Sunday, January 12, 2020

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himalaya

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himālaya came out last year from Linda Leith Éditions. It's the story of Ben Doheny, living on the streets in the late 90s near the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

The novel starts with scenes where Ben, sleeping on campus, is violently harassed by campus police, then later at the Scott Mission, where he is further harassed by his fellow homeless. (The Scott Mission is an actual shelter near to the main University of Toronto campus.) These scenes are painful and, alas, utterly convincing: the author bio tells us that Phillip Ernest lived on the streets of Toronto himself for thirteen years from the age of fifteen.

But it's not (just) a grim and realistic novel of homelessness. Ben is sustained by his love of the Sanskrit language, which gives both him and the novel a view into a larger world. Part of the reason he's drawn to the campus area is the library and the books. He claims to be a graduate student of Sanskrit when he's not, though later he manages to gain some cover from an emeritus professor in the department. He also becomes romantically entangled with Aditi, who is legitimately earning an advanced degree in Sanskrit. Her adviser, Professor Boylan, is the only active member of the department, and he's an utter monster, an abusive drunk, but he does provide the elements of the plot.

Boylan demands Aditi translate the works of classical Sanskrit which Boylan will then publish under his own name; he's so lost to alcohol and drugs he can't manage sustained work any more. Only under these circumstances will he ever--and even then there's uncertainty--approve her thesis. Ben, with his fellow street-dweller Moksha Das, does the translations for Boylan, thus leaving Aditi the time to work on her own thesis. Aditi also has a dark secret in her past that Boylan knows of, and he can, should he wish to, ruin her academic career at any time.

Will Aditi be allowed to finish her thesis and then move on to a career? Will Ben, homeless and still troubled, be able to keep the love of Aditi? The plot moves along with considerable tension to its final resolution.

It was a fascinating novel, set where I live with landmarks I see every day, and full of a cross-section of life I know nothing about. (And, yes, that also means Sanskrit scholars.) I do feel the ending relied overmuch on a deus ex machina character not previously introduced. And, while I have to imagine being homeless implies bodily functions loom much larger than they might otherwise, a little of that goes a long way for me, and there was more than a little here. Still, a very good read.

The Far Himālaya is Ernest's second novel; his first The Vetala (an Indian vampire novel!) appeared earlier, also from Linda Leith Éditions. I'll definitely read others from both the press and the author.


  1. i admit to being out of touch with modern culture, but this does all sound a bit unlikely; but maybe it's different in Toronto?... and i rarely read modern lit, but in spite of what i said it seems interesting if it's readable...

    1. I don't get the impression the book is simply autobiographical, but according to the bio Phillip Ernest lived on the streets for fifteen years, then got a B.A. at Toronto & a Ph.D. (in Sanskrit) at Cambridge.

      I prefer novel to memoir--I like the fact that the author abstracts events from his/her life to make a plot that has structure--but it really does seem like Phillip Ernest has lived an Oprah-ready life that could have as easily been dealt with as a memoir.

      Like you I don't read a lot of modern literature--but once in a while I feel the urge to break that habit...

  2. This sounds interesting. I don't think I've ever read a novel set in Toronto. However, I've just discovered the T.V. series Flashpoint and I love it. I will confess that I'm bingeing!

    1. When I lived in Chicago I read a bunch of Chicago novels, and when I first moved to Toronto I read Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride just to get a sense. But it was set in other parts of the city--and I didn't know Toronto very well then. This one (and Matt Cohen's Bookseller that I read a while ago) are set exactly where I live and that's a bit strange.

      I haven't seen Flashpoint at all. I'll have to check it out!

  3. Sounds a tad melodramatic. How did you come across this author? Via the reprint or are you intentionally trying to read locally?

    But an Indian vampire novel? I'm intrigued. Please read that and report back! Or maybe I should see if I can get my hands on a copy! Though Canada is physically so close to the U.S. it is stupidly (I am sure there are reasons) often hard to get books published only in Canada.

    1. I'm in the middle of reading a bunch of small Canadian press novels, though in this case the author found my blog and alerted me to its existence.

      It's gritty, especially at the start, but the only really melodramatic part is the academic plot, and that's mostly earned, I'd say.

      Horror's generally not my thing, but I did like this well enough to try The Vetala, so I put in a hold for it at the library. Look for it in a couple of weeks, I'd guess!