Real People

self portrait by Goya

I don’t imagine I’ll do it again anytime soon. It’s been a source of some embarrassment to me. Not so bad, really, but when you’re a fundamentally shy person, when it doesn’t take much to trigger old reserves of guilt, fruits of a Catholic upbringing, well…

Still, I was depicting a book club. Book clubs pay attention to the institution of literary celebrity. So I, perforce, paid attention as well.

For example, the subject matter of the book dictated that I contend with the popularity of Canada’s Michael Ondaatje, since his groundbreaking Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion famously took its title from one of the great passages of the Epic of Gilgamesh as translated by N.K. Sandars:

And when you have gone to the earth
I will let my hair grow long for your sake,
I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.

This fact would never escape the notice of the members of the Lacuna Cabal. Not in a million years. In fact, Runner Coghill actively tries to obfuscate the title of the book so she can hold the rest of them off from making the connection for as long as possible. She calls it He Who Saw the Deep and He who Saw Everything. She says the title is ‘a matter of opinion.’ She doesn’t want the awe of literary celebrity to colour her fellows’ first impressions of the epic.

But she also knows she can’t hold off the real title forever. When it finally comes out, the LC members get very, very excited.

And, as a result, I get a little embarrassed now when I run into the man in Toronto literary circles.

And then there’s Ann-Marie MacDonald, whose Fall On Your Knees was, for awhile, the quintessential book club book. It’s the one the LC has just finished when Runner introduces her ten cuneiform stones.

It was a fitting book, though I had a hidden agenda as well, since its author was, like me, trained as an actor at the National Theatre School of Canada, has written several plays and was, truth be told, the first person who encouraged me to make the leap to prose.

In both cases it was fun to lightly satirize criticisms the authors had received, especially Ondaatje, who didn’t get any grief for depicting an alleged World War II traitor in The English Patient until it had been transformed into a blockbuster film.

There are several other name-droppings from the Canadian literary world, as well as a few luminaries of British children’s fiction -- Romy Childerhose’s admiration for same being a poorly kept secret in the club -- like Richard Adams, Philip Pullman and, of course, Ms. Rowling.

And Margaret Atwood’s last name is used as the root of an adjective evoking, in general, weak, cowardly, conformist pumped-up males defined by their adams apples. It’s actually neither accurate nor fair, but it’s not my job to make Jennifer and Danielle either accurate or fair.

On another level, there are the generous, irreplaceable contributions of Professor Bruce Kuklick of University of Pennsylvania and Professor Jan Walls (retired) of Simon Fraser University. These learned men both wrote so beautifully in answer to my queries that I quoted them verbatim, altering only the party to which they were speaking.

And Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne makes a cameo appearance, stepping into the role of Shiduri the barmaid (inadvertently undercutting the wishes of Priya who wanted to play the part.)

But the most important cameo in the book is of course that of Salam Pax, the famous Baghdad Blogger.

(Potential spoilers follow.)

I was introduced to Where Is Raed, not by surfing the net, but rather in the object of a birthday present given to me by my friend Carl Wilson. So I read The Baghdad Blog, at first, as a book, not a blog.

I won’t get into my reasons for choosing Salam Pax to encounter Aline, Neil and Seyed Samir other than to say I wanted the appreciations of the LC’s membership to move gradually from the arcane to the concrete, from an imaginative world into the real world.

And so it followed that I wanted them to make the lateral move from the printed page to the active recording of personal experience that a blog -- especially a great blog like Where is Raed -- provides.

But I realized I could not bring myself to just up and do it. I felt I had to ask permission. I'm aware it's not the act of a fearless novelist. But I never said I was a fearless novelist. I'm more of a tremulous novelist.

I wrote him a letter and sent it in the body of an email.

From: Sean Dixon
To: salam pax
Subject: funny query

Dear Salam,

I have a question for you.

I'm currently writing a novel, the last part of which involves two young people stowing away on an old ferry ship, that starts out docked in the Old Port of Montreal and gets towed across the ocean to Portsmouth in England where it's meant to be transformed into a Cable Ship. They get caught part way.

One is a ten year old boy who has run away after the death of his whole family in Montreal. Well, actually it's just the death of his sister, but she's the last in a line of unexpected deaths, The other traveler is a 21 year old female student who's trying to take care of the boy.

When they arrive in England the boy is transferred to the Canadian High Commission in London. The girl, since she's an adult, is jailed and later bailed out by the fellow members of an Exclusive Montreal Young Women's Book Club who have been chasing them in a high-powered parental yacht. They all have their passports and arrive in England legally.

One of the yacht-riding club-members is a fan of Salam Pax -- that's you of course -- and learns while in England that Salam Pax is actually there as a guest of the Guardian.

I would like to use you as a character because a major theme of my story is the intersection between the lives of these character and the books they're reading. But one of them doesn't read books: He reads blogs.

Also, the novel takes place in 2003.

He finds out where you are and tries to meet you and in fact wants the ten-year-old boy to meet you too. The ten-year-old-boy has been acting out the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh as away of coping with the deaths in his family. The reason why he is acting out the Epic of Gilgamesh is that it was the book that was being read by the book club when his sister died. It was his sister's favourite book.

He becomes interested in Salam Pax when he discovers that you are also from the place where the Epic of Gilgamesh is from.

Salam Pax meets the boy and tells him about the war in Iraq. in theory at least.

But I wanted to write to you first and check to see if it would be okay to have you make a brief fictional appearance in the latter part of my book.

The only other real person who makes an appearance is the woman who at one time in her life had been the subject of the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne. She is apparently a real person. Friends of mine in Montreal have met her. An ex-teacher of mine taught her in an acting class once. In my novel she lives near the Old Port of Montreal and helps out some of my characters.

So you would not be alone.

I also refer to the works of several Canadian authors, whose books are being read by the Club. However, they do not make appearances.

That's all, I guess. I thought it would be fun to write to you. I love this project, and have been working on it as a novel for the better part of a year. It started out a few years ago as a play, but the number of cast members just kept growing, until I eventually made the leap. It's called 'The Girls who saw Everything'. I'm fast approaching my ocean journey section and thought I would write.

If you consent to appear as a fictional character, then I have three questions. They are somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

Would you, in theory, have consented to such a meeting, with a 10-year-old Canadian boy, while you were in England, or does this not strike you as a realistic scenario?

What would you have told him?

Have you ever read the Epic of Gilgamesh? If so, what do you think of it?

Hope to hear from you.

Sean Dixon

ps, if you google me, you'll find I'm not the British soccer player or the inmate of an Arizona Penitentiary. Nor am I the Sean Dixon who writes his name all in lowercase letters and is, I believe, also from Arizona. I'm the Canadian Playwright. I live in Toronto. I'm wondering whether your film will come here.

Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2005 01:58:13 -0800
From: salam pax
To: Sean Dixon
Subject: Re: funny query

hey me a character in a novel?..woohoo...will get back to you on the questions

I think I caught him on a high.

There was a period, after the optimism that seemed to be prevailing in Iraq at the time when I wrote to him, when things got really bad in Baghdad. I believe Salam's whole family had to get out. They left the country just around the time when I was publishing in Canada. I only know this because I saw somewhere that he was supposed to make an appearance in Toronto at around that time, but he canceled it because of these troubles.

And then eventually he popped up as a student in London. Now he’s blogging again. Twittering too, in fact. It's great to see.

But I do wonder if, over the months and years since that exchange, the man hasn’t had second thoughts about loaning his character to a fictional scenario by an author who happened to catch him in a good mood very early in 2005.

I counter these feelings of guilt with the thought that I can offer my book as a sort of advertisement for his book -- The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal as a bit of ephemera to serve as publicity for The Baghdad Blog.

In truth, my most paranoid fear is the thought that my project may have prevented Salam Pax from being depicted in a piece of fiction by one of his literary heroes, William Gibson. I heard at one point that Gibson, who is also a fan of Pax’s, was considering putting him into his novel Spook Country. I don’t know what prevented him in the end. Surely he wouldn’t have cared if a small time fellow Canadian had done the same thing. Surely not.

Surely not.

If that was the case, and I really don’t believe that was the case, but if that was the case, then I’m very, very sorry.

Postscript: The plot described in the letter to Pax is no longer entirely accurate. I chose to send my characters much farther afield than Portsmouth, England...

(although I had an interesting conversation with the Port of London Authority’s Martin Garside on the subject of how he would handle an underage stowaway on one of his ships. He gave me his phone number and was helpful and witty. The first thing he said to me was “Well this is one of the stranger requests I’ve received in awhile.” Without his intervention, my own stowaways would never have had the courage to leave Canada. In the play, they only get as far as the island of St-Pierre et Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.)

… and I also decided that I could not depict the character of Salam Pax in any corporeal way, but rather only in the way he'd been revealed to me. That is, not face to face but rather as an internet scribe.

Thus endeth the shriving.

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