Panicked Laments

  • Deborah Kirshner
    Mahler's Lament. Quattro Books (purchase at
  • Koom Kankesan
    The Panic Button. Quattro Books (purchase at
Reviewed by David Leahy

The two books under review from Quattro Books’ fine series of novellas share the singularity of exploring different kinds of panic. The title of Koom Kankesan’s debut, Tamil-Canadian-focused novella, The Panic Button, refers first and foremost to the narrator Thambi’s relentless struggle with the panic that pressures from his family, and especially from his mother, to marry an eligible Tamil woman evoke in him. Other forms of panic are also rendered in plausible, complex ways—as when Thambi’s tempestuous affair with a white co-worker, Emily, causes him moments of panic about their sexual compatiblity, or when Thambi unexpectedly tries to commit suicide after Emily finally rejects him. Deborah Kirshner’s novella, Mahler’s Lament, is a fictional account of the day in the life of Gustav Mahler before, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the unsuccessful public premiere of his first symphony, “The Titan,” in Budapest on November 20, 1889. Panic seems to rule Mahler. The limited omniscient narration makes us privy to many flashbacks, most of which are disturbing representations of Mahler’s egomaniacal relationships with his patrons, lovers, and his sister, Justine, whom he rapes during the intermission of the failed premiere as a means, it would seem, of reasserting his endangered sense of potency.

Kankesan’s novella is an important contribution to the small corpus of Tamil-identified literature in Canada, though its representations of clashing values and their gendered complexities within the context of North America will be familiar to readers of contemporary South-Asian authors. There are several moments when tragic collective and individual aftermaths of the longstanding Tamil war of independence, and of the immigrant experience, are poignantly dramatized—as when the long absent patriarch of the family struggles to assert himself, or when the narrative’s two male siblings bait and mock each other because of their opposed attitudes regarding arranged marriages, filial piety, and conformity: “’You never settle down. You never do anything serious. Just push with the least amount of effort.’ The old feeling had settled between us; the usual routine. I sang Everything I do, I do it for you by Bryan Adams to annoy him. After a few bars, he still had not said anything” (41). A critical focus upon the novella’s representations of the consequences of collective and individual alienation, however, can lead one to underestimate the narrative’s often reserved humour, as when Thambi makes mordant fun of his brother’s chaperoned “stag party.” However, though Thambi’s self-doubting, disturbed voice is plausible and coherent, as are those of all of the primary and secondary characters, it is unfortunate that the editors did not insist that the framing narrative be rendered more effectively. Thambi’s lengthy dramatic monologue presumably takes place during a single sitting at a psychiatrist’s office and so the lack of interruptions and comments by the silent listener detracts from the novella’s verisimilitude; especially at the conclusion when the reader is suddenly reminded of the context of Thambi’s talking cure.

Mahler’s Lament is a fascinating work of historical fiction, and Kirshner, who is a classical musician herself, does a good job of dramatizing events and phobias of Mahler’s short life that contributed to his tortured personality and yet often nourished his musical creations. Furthermore, Kirshner adroitly knits together key events in telling flashbacks so that the pathetic climax of Mahler’s rape of his innocent, doting sister is frighteningly plausible. Still, a number of moments read too much like biography or music history. For instance: At 29, he has become something of a celebrity, a status he secretly enjoys. . . . As far as he is concerned, it is the just reward owed by society to the artist, and he has come to expect the tips of the hat, the nods in the street. This posture, one that could be mistaken for vanity, was not vanity but rather the natural prerogative of someone who had a sense of a higher purpose for which he knew he had been given rare gifts” (40). Fortunately, this tendency is a minor tick, and on the whole it does not detract from the novella’s imaginative fictionalization of Mahler’s life. It is the uncertainty to what extent the narrative means to critique Mahler’s self-absorption, or to commiserate with it in a romantic idealization of the troubled artist, that is harder to discern.


“ERRATUM: In issue # 218 of Canadian Literature, a book review by David Leahy of Deborah Kirshner’s novella,  Mahler’s Lament, stated that in the book the character of Gustav Mahler raped his sister Justine. This does not happen in the narrative. Canadian Literature and David Leahy apologise for this error and misrepresentation.”

This review “Panicked Laments” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 167.

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