearance of Pepe. Jorge muses that the little phrase encapsulates the North American ideology of progress.

Progress also comes in the form of plans for a new factory, backed by North American investors, upriver of the small village. Along with this comes environmental contamination and exploited workers. Pepe and his amigos present an alternative industry called the Jardín de Los Viejos or “Garden of the Ancients,” which uses a farming method of soil mounds surrounded by water-filled moats instead of irrigation channels. Szanto initially thought this to be quite original until he discovered at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City that the ancient Aztecs had “stolen” his idea. Worked into the novel, it balances the concept of progress with the old ways.

In the book, Szanto also challenges our notion of the senses. Jorge the criminologist is accustomed to employing northern methods of reason to solve mysteries. In Mexico, he is challenged to explore senses beyond the standard five. Initially skeptical of the idea of “tracing” – an intuitive sense of people and events of the past – Jorge comes to rely on this extrasensory perception and develops a “second sight” that gives him a sense of future events. Szanto frames this with a sub-plot involving efforts to trace his lost luggage, which only reappears at the end of the novel, and we are left wondering which is the more effective method.

cover2Szanto also treated students to a reading from the The Underside of Stones, a collection of cohesive vignettes. Students were delighted to see early tracings of the characters found in the second novel. Particularly enjoyable was Jorge’s encounter with “The Sweeper”, the Mexican equivalent of a Toronto squeegee person. As Jorge struggles to think of an appropriate amount for a tip, the street sweeper places his fingers on Jorge’s temples and says, “The gods will bring you their answer.”

In his work, Szanto also muses about the concept of time and time-keeping. Shortly after arriving in the village, an earthquake shakes both it and Jorge’s perceptions. The clock on the cathedral remains stuck at 7:19 for the rest of his year there, forcing him to let go of the clockwork world of the norteamericano. In an interesting coincidence, Szanto noted that his reading on this evening also began at precisely 7:19pm. As many of the characters in his books exclaim, “Que milagro!” The traces of this time and author will remain with students for a long while.

More about George Szanto

George Szanto is the award-winning author of a dozen books, novels, stories, plays and essays who holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard (Woodrow Wilson Fellow). He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1988. Szanto’s first novel, Not Working (St. Martin’s Press, Macmillan, Avon [year]) was short-listed for the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Friends and Marriages (Véhicule, 1995) won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and The Underside of Stones (McClelland & Stewart, Harper & Row, year) won a National Magazine Award. Szanto was born in Derry, Northern Ireland, and has lived in England, France, Germany, Mexico, the US and Canada. In the seventies, Szanto was executive director of New Heritage Theatre in San Diego, later serving as president of Playwrights of Canada. In Montreal he taught at McGill as a professor of communications and cultural analysis before moving to Gabriola Island in British Columbia.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The next speaker in the series is Toronto poet Karen Mac Cormack who will read from her works on Jan. 13, 2005.