Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
At times, one picks up a book and reads just a few pages before thinking that its author is definitely an under-appreciated writer. Such is the case for Rana Bose, a Montreal novelist, playwright and literary entrepreneur, whose career has spanned several decades but whose work has never reached the large audience it deserves. Why do I say this? After reviewing Bose’s last novel, Fog, in 2019, I wrote “Rana Bose is the author of two other novels and eleven plays and the founding editor of the online cultural review Montreal Serai. These are significant accomplishments, but for my money, Fog is his crowning achievement.” While I was wrong. His latest novel Shaf and the Remington certainly tops Fog in style, voice and an intriguing, allegorical narrative. In it, he steps completely outside of his Montreal milieu to imagine himself in the persons of an unnamed Balkan country resisting Hitler’s invasion in WWII while watching the harmony of their various religious communities crack as age-old hatreds re-emerge. If Fog and Shaf and the Remington were Bose’s only literary achievements, he would certainly already merit a place in Canada’s pantheon of outstanding writers.
The novel is told in two voices: first, Ben a young student who requires tutoring in physics and, second, Shaf his tutor and his sister Nika’s lover. Set in the fictitious town of Sabzic in what is clearly Yugoslavia but never identified as such, Bose relates the personal stories of Ben and Shaf against the backdrop of invading panzer divisions and local partisans. But this is in no way historical fiction. Rather, it is an allegory to the forces of human nature, which pit the petty desire to divide against the will to unite. The villain in the story is Marcus, Ben’s grandfather and the town’s prosecutor. A forceful man, whose ultranationalist politics threaten Sabzic’s decades of peaceful co-existence among its Christian, Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, the grandfather also attempts to exert his tyranny over his own family. His son, Stepan, referred to in the novel mostly as Ben’s Bo (father), resists but only passively so. By constantly travelling abroad for medical studies, he evades his father, but at the same time leaves behind his wife and children, Ben and Nika. Living in the back of the large family’s large manoir, they are subject to Marcus’ constant surveillance. While Marcus, champion of law, order and racial purity, entrenches his Christianity in his nationalist political rhetoric, Ben’s family is the epitome of secularism. The young Ben does not even know what faith he ostensibly belongs to, or the religion of his tutor, Shaf. Bose’s message is clear: “otherness” is intentional—if you don’t speak of it, see it, practice it, it simply disappears. That is until others force it upon you out of their pettiness and intolerance.
Ben is inquisitive and loves to challenge Shaf with questions about physics, inciting his increasingly eccentric tutor to come up with convoluted explanations that only stoke Ben’s curiosity further. A bond develops between the 12-year-old boy and Shaf, ten years older. And this is matched by a budding love between his sister Nika and Shaf. Their parents, who at times worry about Shaf’s eccentricity, nonetheless embrace him into their family. But the grandfather, who surveils the situation from his porch, grows increasingly suspicious about the young man he considers a misfit and from the wrong side of the religious barrier. The Germans invade, and Sabzic and the rest of the country divide between collaborators like Ben’s grandfather who embrace the totalitarian and racial supremacist beliefs of the Hitler regime, and the majority of the population who engage across communal lines in partisan warfare against the invaders. Ben’s father Bo becomes a resistance leader and Shaf eventually joins him. Their absence from Sabzic leaves the field to the grandfather and his youthful fascist followers to wreak havoc in the town, bringing tragedy to both Ben’s and Shaf’s families.
While the plot alone is a compelling reason to read the novel, Bose’s allegorical style deepens the reader’s understanding of what has happened and continues to happen to countries attempting to achieve internal harmony despite communal differences. Often formulated in Shaf’s explanation of physics, the novel examines the fundamentals of attraction and repulsion in the human condition, of love and hate, and pride, obsession and downfall. And super-imposed on this understanding of human nature, Bose exposes us to the mesh of militarism, capitalism and sectarianism that can pull us down to barbarism if we do not raise ourselves above the howling of the crowd.
Shaf and the Remington is a meaningful, purposeful and engaging novel deserving of a very broad readership. It is published by Baraka Books.