The Geography of Arrival.
The 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction was awarded to George Sipos, a poet and former bookseller who lives on Salt Spring Island. In his charming memoir of a boyhood in London, Ontario, he tells of his family’s arrival from Hungary, after the abortive uprising of 1956, and his subsequent youth in an unfamiliar city. What makes The Geography of Arrival come to life is Sipos’ clever use of the guidebook format to recall the places of his past, places that helped him acquire a new language and a Canadian identity: the northeast corner of Dundas and Ridout Streets, the McMahon Pool, the Colborne Community Centre, Victoria Hospital, and St. Peter’s Basilica, among others. Cumulatively, the memoir’s short chapters—each focused on a particular place that engaged Sipos—take on the quality of snapshots in an old family album.
Impressionistically recounted with a sweet-tempered nostalgia, The Geography of Arrival is not a traditional immigrant memoir because the values, traumas, and traditions of the old country (a rich part of most immigrant stories) have little place in it, although they must have figured in the young Sipos’ childhood. Nor is he particularly interested in the psychology of arrival. Just eight years old when he came to Canada with his parents, and an only child, Sipos seems to have had almost no connection with the country and traditions he lost. Instead, he appears to have accepted naturally the local and commercial offerings of his new home: the plastic toys contained in a box of cornflakes, hockey on television, the frogs to be dissected in grade nine, Orange Crush at an annual August fair. Like all Canadian children, then, he was simply there, ready to grow up in the world around him while trying to make some sense of it.
Not much happens in The Geography of Arrival, yet places can be filled with mysterious drama to a child. Unlike Mama’s Bank Account (1943), Kathryn Forbes’ classic account of her Norwegian family’s life in San Francisco, Sipos’ memoir doesn’t offer his family as interesting characters; the stories, conflicts, and dreams of their lives remain in the background. His book, however, has a similar warm-hearted tone because the boy George exhibits an endless curiosity about his new city. The lack of tension might at first seem a weakness, but in fact it becomes a strength of this memoir because the guidebook format is a structural metaphor for all childhood impressions, reminding readers of the way their own neighbourhoods once shaped the geography of their imaginations, and of the potential drama in ordinary daily life. This is not a probing confession in the manner of Eva Hoffman’s wonderful Lost in Translation (1989), another evocation of a Central-European childhood outside of Central Europe, in Canada. At times I missed hearing more about Sipos’ homeland—Budapest and the meaning it must have had for his family; as someone with Hungarian forebears, I wanted more specificity, more paprika. But this can be found in the splendid fiction of Canadian Hungarian writers such as Tamas Dobozy, Judith Kalman, and Joseph Kertes. Ethnicity is not the core of Sipos’ subject.
An examination of remembered places depends almost entirely on the quality of a writer’s prose. As a stylist, Sipos avoids the temptation of over-writing so often prevalent in impressionistic work. Clean sentences based on keen, subtle observation, and nearly unmediated memory give the book an admirable quality of immediacy, even a delicacy that is never vague or airily poetic. This memoir probably won’t make anyone plan a visit to London, Ontario—nor is that its intention—but Sipos’ evocation of encountering his childhood haunts through memory is a gentle prod to readers to revisit, in the same way, cities of their own.