Author Tags: Civil Rights, Fiction, Mexico, Theatre
"Everywhere I have been has proven to be a new diaspora." -- George Szanto.
George Szanto was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1940 and has lived in England, France, Germany, Mexico and the U.S. He has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Harvard and worked as executive director of New Heritage Theater in San Diego (1970-1974). He came to Canada in 1974, taught at McGill and served as president of Playwrights Canada (1980-1981). For more than two decades he lived in Montreal before moving to British Columbia in the late 1990s where he served as B.C. representative of the Writers Union of Canada for two terms from 2003 to 2005. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1988. Szanto speaks four languages and lives on Gabriola Island.
Unlike many 'White Male goes to Third World' novels where the narrator is a hero/adventurer, the mild-mannered foreigner set adrift in George Szanto's three novels set in Mexico is NOT the central focus for the drama, but rather a collector or caretaker of the truth. All three encompass the same Mexican town and characters, and the same earnest appreciation for truth, but they are not chronological.
Set in 1985, The Underside of Stones introduces a mild-mannered criminologist who is taking refuge in the semi-fictionalized town of Michoácuaro in Michoacán province. The cathedral clock has just stopped at 7:19--due to a recent earthquake that has killed ten thousand people in Mexico City--and time will stand still for another year. "The trilogy begins the day of the immense earthquake in 1985, and ends at the end of 1993," says Szanto. "January 1, 1994, is the first day of NAFTA, and the day Subcomandante Marcos walked in San Cristobal. After the earthquake, the government went into embarrassed hiding and the people of Mexico City had to cope for themselves--and more importantly, for each other. This was the beginning of what became known as civil society in Mexico--democracy from the ground up. With NAFTA and Marcos, Mexico became painfully politicized and economicized, and civil society ended." The newcomer Jorge (George) has retreated to Mexico to mourn the death of his wife, but the locals start visiting him, giving their versions of events before others can influence him, and he inadvertently becomes their local historian. "Don Jorge likes to listen," wrote Alberto Manguel in the Globe & Mail. "And learn. The stories that are revealed to him, like the underside of stones, contain many mysteries." With a prologue and an epilogue, there arises a 'story cycle' rather than a linear novel.
Enchanting Mexico reveals its sinister side in two subsequent novels. In the second-published title in Szanto's trilogy, The Condesa of M. (Cormorant Books, 2001), the criminologist brings his new bride and stepdaughter on a honeymoon but soon feels obliged to investigate the imprisonment of a priest who has helped to open an abortion centre. Set in 1990, Szanto's newly published Second Sight (XYZ Publishing, 2004) revisits his beloved Michoácuaro during a period of rampant corruption and upheaval. This time his friend Pepe, the newly elected local mayor, has disappeared, possibly kidnapped or dead, requiring him to marshal new strengths and abilities. Instead of being surprised by Mexico, the country is the catalyst for Jorge to discover new things about himself.
Szanto's other works include a novel about a big-city cop turned rural house husband, Not Working (Macmillan, 1983), shortlisted for Books in Canada's First Novel Award, and Friends and Marriages (1995), winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, in which several interconnected characters are described over two decades. Other titles are A Modest Proposition to the People of Canada (Véhicule, 1991) with Per Brask; Duets (Coteau, 1989) with Per Brask; Narrative Taste and Social Perspective (The Matter of Quality) (New York: St. Martin's, 1986); Theatre and Propaganda (University of Texas Press, 1978), Sixteen Ways to Skin a Cat (Intermedia, 1978); After the Ceremony (Playwrights Canada, 1978); and Narrative Consciousness (University of Texas Press, 1972. His plays include The New Black Crook (1971), Chinchilla (1972), Mixed Marriage (1980-1981) and The Stock Revue (1981).
George Szanto and Sandy Frances Duncan are co-writing a series of mystery novels, the Islands Investigations International series, starting with Never Sleep with a Suspect on Gabriola Island. Their follow-up is Always Kiss the Corpse on Whidbey Island. These novels feature West Coast sleuths Kyra Rachel and Noel Franklin of Islands Investigations International. In the second novel, a grieving mother bends over to kiss her son’s corpse at a funeral home viewing, only to shriek: “That’s not Sandro!” Having supposedly died of a heroin overdose, the body of Whidbey Island General Hospital nurse Sandro Vasiliadis is suddenly missing, and his mother is convinced he is still alive. The detectives’ inquiries lead them deep into Sandro’s life and to a medical clinic that specializes in transgendering. [Whidbey 978-926741-05-5].
Never Hug a Mugger (TouchWood Editions 2011) was followed by Always Love A Villain on San Juan Island (Touchwood 2013). Promotional materials state: "A case of high-level plagiarism at a local university brings Noel Franklin and Kyra Rachel to San Juan Island to investigate. As they look into the theft, the investigative team get to know the small island’s community. They soon become involved in another, more menacing, crime: The daughter of a professor engaged in highly sensitive research has been kidnapped. And her ransom is a piece of intellectual property that in the wrong hands could lead to catastrophe. While Noel and Kyra navigate the murky waters of university politics and come closer to discovering the origins of the crime and its perpetrators, their lives are first threatened and then terrorized."
In Szanto's The Tartarus House on Crab (Brindle & Glass, 2011), photographer Jack Tartarus returns to his family's old home to tear it down. But the people of Crab Island, including his sister, and Turtle—the island’s self-proclaimed guardian—and a beautiful woman he knew long ago, are angrily opposed to his plan. 9781897142530
Perched on a cloud high above Mount Washington, Ted tells Lola stories. Lola, once a famous Hollywood bombshell is still a goddess in the afterlife. Together, Ted and Lola listen to the memories of the mortals, people like Milton and Theresa, conservationists, parents and fighters; “Handy” Johnnie Cochan, self-styled as an ecological leader, but haunted by sadness and fear; and Carney, a specialist in disaster recovery who can’t hold onto love. Whatever Lola Wants (Brindle & Glass $19.95) is a tale of the immortals; Ted watching and telling tales as Lola listens and dreams, slowly changing with his words. Below the immortals, generations of three mortal families cycle through joy, tragedy, hope, and loss, their futures bound together by mingled battles and attractions.
Narrative Consciousness (University of Texas Press, 1972)
Theatre and Propaganda (University of Texas Press, 1978)
After the Ceremony (Playwrights Canada, 1978)
Sixteen Ways to Skin a Cat (Intermedia, 1978)
Not Working. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982; Toronto: Macmillan, 1983; Toronto: Avon, 1984. Novel
Narrative Taste and Social Perspective (The Matter of Quality) (New York: St. Martin's, 1986)
Duets (Coteau, 1989) with Per Brask
The Underside of Stones. Montreal: XYZ éditeur, 2004; Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990; New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
A Modest Proposition to the People of Canada (Véhicule, 1991) with Per Brask
Friends & Marriages. Montreal: Véhicule, 1994. Novel
The Condesa of M. Montreal: XYZ éditeur, 2005; Toronto: Comorant/Stoddart, 2001. Novel
Second Sight. Montreal: XYZ éditeur, 2004. Novel
Never Sleep with a Suspect on Gabriola Island (Brindle & Glass) Novel
The Tartarus House on Crab (Brindle & Glass, 2011) Novel
Never Hug a Mugger on Quadra Island (TouchWood, 2012) With Sandy Francis Duncan. $14.95 978-1-926971-49-0 Novel
Bog Tender (Brindle & Glass 2012). Memoir
Always Love A Villain on San Juan Island (Touchwood 2013) $14.95 978-1-77151-024-0
Whatever Lola Wants (Brindle & Glass 2014) $19.95 9781927366356
It wasn’t the Mexican beer. It wasn’t the bougainvillea and the butterflies. It was serendipity and the kindness of a stranger that prompted George Szanto to choose Michoacán as a place to write for a year. In 1984, a half-Vietnamese, half-French hotel keeper provided sanctuary to George Szanto and his family in a remote Mexican village. Nearly a year later this same friend kept his promise and found the Szantos a delightful house in Tacámbaro, even helping to supply furniture and arranging the move. The morning after they moved in, the earth moved. “We huddled, a bit scared and bewildered, in the centre of the courtyard,” he says. “Walls swayed, graceful and mysterious, for more than three minutes… On the cathedral dome the clock said 7:19. It would remain 7:19 all year.” The novel Szanto planned to write that year never materialized, but three others have since arisen after the tremors of that earthquake.
More BC fiction about Mexico:
• Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947).
• Norman Newton’s The House of Gods (1961), recalls Toltec culture from the 15th century. His The One True Man (1963) incorporates Mayan and Aztec stories to theorize that Phoenicians could have colonized North America.
• Daphne Marlatt recorded her visit to Mexico with Roy Kiyooka for Zocalo (1977).
• George McWhirter’s Cage (1987), about a B.C. priest in Mexico, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
• Paul St. Pierre’s In the Navel of the Moon (D&M, 1993) is set in the fictional Mexican border town of San Sebastian de Hidalgo.
Always Kiss the Corpse on Whidbey Island (Touchwood $24.95)
As a follow-up to their debut mystery, Never Sleep with a Suspect on Gabriola Island, George Szanto and Sandy Frances Duncan have co-written Always Kiss the Corpse on Whidbey Island (Touchwood $24.95). Both feature West Coast sleuths Kyra Rachel and Noel Franklin of Islands Investigations International.
In the second novel, a grieving mother bends over to kiss her son’s corpse at a funeral home viewing, only to shriek: “That’s not Sandro!” Having supposedly died of a heroin overdose, the body of Whidbey Island General Hospital nurse Sandro Vasiliadis is suddenly missing, and his mother is convinced he is still alive. The detectives’ inquiries lead them deep into Sandro’s life and to a medical clinic that specializes in transgendering.
Szanto speaks four languages and lives on Gabriola Island. In Szanto’s latest island-based novel, The Tartarus House on Crab (Brindle & Glass $19.95), photographer Jack Tartarus returns to his family’s old home to tear it down. But the people of Crab Island, including his sister, and Turtle—the island’s self-proclaimed guardian—and a beautiful woman he knew long ago, are angrily opposed to his plan.
Publisher's Promo (2012)
Bog Tender is a study of the act of writing and of nature and where the two intersect. George Szanto, an accomplished fiction writer, lives and writes on a bog, and for him this natural phenomenon has become a metaphor for life and the creative process. Rather than filling in the wetland that cuts his island property in two, Szanto has embraced it as a site of inspiration.
Divided into twelve chapters—one for each month of the year—this memoir explores how Szanto's writing process is affected by the bog's transformations throughout the seasons. He examines his memories and how the place where land and water meet reminds him of his past. In each chapter, Szanto has gone searching in his own memory bog for the moments of greatest consequence to him, from meeting his future wife to becoming a parent to remembrances of his mother and father to his adventures in Mexico. Set in a place where city is left behind for a friendlier world of small community culture and rural space, Bog Tender is about the intricate connections that evolve under and above the water.
Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory
from Phyllis Reeve
Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory by George Szanto (Brindle & Glass $19.95)
In a rocky, wet, hilly, bumpy, property known to local realtors as the “Engineer’s Challenge,” George Szanto of Gabriola Island has recently come to terms with petty annoyances and the Holocaust, with being young and becoming old, in a memoir written in a cottage beside a bog above the Salish Sea.
“Our bog’s ongoing transformations give me a way of dealing with whatever is immediate and unique,” he writes in Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory, “with the local as it exists here, now, and nowhere else, filled with its private mysteries. I look into the September bog, under the water—what’s down there in all that murkiness?”
Clearly tending a bog has affected Szanto as a writer. “I report what I discover or recover, I write down snippets of memory. Often I merely mull about what could be down there, back there, in my memory bog.” And so Szanto acknowledges that human recollections over the course of a lifetime gestate into a kind of bog, “obscure on the surface, at times clearer when waded into, at times murkier.”
Divided into twelve chapters—one for each month of the year—Bog Tender begins and ends with September and dragonflies mating by the water, while the writer, an avid fisherman, reels in the memories, chronology determined only by what ripples just below the surface, and how one thing leads to another.
Although he was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1940, George Szanto takes the reader to Vienna, where his parents lived until Hitler arrived, before he was born. His father had been born in Budapest. Two uncles disappeared into the Theresienstadt death camp.
Szanto spent his early childhood in Ireland and England, then his youth in New England small towns and Ivy League campuses, followed by postgraduate studies in Europe. The highlight remains his romance with Kit in Paris. Married for fifty years, the couple still likes to roam the streets of Paris.
Memory allots Szanto’s many accomplishments as a teacher, playwright and novelist in the United States and Mexico no more space, maybe less, than the honing of his fishing skills and the construction of his house.
In Bog Tender, Szanto lingers with loving detail over cherished family moments, significant introductions, chance encounters, and unexpected opportunities, such as organising antiwar protests in Somerville, Massachusetts, dealing with anti-Semitism beside a Laurentian lake, or developing protective covenants for the Commons on Gabriola Island.
“The bog beside the road has its own kinds of secrets,” he writes, “long invisible, unsmellable, unheard, till the season comes for it to release one or another of them—a deer trail here, some lily pads in the newly open water, a thousand frogs mating, ten thousand tiny crab-apples heavy on the boughs—whatever is ready to burst forth at its moment in the cycle.
“Our bog has given me the pattern, seasonal, monthly, an external imposed structure for this memoir.”
The sense of one reality hiding another reality keeps turning up in
Szanto’s work, in book titles such as The Underside of Stones, Inside the Statues of the Saints and Second Sight, as well as his recent whodunit series of mysteries co-authored with Sandy Frances Duncan. Nothing is ever what it seems in murder mysteries, so perception matters, including physical perception and the act of seeing.
“The notion ‘magical’ is not part of my active vocabulary,” he insists, and yet when he describes his first encounter with the area of Gabriola Island where he would build his home, he admits, “in this instance to have called that space magical wouldn’t have been inappropriate.”
When aging islanders board the ferry from a Gulf Island, they are most likely keeping a doctor’s appointment on the mainland, armed with the pink voucher which allows us to travel free.
For Szanto, the most frightening off-island trips have involved his eyes, the care and restoration of his sight. Yet the diagnosis of an unusual syndrome called birdshot retinochoroidopathy can suggest the author’s bird’s-eye view, and successful cataract surgery can stand for clear-sightedness. Even in the operating room he notices, observes, witnesses.
Only someone who has learned to perceive, notice, observe and witness could identify the process of loading and unloading the Gabriola-Nanaimo ferry as “choreography,” revealing the artfulness hidden within a humdrum slice of our everyday life.
“A sense of impatient dance seems to build, the passengers partnering the ferry workers.One crewman steps over the rope to tie the ship fast to the dock, a second crosses the breadth of the deck. He slides the orange netting into a bunch at the far end, then comes back, unhooks the rope and holds it, expectant.
“With the ship secure, the man carries the rope across, looping it as he goes. Only then do the passengers stream off, each still a member of the disembarkment ritual...The ritual takes place, unaltered, sixteen times a day on the Gabriola end, sixteen in Nanaimo.”
Bog Tender also recalls Szanto’s life in England, France, Germany, Mexico and the U.S.
Szanto has a Ph.D in comparative literature from Harvard and he worked as executive director of New Heritage Theater in San Diego (1970-1974).
He came to Canada in 1974, taught at McGill University and served as president of Playwrights Canada (1980-1981). He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1988.
For more than two decades he lived in Montreal before moving to British Columbia in the late 1990s. For more info: abcbookworld.com
Phyllis Reeve is co-founder of Page’s Resort & Marina Bookstore on Gabriola Island.