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Digital Subscriptions > Quill & Quire > July/August 2018 > That Old-Time Religion

That Old-Time Religion

In his new novel, Randy Boyagoda applies a comedic tone to some serious subjects BY STEVEN W.BEATTIE


Original Prin

Randy Boyagoda


ANY WESTERN novel that takes as its main character an academic named “Prin” will necessarily endure associations – intended or otherwise – with an earlier campus novel about an eponymous protagonist whose name chimes directly. To then apply the adjective “original” indicates, if not literary arrogance, then certainly a large dollop of self-confidence.

Indeed, Randy Boyagoda’s third novel bears more than a passing affinity to Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov’s 1957 novel in stories. The books’ respective protagonists are professors at fictional universities and both books are cast in a comic mode. In both cases, the authors engage in a playful critique of campus bureaucracy and both Prin and Pnin are bedeviled by erstwhile romantic interests: an ex-girlfriend in the former case, an ex-wife in the latter. More coincidentally, one great admirer of Nabokov’s novel was Flannery O’Connor; Boyagoda, for his part, claims to be “sick of Flannery O’Connor,” an assessment that has more to do with her status as an avatar of the Catholic novelist than her approval of the Russian writer.

Original Prin finds Boyagoda working explicitly in the tradition of comic Catholic writers such as Evelyn Waugh. And though Boyagoda disavows appreciation for O’Connor, the two have this much in common: both take their religious affiliation deadly seriously. It is fabulously rare, in our secular age, to find a novel that focuses so insistently and unironically on a character whose religion is not an ancillary aspect of his persona but absolutely central.

Prin is short for Princely St. John Umbiligoda, whose Sri Lankan parents immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. As Boyagoda’s novel opens, Prin is visiting the Toronto zoo with his wife and four daughters – an annual tradition to ring in the New Year. It is in this relatively non-threatening and distracting environment that Prin intends to inform his daughters of his impending prostate cancer surgery. “The plan was to take the girls to one of the more obscure exhibits and explain it there and leave it there, in a place they would never visit again.”

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