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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Once Upon an Elephant

Ashok Mathur

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Title: Once Upon an Elephant
Author: Ashok Mathur
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 214 pages
Availability: Once Upon an Elephant - US
Once Upon an Elephant - UK
Once Upon an Elephant - Canada
  • a down to earth tale of Ganesh and what happens when worlds collide

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Our Assessment:

B- : a tale that ultimately redeems itself with some imaginative twists and ideas

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The myth of Ganesha -- that man with an elephant's head -- is one of India's better known folkloric-religious tall tales, and representations of the many-armed Ganesha are popular devotional objects. A few years ago there was some fuss in India when, in imitation of weeping and/or bleeding Christian iconography and statues, Ganeshas all over the place were seen to "drink" milk placed in saucers before them. (It's always nice to see that religious inanity and insanity knows no national or cultural borders.) Mathur uses this episode and more, bringing the Ganesha myth to contemporary Canada in a novel that is part murder mystery, part courtroom drama, part clash of cultures, and part literary experiment.
       A grisly discovery is made: a man's head -- and next to it an elephant cadaver missing its head. The reader has already been introduced to doddering old Judge McEchern who was surprised to find a man with an elephant's head in his courtroom. Obviously events are connected.
       The novel consists of many short chapters, told from varied points of view. A clever (though not always successful) literary device is that chronology is not strictly adhered to. Events are retold from different points of view, and there is some movement between what we must assume are past, present, and future. As a character finally explains, "Y'see it's about slippages of time, a falling apart of cause and effect." The time slippages are not too intimidating, and the technique does generally work for the narrative, specifically in relation to the murder investigation which goes on at the same time as the trial of the suspect.
       The stories of a number of characters are followed. There is Ganesha, in varied incarnations, and the goddess Parvati, of course. Among the humans there is the judge, the detectives assigned the case -- Gregor Simpson and Delilah Watson --, the legal aid lawyer Sandip, Professor Sam Sribhaiman, reporter Josh Conrad, and diverse members of the South Asian immigrant community.
       There is a fair amount of sex. Mathur coyly introduces a gay affair, and he sends Delilah to bed with the reporter, with mixed (though ultimately amusing) results.
       The quick chapters allow the book to go by fast. The main plot is okay, and a fair number of the episodes amuse -- and the book improves along the way, as more pieces fit into place and it becomes clearer what Mathur is trying to do. Mathur's style is somewhat of a problem. Speaking in many voices, he adopts many different dialects. Most are far too colloquial -- "so I sez yeah" the Professor responds to the police, for example -- and the dialogue is a bit too simple. The poor writing is, to a certain extent, redeemed by the clever ideas, but Mathur's writing lacks subtlety in all its aspects, including the presentation of these ideas.
       On the Amazon.com page Mathur explains that: "The story is really about unsettling assumptions about race, sexuality, and a whole host of circumstances that affect our lives in a contemporary world." Fair enough: he does the West-meets-East confrontation and misunderstandings well (and here, at least, he does not oversimplify, as so much immigrant literature does). But he is not particularly daring, especially in the assumptions about sexuality he works with, nor is any of the book truly eye-opening in this respect.
       Once Upon an Elephant is acceptable entertainment, just good and interesting enough to read. There is enough there to get beyond the high-school prose, and it closes out nicely enough. Recommended for those who might be interested by the subject matter.

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Once Upon an Elephant: Reviews: Ashok Mathur: Other books by Ashok Mathur under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of Indian literature at the complete review
  • See Index of Canadian literature

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Ashok Mathur lives in Calgary.

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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