How Fiction Fuses the Incompatible Realities of Religion and Comedy
Randy Boyagoda on Religious-Political Satire
My new novel, Original Prin, begins: “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.”
Starting a novel that way generated provocation and curiosity for me, as a storyteller: I knew how the book ended, but how was I going to get there?
Prin is a Sri Lankan Catholic academic living with his wife and children in downtown Toronto. When he learns that the college where he teaches is going to shut down unless it opens a satellite campus in the Middle East, he volunteers to go overseas and help with the work, against his wife’s wishes—and in the company of his flirtatious ex-girlfriend from graduate school. He carries the highly self-curated confidence that God wants him to do something big and important with his faith, and that this is it. As the novel’s opening line suggests, things don’t exactly work out as Prin hopes or expects.
Likewise, with a new novel featuring a Sri Lankan Catholic suicide bomber coming out mere weeks after suicide bombers killed hundreds in Sri Lankan churches, my own highly confident start to a satirical novel about God and family and politics suddenly isn’t exactly working out as I had hoped or expected.
I made sense of the horrific situation in Sri Lanka intellectually, and publicly, through an op-ed I wrote about the attacks for The New York Times the day they happened. Since then, I have received notes from people all over the world expressing gratitude for my effort at clarifying the various histories figuring in Sri Lanka’s latest tragic turn. I have been wondering what these same people would think of my literary effort to make sense of the relationship between religion and violence, never mind that that effort is intentionally funny.
Actually, I haven’t been wondering so much as worrying. Going all the way back to the “Retraction” at the end of The Canterbury Tales, writers have worried about the public lives of their books and how they will be received. This is very much why I went against every writer-with-a-new-book instinct in me when I decided not to name-check Original Prin in my op-ed byline for The Times; the last thing I wanted was for readers to find my work through that particular connection, and the essay had its own integrity and purpose that needn’t have been complicated or compromised.
I believe the same is true for the novel in its relation to outside events. We read, just as we write, multiple things for multiple purposes and with the expectation of multiple responses, often about the same people and places. In fact, this is when and where our imaginations are really working: when they are seeking, or unexpectedly finding and making sense of, what Salman Rushdie describes in Satanic Verses as the coming together of “incompatible realities” like comedy and religion, or comedy and terrorism, or comedy and religion and terrorism.
All of that was in my mind when I recently attended a memorial Mass for the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings, at a Sri Lankan-majority Catholic church in the east end of Toronto, the very same kind of setting that also figures in the opening pages of my novel. The occasion was solemn and moving—a choir sang Tamil-language hymns about mercy and loss and redemption, and the Cardinal Archbishop of the city gave a moving homily about the problem of evil in the world and the greater problem of evil in each of our own hearts.This is when and where our imaginations are really working: when they seek, or unexpectedly find and make sense of, what Salman Rushdie describes in Satanic Verses as the coming together of “incompatible realities.”
I felt all of that, but also, this: throughout the Mass, people jockeyed for space on packed pews and engaged in pitched, pantomimed battle with would be seat-takers and also with late-arriving relatives who refused to take the empty seats they’d been keeping against all comers; twenty-something bros hung out at the back, fist-bumping during the consecration and getting stink-eye from their mothers; cameramen for local news stations went up and down the side-aisles, working hard to be dignified and solemn while leaning, bending, and doing whatever else they needed to do to get the best angles for dignified, solemn shots; a kind older woman gave my youngest daughter a chocolate that my youngest daughter knew she shouldn’t eat in the middle of Mass, and so it melted in her hand—it melted all over her hand, and then all over her dress—while she sat and knelt, sang and prayed.
There I was, also singing and praying, but also noticing all of this other very human activity and searching in and through it for unexpected connections to others in the fullness of drama that comes of the playing out of the virtues and vices of our daily existence. Making God a presence in my novel was the best way to convey this sense of searching, and of the most dramatic and unexpected source of it: the presence of the Divine, at work in this playing out.
In writing the book through a succession of drafts, God’s presence manifested in several ways, none of which felt right. Up until the final moment of editing, I was arguing with my editor for the inclusion—the actual inclusion, on the page—of God’s voice, of words from God, instructing Prin to go (to the Middle East). To convey as much, I had decided to have that voice be manifest in Biblical Hebrew. It was a way to convey and conceal majesty and mystery, at the same time. He argued, persuasively, that it was confusing at best and gimmicky at worst, and both ways took away from that sense of majesty and mystery I wanted to convey.
Instead, he encouraged me, more or less, to show God at work in Prin’s life, not talk about it. Doing so meant rendering an interiority that thinks it is fully in control of itself and of the terms of engagement with the exterior world, God and humanity alike, until suddenly it isn’t. Prin hears God speaking to him, and in turn struggles to figure out what he should do now, with that knowledge, and also because of it. That means trying to tell his wife, his priest, and assorted others, including, at the novel’s climax, a radicalized young Muslim, about his hearing God, hearing from God, and then trying to do something about it. Each successive effort takes away from the clarity of the experience itself and increases other confusions.
That effort to express, communicate, connect, and act, in messy religious and interpersonal terms, together, is a source of real and lasting comedy of our fallen human lives. I was thinking about all of this during the memorial Mass for the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka while also praying intensely for the victims and their families. I confess to more than just thinking and praying: I was also now and then smiling, and even, very quietly, I was laughing in church. I hope readers find the same kind of durable comedy in my new novel, even in the first line.
Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin is out now from Biblioasis.