By Ian Colford
Evidence, Halifax author Ian Colford’s surprisingly assured first book, begins with a narrator telling us that he was teaching “at a small college in a remote part of the province,” and ends with a note from Colford informing us that there has been no attempt at geographical accuracy. In fact just the opposite. Evidence is deliberately imprecise. What college? What part of what province? And province of what? Are we even in Canada?
This uncertainty even infects one’s attempt to categorize what kind of a book Evidence is. Is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but since they all share the same narrator it might also be considered a loosely-structured novel. A collection or a novel, then, where the chapters/stories are unnumbered and untitled, not to mention arranged in non-chronological order. Indeed it is unclear whether such an order could be accurately re-established.
The narrator is Kostandin Bitri, described by one casual acquaintance as a “man of mystery.” Part of that mystery is where he comes from. Colford clearly has a lot of fun teasing us with the answer to that one, but in the end it turns out to be unimportant. It seems all eastern Europe went in to making Kostandin, and (as he puts it) everywhere he goes he is a foreigner. Not to mention a war orphan. Globalized man is rootless and thoroughly atomized.
What is relevant about his background is its poverty, violence, and suspicion. Kostandin is congenitally sneaky and paranoid, qualities that generally serve him in good stead as he makes his way in the world, going from waiting on tables in Greece to becoming a respected academic in the New World. The people he meets are often out to use him for vague if not always sinister purposes so it sometimes pays to follow them about, eavesdrop on their conversations, break into their rooms, rifle through their belongings. It’s a dangerous world, and nothing can be taken for granted.
The polyglot Kostandin comes to English as a sixth or seventh language, which may explain some of the book’s curious formality. But the writing is also emotionally understated so as not to come across as stilted, and the impersonal effect is less generic than other-worldly. Colloquial rhythms and figures of speech are avoided. Kostandin’s earnestly revealing yet objective way with words gives the impression of an exile not even at home in his own skin, as when he awakes after a near-fatal car accident to feel pain filling his body “like liquid filling a vessel” – an observation typical in its frankness and detachment.
The result is a book less concerned with story than mood. Kostandin’s suspicious nature is the product of a lifetime filled with experiences of loneliness, otherness, and vulnerability – feelings he recognizes in himself and develops a sensitivity to in others. This in itself makes Evidence something of an exotic work of Canadian fiction, presenting history and geography in expressionistic, psychological terms, and without much recognition of community at all. Like Kostandin, it stands a bit apart.
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 13, 2008.