Princely St. John Umbiligoda seems to be doing pretty well for himself. Forty years old and happily married, Princely (or Prin, as he is known) has four precocious daughters, a nice house in Toronto, a rewarding career teaching English at a small Catholic university, and a sincere, life-giving relationship to his faith. Aside from the fact that he isn’t an “actual” doctor, he appears to have fulfilled his immigrant parents’ aspirational dreams, and one of the few serious moral conundrums he has to struggle with is whether or not to break his Good Friday fast to eat a steak with his father. But while this could be the set-up for any number of banal novels about midlife crises, it is clear from the beginning of Randy Boyagoda’s Original Prin that something more interesting is afoot: “Eight months before he became a suicide bomber,” we are told in the novel’s first sentence, “Prin went to the zoo with his family.”
Much of the narrative tension over the following 200 pages arises from the anticipation of how a mild-mannered academic ends up becoming a terrorist. The plot takes a dizzying number of turns along the way: after going through a brush with prostate cancer, Prin returns to his job at UFU, the school where he serves as a leading expert on “representations of seahorses and other marine life in Canadian literature.” He learns that UFU (which previously stood for “University of the Family Universal” but now simply stands for itself) is facing a financial apocalypse driven by falling enrolment and an administration that seems unwilling to make cuts. Its president, the aging Father Pat, starts exploring a complicated deal that, if successful, would transform the institution into a satellite campus for international students from the fictional Middle Eastern country of Dragomans, which has a significant Catholic population.
The deal is being brokered by Prin’s former girlfriend, Wende—the only woman he was involved with before meeting his wife, and the source of residual, and complicated, feelings. In order to save his beloved UFU, Prin agrees to travel with Wende to Dragomans on an academic lecture tour meant to give the Dragomanis a chance to see the kind of high-quality academic experience on offer at UFU. Though he is reluctant to leave his family—and worried about the fact that Dragomans has only just emerged from a brutal civil war—he hears a divine call to make the journey. Prin has spent his life cocooned from the more brutal aspects of humanity, and his conscience has been pricked by the repressions religious minorities had experienced during the conflict.
In Dragomans, things quickly unravel: Prin learns that the university’s deal is significantly shadier than he had previously been led to believe, and after a moment of indiscretion with Wende is captured by camera, Prin is blackmailed by a real estate mogul who has a stake in the UFU venture into getting the project approved.
University corruption, infidelity, Catholic theology, Middle Eastern politics: not many writers could convincingly keep so many balls in the air, and that Boyagoda does so in a truly funny novel is impressive enough. But perhaps even more striking is the depth of sensitivity and understanding that Boyagoda brings to the emotive issues of faith, immigration, and violence. By examining the messy intersections between religious fundamentalism, global capitalism, and liberal values through the gentle comic form of the campus novel, Boyagoda does more than offer clever satire—he humanizes these vast impersonal forces even as he imbues them with a moral complexity that frustrates easy political judgments.
Randy boyagoda may not be a household name in the Canadian literary world, but he is arguably one of our country’s most active public intellectuals. His first novel, 2006’s Governor of the Northern Province, was longlisted for the Giller Prize, and his second, Beggar’s Feast, was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2013. He has written a biography of the Canadian American priest, author, and political activist Richard John Neuhaus and a monograph on the fiction of Salman Rushdie, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner. Boyagoda is also an English professor and administrator currently serving as the principal and vice-president of the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
Despite his academic bona fides, Boyagoda has exhibited a wicked fondness for satirizing the liberal pieties of the Canadian intelligentsia. In Governor of the Northern Province, for example, he lampooned the narrative of “good” versus “bad” immigrants through the character of Sam Bokarie, a charismatic African ex-warlord who goes to ground in Canada and takes advantage of multicultural tokenism to get involved in federal politics. Where novelists like Rawi Hage explore the deep hypocrisy that undergirds Canadian liberalism in the mode of deadly serious postmodernism, Boyagoda approaches these ideas with a deep sense of mischievousness. He is a master of the set piece, and his skewering of the petty vanities of the academic world in Original Prin stands alongside classic university novels such as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man.
Indeed, for the first two-thirds of his book, it feels as though Boyagoda has done little more than produce a note-perfect pastiche of a mid-twentieth-century British campus novel. The humour of this genre, which flourished in the postwar years when postsecondary education was rapidly expanding, is rooted in a disconnect between the lofty ideals of universities, and the greed, parochialism, and viciousness of the people who work within them. In Lucky Jim, Amis used the form to criticize the backward-looking nostalgia of a certain kind of 1950s Englishman who couldn’t get his head around the fact that the world had changed; two decades later, Bradbury employed it to satirize the hypocritical radicalism of sociologists who cloaked their self-serving bohemianism in the rhetoric of revolution. Writing in very different circumstances almost half a century later, Boyagoda makes comic hay out of the capitalist obsessions and anxious multiculturalism of today’s neoliberal university (“Prin is one of our Catholic faculty members,” Fr. Pat says when introducing him on a conference call with representatives from Dragomans. “But like UFU itself, he is extremely inclusive and diverse”).
Heartening as it may be to read a Canadian novel that does not treat plodding seriousness as an inherent virtue, is Boyagoda offering anything that couldn’t be found in the novels that seem to have so clearly influenced him? The answer is both yes and no. Universities have changed drastically since the mid-twentieth century, and Boyagoda is particularly attentive to the way that traditional justification for most scholarly activity in the humanities—that the study of ideas has inherent worth—has been eroded in a culture of instrumentality and marketization. Where Amis’s antagonists are pompous cultural elites, Boyagoda’s are earnest business philistines for whom culture is just another marketing buzzword.
Some of the novel’s funniest scenes revolve around the uses to which Fr. Pat puts Prin’s literary knowledge in his attempts to make UFU appealing to investors. When Prin is asked to give an inspirational talk on personal transformation inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis to a group of Dragomani civil servants, he struggles to connect that topic with his own expertise (seahorses in Canadian literature). The result is an academic’s nightmare:
Two hours later, he was still talking. Every single person in the hall…was asleep. Prin was nearly asleep himself. But he kept going, this time into a summary-review of his earlier point about Martin Buber’s I-Thou interpersonal ethic obtaining in asymmetrical terms when it came to understanding Gregor’s relationship to his family, pre- and post-metamorphosis, and likewise for Ondaatje’s English Patient’s relationship to his penis when it’s both a sleeping and awakened seahorse.
In some cases, however, Boyagoda seems to have studied Amis and Bradbury a little too closely. In Lucky Jim and The History Man, women are seldom more than projections of male ego, libido, and anxiety, and what interiority they are given simply serves to provide grist for the preoccupations of the men around them. And, for all of Boyagoda’s gleeful skewering of liberal Canadian taboos, Original Prin is marred by a failure to provide convincing motivations for its female characters. Wende plays an essential role in driving the plot forward, but her personal objectives remain obscure. Is she simply trying to manipulate Prin so she can close a deal or does she have real feelings for him? This lack of character development is not merely a failure of political correctness: by falling back on clichés about male impotence and the single woman as tempter, Boyagoda is guilty of the potentially more grievous sin of narrative laziness.
For understandable reasons, comedy is probably not something that most Canadians would associate with the Catholic Church. From the anti-Semitic crypto-fascism of Lionel Groulx to the horrors of the residential-school system (for which Pope Francis still refuses to offer an official apology), the Church has much to answer for in this part of the world and appears to have little appetite for doing so. But Catholicism has a complicated legacy. Its theology has, since the time of St. Augustine, also argued for a beautiful and profoundly optimistic understanding of social equality, human dignity, and love and has inspired everything from radical worker collectives to government-resistance movements.
It is a theology that is comic in both the medieval and modern senses: for Catholics, not only does the story of the universe have a happy ending, but this happy ending also hinges on a series of grand, carnivalesque reversals in which the powerful are brought low and those who exist on the margins of society inherit the kingdom of God. Indeed, Catholicism maintains that to get to the happy ending, things must first go poorly. This is why one of the greatest works of Catholic literature is called The Divine Comedy: just as Dante has to pass through Hell and Purgatory before reaching Paradise, Catholics must confront the darkness in the world and in themselves before they can achieve the perfection that awaits them in the eschaton.
As the story of how a comfortable Catholic living a seemingly virtuous life in an affluent country is forced to contend with how fragile his goodness really is, Original Prin follows this same arc. In its final pages, Prin prepares to return home with his integrity (and, possibly, his marriage) in shreds, but it isn’t until he finds himself in the midst of a terrorist attack on the Dragomani airport that he realizes how willing he is to sell out his highest ideals. It is then that the novel’s title—a rather obvious pun on a certain infamous Catholic doctrine—takes on a more complicated meaning. Hiding in an airport storage closet and trying to convince a freshly radicalized young American terrorist eerily similar to himself that he, too, has come to the Middle East to wage jihad, Prin is confronted with a frightening question: Is his righteousness a matter of choice or circumstance? If the conscientiousness that is so central to his identity easily collapses when threatened, is the difference between Prin and the terrorist before him simply a matter of chance?
Boyagoda’s novel ends on a bleak note. But bleak notes are an essential part of the Catholic tradition. Original Prin is the first book in a projected trilogy, and it is likely we have not seen the last of Princely St. John Umbiligoda. Indeed, if Boyagoda continues on his Dantean arc, Prin still has much to learn before redemption is possible.