Jean Marc Ah-Sen, award-winning author of Grand Menteur — a novel about Mauritian street gangs—, has returned with something new: a collection of short pieces titled In the Beggarly Style of Imitation. Now a novelist and short story writer, Ah-Sen has proved what a multi-faced creator he is. He is currently working on another novel “just to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke,” he says (Ah-Sen, “The Jean Marc Ah-Sen Interview”). In the Beggarly Style opens with a dense introduction describing writing processes, featuring the words “translassitude,” “omnilassitude,” “paralassitude,” and more (12). The language of the introduction initially made the text seem daunting to me, but the following stories are intelligent, refreshing with rich characterization, and thought-provoking worldviews. Although I needed a dictionary with me at times, the extra effort on my part to understand it made it all the more worthwhile.
The collection is filled with longer short stories like the introductory “Underside of Love,” and shorter pieces like “Sentiments and Directions from an Unappreciated Contrarian Writer’s Widow,” which read similar to Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack:” Where Ben Franklin wrote in the eighteenth century, “Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge,” our unappreciated contrarian writer’s widow writes, “a life in harmony is a wasted one” (47). Ah-Sen, or our contrarian writer’s widow, is also ironic and self-aware: “be wary of anyone bearing gifts, be irreconcilable to anyone bearing advice” they write (49). Between each piece is a photograph that relates to the story that succeeds it, usually an image of the main character. Photos that accompany writing always take it a step further, for me; the fictional pieces have a greater sense of reality to them when attached to a picture. Along the lines of irony and awareness of self, included in the work is also a thought-provoking essay in defence of misanthropy. Filled to the brim with vocabulary, it offers a personal and worthwhile defence that is “neither vindicatory nor in the nature of clarification,” but explains how a mentality such as misanthropy has allowed the writer to live against other terrible sentiments in the world like pettiness and “cupidity” (Ah-Sen, 60). With a story, advice column, and essay behind us, we come to a song— a “chantey”— in both french and english. Further in the text readers find another poem and song—also presented in translation—, and selected correspondence between characters Tabitha Gotlieb-Ryder of Toronto and Serge Mayacou of Hamilton, which quickly descends into something dramatic, hilariously erotic, infuriating, and heartbreaking.
What stood out to me most while reading In the Beggarly Style of Imitation, though, were the characters. Each person was complete and intriguing in themselves— and had such interesting names! Roddy Borgloon in “The Underside of Love” seems unreal, and yet I have met people just like him. Reading the character of Borgloon, I was reminded of Ravelstein from Saul Bellow’s novel of the same name: insufferable, yet we see his suffering and are sympathetic. I found myself liking Tabitha Gotlieb-Ryder, admiring her power over men, even while the correspondence reveals that she degrades Serge so far as to destroy his life and career, and inadvertently then cause Serge’s wife to try to kill herself. I found myself liking, nearly rooting for, characters who do despicable things.
If this collection does anything it makes you think. Not simply in the way looking up words in a dictionary makes you think, but it prompts its readers to look at those in our lives who are loud and obnoxious, probably pretentious, terrible in all sorts of ways, and find sympathy or kindness. It asks its readers to see the good side of misanthropy and to appreciate cynicism, which was surprisingly refreshing to read. Ah-Sen successfully makes the despicable likeable. After reading a whole lot of cynicism in Ah-Sen’s text, I feel happy. I laughed.
In the Beggarly Style of Imitation by Jean Marc Ah-Sen
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