I’m an immigrant, and Canada, one can argue, is made up of people like me. Copernicus Avenue, Borkowski’s debut collection of short stories, is about immigrants. Set primarily on a street akin to Toronto’s Roncesvalles Avenue, the stories are an intense and colourful telling of the post-war, Polish-Canadian experience. The 16 stories are rich and diverse in character, narrative and thought. “The Trees of Kleinsaltz” returns to wartime Poland and gives an honest and poignant impression of a family’s history during those years of occupation and mass murder. In “Allemande Left,” a young couple of different backgrounds find love in a dance hall by Lake Ontario’s edge. Further on, “An Offering” lays out a rather typical experience of the new immigrant, until Babayaga enters, an older lady who sets off the neighbourhood children screaming in fear of her supposed witchcraft. This may have something to do with her habit of cooking dogs for the community’s tramps.
Ultimately, all these stories attempt to answer the question citizens have asked for decades: What does it mean to be Canadian? And readers of Copernicus Avenue get the answer: it’s complicated. At a few points, these central themes become too obvious and overstated, taking away from the overall poetic beauty of the author’s words and language. Borkowski is at his best in stories like “Twelve Versions of Lech”: “Lech steered me down the length of Copernicus Avenue, bobbing among shoppers moored to the boxes of fruit and cheap underwear in front of the shops. We reached the bottom of the street where it widens into a multi-veined delta of streetcar tracks… The Sunnyside Bridge vaulted toward the blue skies over Lake Ontario, then set us down outside Palais Royale. Around the back of the old dance hall, on the sand at the water’s edge, Lech stretched out his arms and offered himself to the place where the blue of the water met the blue of the air.” The detail with which Toronto’s streets are described is near immaculate and the meaning behind the detail even more so. Though Copernicus Avenue initially seems a random collection of stories set in the same neighbourhood, in the end each story tells the same tale. (Olga Kidisevic)
Andrew J. Borkowski, 206 pgs, Cormorant Books, cormorantbooks.com, $21