I have grown up in Montreal, become accustomed to the particularities of this city and have learned to understand, while not always agreeing with, how the society’s norms and standards are imposed here, where we all live together. So, I think, has Montreal writer Rana Bose.
With an affinity for concise description of feeling, sometimes provided through a two-line metaphor where an entire chapter would not suffice, Bose is able to provide his readers with an in-depth narrative of his characters’ feelings so as to place the reader within the narrative. This especially becomes favourable when the story is placed within the context of a familiar setting, and in The Fourth Canvas, Montreal is that familiar setting.
Comparisons abound, Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Ghose’s Calcutta Chromosome, were some of the comparisons I had drawn, but within the context of local societal commentary, The Fourth Canvas asks some very important questions about Montreal’s adaptation and implementation of the concepts of empire. While the book at large deals with the greater questions such as “what causes empires to rise and fall?” and “are the patterns of empire discernible?” the connections between how we, in this city, react to and impose our culture are provided as the colours with which The Fourth Canvas is painted. This enables us to link our experiences with those experiences of others, who may not be in the same setting but are faced with settling the same issues. The unmasking of the urban context, all drawn from Bose’s Montreal experience actually is able to answer the greater questions of empire through our microcosm of living. Most interestingly, the references and descriptions of family relationships, university communities and other familiar contexts hint at some general truths and understandings about this city, even for those who are not interested in dealing with macro-level questions of empire.
The Fourth Canvas is not a textbook or a manifesto, but a captivating work of fiction that does challenge the reader to question the very basis of society and hierarchy in a way that may be even more powerful then through the other formats.
To present theory and concept through a protagonist and his experiences, as opposed to a textbook or a manifesto, can be even more thought provoking for the reader because it can also present the challenges and results in implementing the theories, based on real-life responses from our society. And yes, there is enough accurate case-study description of Montreal mentalities to understand why we react in a certain way when presented with a certain idea.
I have a strong feeling that Rana Bose would tell us that psychoanalysis of the Montreal mentality is not what he was trying to go for in his novel. In fact, the global context in which the characters are placed, the plot evolving across continents and time would tell us that the purpose of this novel was to show us how any action, no matter when or where, will have a defining effect and consequences across globe and time. This is critical in understanding why empire, within its current connotations, is unsustainable. Just as a decision 100 years ago to hide a family secret will inevitably affect that family’s legacy, the exploitative actions taken to conserve empire on the other side of the world and at home will inevitably affect that empire’s sustainability.
Nevertheless, those Montrealers who enjoy tales such as the Da Vinci Code, now have a city-referenced version to regale to. And the Holy Grail at the end of The Fourth Canvas’ search for truth and knowledge is the answer.
In the early 1970s a reclusive artist and philosopher disappears in Paris after completing a fantastic series of canvases that trace the rise and fall of empires. Eventually his bloated body is dragged from the Seine. The knowledge and insight die with him. Years later, Claude Chiragi, a graduate student in Montreal receives a mysterious painting and senses the relevance of the theory embedded in the artwork. His curiosity is instantly aroused, and he launches a global search for clues that will help him understand the message and unravel the mystery of the artist’s fate. Embedded in the paintings are tell-tale historical clues, mysteriously coded, that predict imperial entropy in the future—from economic collapse and cultural decadence to a coup d’etat against civil society. Kidnappings, killings, undercover conspiracy and a trek into ancestral roots, lend to this novel its quality of intellectual mystery and gripping suspense.
The Fourth Canvas is an intellectual thriller, an ambitious novel of ideas full of juicy characters. Rana Bose tackles the enigma at the heart of all great thinkers and doers.
— Marianne Ackerman