Stalin’s shadow in B.C.
A million deaths is not merely a number; it’s a million individual human tragedies.
July 24th, 2014
For anyone puzzled about the current headlines involving Russia and Ukraine, Grant Buday’s darkly comic novel The Delusionist is a potent reminder why few people can never escape from history, even at the western edge of European migration.
Never one to shy away from the truth in his fiction, Grant Buday recalls Stalin’s systematic starving of two million people in the Ukraine in the 1930s—known as the Holodomor—in his novel, The Delusionist, set in Vancouver in 1962. As the only Canadian-born son of immigrant parents, Cyril Andrachukstruggles with menial labour jobs during the day but draws incessantly and longs to attend art school. His mother can’t imagine why Cyril wants to draw his late-father’s tools—saws, drills, hammers, wrenches—and questions his sanity when he begins a series of large, commemorative “Stalin stamps” amid growing family distress.
by John Moore
Growing up in Vancouver in the 1950s, I never found it odd that a city with such a brief history itself should be so haunted by the tragic ghosts of world history. Most of the people you met seemed to come from somewhere far away and have families whose lives had been terribly blighted by fascism or Stalinism.
In the opening chapters of Grant Buday’s new novel, The Delusionist (Anvil $20) the Andrachuk family, survivors of Stalin’s genocide in the Ukraine, “avoided the prairies where so many Eastern European congregated and come all the way out to Vancouver to escape being caught up in an enclave that might have kept those wounds open.”
Buday captures the ambiance of 1962 Vancouver like an archaeologist opening a time capsule; the old Aristocratic Café, trying to sneak into Restricted movies on Granville Street’s glittering Theatre Row, ambivalent adolescent friendship and awkward adolescent love, but it’s the portrait of the immigrant family living in the small house symbolically located across the street from a large cemetery that makes this story ring so true. Cyril, the youngest Canadian-born son, may have no memory of the holocaust in the Ukraine, but he lives in its shadow, surrounded by whispered fears of the “dreaded Koba”, always reminded by the brittle bones and stunted stature his older brother suffered due to starvation as a child.
After his father’s early death in 1955, Cyril maintains a kind of emotional link by executing ever more polished pencil sketches of his father’s old tools. When his first love, Connie Chow, deserts him to pursue her dreams of stardom in Hollywood, Cyril stays behind, working at odd jobs and odd romances, doggedly pushing his pencil on the fringes of Vancouver’s parochial art scene in the 60s.
Even when the winds of social change begin blowing through Vancouver, he doesn’t become deluded by the idea of himself as some kind of great artistic talent. In one of Cyril’s girlfriends, who mistakenly thinks she’s a brilliant jazz singer, Buday paints a somewhat snide portrait of the kind of coffee-house self-proclaimed genius that infested all the arts in Vancouver in those years.
The title of the novel is a little odd, since Cyril has few illusions, never mind delusions. As an artist, he never pretends to be more than just “a guy who draws”. An attempt to visit Connie in Los Angeles goes sadly wrong, as do most of their attempts at reunion in one way or another, yet Cyril never stops loving her.
If Cyril has a delusion, it’s his stubborn patience, the sheer doggedness with which he pursues both his art and his first love over most of a lifetime. Even when his brother tries to screw him out of an inheritance by having him declared ‘delusional’ with the connivance of Cyril’s old high school best friend, Cyril refuses to be ground down or get bitter and twisted. He just keeps on drawing, keeps on loving Connie until he starts to sell a few pieces. The reader has to wait and see whether Connie will ever deign to return or not.
When, in a moment of despair over her own patchy career, Connie says, “it’s just that you wonder what you’ve achieved,” Cyril immediately replies, “I’ll tell you what you’ve achieved; you haven’t spent thirty years wishing you’d done something else.” For any artist, that’s probably as good an epitaph as it gets.
Joseph Stalin, whose ghost haunts the shadows of this story like the smell from a bad drain, once infamously observed, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Good novels that bring to life characters which are not necessarily rich, famous or powerful, are what cut the ground from under Stalin’s cynicism.
Writers like Grant Buday remind us that a million deaths is not merely a number; it’s a million individual human tragedies. 978-1-927380-93-2
[John Moore reviews fiction for BC BookWorld and lives in Garibaldi Highlands.]
BOOKS BY GRANT BUDAY
The Venetian (Oolichan, 1987)
Monday Night Man (Anvil Press, 1995)
White Lung (Anvil Press, 1999)
Golden Goa (ECW Press, 2000)
A Sack of Teeth (Raincoast, 2002)
Rootbound (ECW 2006)
Dragonflies (Biblioasis 2008)
Stranger on a Strange Island (New Star Books 2011)
The Delusionist (Anvil 2014)