While reading a thriller, I anticipate — and usually get — a twisty, testosterone-ridden plot. If I’m lucky, there’s a strong female character; really lucky, a good sex scene. What I don’t expect: a theory of socio-political hegemony centered around the idea of dissent. But Rana Bose’s The Fourth Canvas is a novel of ideas as much as a thriller, with enough red herrings to make Agatha Christie proud, and enough progressive ideas to satisfy the most ardent activist.
Claude Chiragi, a doctoral student at McGill, has just received a birthday present from his girlfriend Clara. To his relief, the large flat package isn’t an Ikea piece in malevolent wait for assembly. Rather, Clara has come up with the goods — a painting by the political philosopher Guillermo Sanchez, who also happens to be the subject of Claude’s research. Sanchez, who died in 1974, was the author of a few articles, and a book on Mexican history — slim pickings for a thesis. The hitherto unknown painting will provide Claude material for his floundering PhD.
The canvas depicts a city landscape full of characters seemingly in fear of an impending calamity. Only one woman seems exempt from the malaise; her face is calm, even eager. Hidden in the painting are the words “Two periods of rise, followed by two periods of decline.”
Apparently, a theory of empire has been painted into the canvas, which seems but one in a series. And if further incentive to explore the canvas’s provenance was needed — the calm-faced woman in the painting seems to be moving. And so Claude and Clara set off on a quest to unearth all of Sanchez’s canvases. First stop: Cuba, where they’ll meet a friend of Sanchez.
In the manner of all good thrillers, the adventure is also a voyage of self-discovery. This being The Fourth Canvas rather than The Fourth Protocol, Claude and Clara don’t realize an unexpected affinity for grenade launchers or a talent for blending into foreign locales. While Claude plunges deep into Sanchez’s intellectual argument, Clara rediscovers her Argentinean roots — her father and brother disappeared during the country’s Dirty War, and Clara had hitherto suppressed these memories in favor of a cool citizen-of-the-world Montrealer persona. As Sanchez’s theory of the role of dissent in the collapse of empires becomes clearer, Claude and Clara are unable to lead their former passive lives. The canvases have changed not just their worldview, but their notions of their own roles in the fight for social justice.
The Fourth Canvas also features several secondary narratives, including that of one Diana McLaren, a professor of political philosophy in Montreal who is Claude’s father’s partner, and another featuring Sanchez’s sister Lydia. Bose gathers these seemingly random threads together by way of an abduction, a misty mountain hop through the Andes, and a case of mistaken identity, through to a satisfyingly dramatic (and devious) denouement.
Rana Bose is an engineer, a magazine editor and playwright, and The Fourth Canvas showcases each one of his métiers. In his acknowledgement, Bose states that his theatre background leads him to “launch torrents of ideas on the stage,” and indeed, The Fourth Canvas at times is all but submerged under expositions on every possible idea or event, from the film Ghost Dog to The Beastie Boys to cricket. Many of these riffs are at best tangentially related to the plot, and often take place on the flimsiest of pretexts; the only reason I forgive the author such self-indulgence is because everything he has to say is so damn interesting. Consider Bose’s description of the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris:
“If a cemetery could, however, be accused of name-dropping in a display of turf arrogance, this would be the place…Chopin has a muse weeping, Oscar Wilde has a winged messenger calling him away…[There] lie the graves of Laura Marx, Karl’s daughter, and Paul Lefargue, who committed suicide together in 1911.”
If this doesn’t send you haring off to Wikipedia, nothing will.
But Bose the novelist is perhaps closest to Bose the editor of the alternative webzine Montreal Serai, a publication whose stated aim is to give a voice to people at the margins. As a character in The Fourth Canvas says “Legitimacy is hogged by the mainstream. [But] the people on the periphery are just as legitimate.” Bose’s novel not only reinforces the importance of dissent, but presents a vision for a new wave of popular resistance that co-opts people from the peripheries of every country on the planet. That he’s chosen to convey his ideas in such an accessible literary genre is altogether fitting. Even thrilling.
(This review appears in the current issue of rabble.ca.)