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Canal Dreams

By Iain Banks

Little, Brown, 275 pages, $32.95

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If jackboots kicked open your door in the middle of the night and armed men rushed to drag you from your family, your society and perhaps reason itself, would you comply with hope for some future understanding, or fight while you still had a chance, however small?

Set in a physically immediate but politically mysterious armed uprising in Panama, Iain Banks's novel Canal Dreams challenges the "pathetic human trust" in some final, miraculous deliverance with previously inconceivable "production lines of death." For contrast, for pathos, this examination of the limits of imagination, compassion and will also offers a dose or two of love.

A severe fear of flying sends Japanese cellist Hisako Onoda on an anachronistic sea voyage bound for a European tour she never begins. Stranded in the Panama Canal by unexpected and unexplained civil war, Hisako and the expatriate crews and guests of a few other similarly hampered ships waste their days waiting for newscasts and watch shell fire in the distant hills by night.

Romantically, the novel begins in medias res,with Hisako already in the arms of Philippe, an officer from a French ship. We flash back to their slow, mutual seduction amid an exchange of cello and scuba-diving lessons. Banks's skills with suspense and bodies in the dark (he doubles as science-fiction writer Iain M. Banks) finds a romantic night dive by Philippe and Hisako as the perfect occasion to bring the distant armed conflict up close and personal.

The slim Canal Dreams is at its best during the violent penumbra between the capture of Hisako and company by ruthless guerrillas and their eventual fate. Correcting its chilled, intangible opening with a dense, sensuous middle, in which hostages oscillate between "fearful hope and hopeless fear," Canal Dreams replaces the politically realistic but unsatisfyingly vague uncertainties and ignorance of civil strife with the complex calculations of immediate danger.

Preferring the annotative violence of J. M. Coetzee to the red slide show of Cormac McCarthy, Banks comments on the violence he depicts. Offering the all too viable paraphrase of war as "boys with toys," Hisako sees in the violence of her captors an immature farter's delight in doing something, anything, notable and undeniable.

Periodically insightful and obviously suspenseful, Canal Dreams occasionally unleashes a flagrant surrealism that isn't easy to coax back into its cage. In isolation, Hisako's dream sequences make a David Lynch film seem like pedestrian home video, yet in aggregate they begin to feel formulaic, if not condescending. Too many chapters end with Hisako drifting off into an unnecessarily reiterative dream montage of dangling limbs and totemic props. This occasionally nimble stream of consciousness is arresting, but unmanaged. Elsewhere, however, simpler skills would prevail. A lengthy, flirtatious conversation between Philippe and Hisako unnecessarily and obtrusively declares each character's doubts and hopes after each line is spoken.

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The unsatisfying if understandable Rambette close to the canal plot is not wholly redeemed by another classic yet contemporary inquiry into individual/tribal con- conflicts.

Originally published in 1989 (and only recently available in North America), Canal Dreams and its debate on how to meet aggression has an obvious resonance today. When successful -- roughly two-thirds of the time -- the novel seamlessly fuses the questions of what's going to happen to Hisako and what would I do in her place. Darryl Whetter is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Windsor. His own fiction appears in the The New Quarterly and The Windsor Review.

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