Grand Menteur, Jean Marc Ah-Sen, 191 pgs, BookThug, bookthug.ca, $20.00
Narrated from the perspective of a Mauritian immigrant to Toronto, this nearly-crime novel bounces across time, space, and its author’s comically expansive vocabulary. Grand Menteur— literally translating to Big Liar—depicts the child- to early adult-hood of a Toronto immigrant living under the commanding reputation of her infamous syndicate-connected father. Motherless, this protagonist is forced to make her own seedy connections in the flamboyant Sous gang, before being abandoned at an early age in a ‘godforsaken’ Canada.
Ah-Sen’s debut novel is an impressive undertaking—an attempt both to depict the Mauratian-Canadian’s struggle in 1960s-80s Toronto, while simultaneously establishing a grand and shadowy sense of behind-the-curtain criminal underground. The novel is often legitimately funny, sheerly for ‘laying it on so thick’, as might be exampled in the Grand Menteur’s criminal baseball card: “Name: Serge Mayacou . . . Sous Classification: Grand Menteur . . . Slugging Percentage: .7090 . . . Acta Sanctorum: Lied his way into existence. Revived dead bird by blowing on it.”
The narrator’s penchant for bold-faced depictions of the ultra-flamboyant often works to the novel’s disadvantage, however. Ah-Sen’s diction, while stylistic, dramatic, and in-keeping with his idiosyncratic cast, is often abused to a point where it obscures his meaning. Sentences like “Time still shunts forward like Crisco sliding down the caruncles of a Grand Menaceur” twist and false-start the narrator’s intended meaning, leaving the reader more invested in unwrapping individual metaphors than following an already difficult plot.
Grand Menteur is, however, strange enough to recommend. Ah-Sen’s sense of humour is nearly as singular as his choice of subject, and his prose demands a re-read as much as it does a dictionary. (Joel W. Vaughan)