Published in 2010 in Canada, where it was popular and listed for two prestigious fiction awards, Cities of Refuge was refused entry by American publishers until the small Portland literary press Tin House gave the novel a home this year. It can’t be true that big publishers believe American readers will accept only one Canadian novelist at a time, which would be Michael Ondaatje at the moment. And Helm’s subject matter—illegal immigration—certainly can’t be the reason for the lag in U.S. publication. Maybe New York editors felt that winters and nights are longer in Canada, so shut-in readers there were more likely to have patience for a bulky, time-consuming fiction than Americans reading on their mobile devices.
At more than 400 pages, Cities of Refuge has a Faulknerian commitment to diverse perspectives—from a barely literate Colombian immigrant to a highly literary Anglo professor, from a hard-headed materialist who plays historical detective to a soft-souled idealist who sacrifices history to her belief in Christian resurrection. A writer needs space and stylistic dexterity to give characters like these and others—a mathematician working on Godelian uncertainty, a Colombian woman pretending to be the wife of a legal immigrant, a stumblebum stalker, a tired Anglican priest—their say and their relations to another “character,” the city of Toronto, which Helm depicts as refugee central in a country to which 700,000 foreign applicants are awaiting entry. But if my complimentary “Faulknerian” sounds too Southern or last-century, think of Cities of Refuge as the Toronto cousin of contemporary New York novels by and about immigrants such as Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, or Teju Cole’s Open City. Welcome to our shores, Michael Helm, and apologies for the delay.
Helm knows that even readers in his native Saskatchewan, far from the entertainments of cosmopolitan Toronto, need a plot. He generously and cleverly gives them two, one piggybacking on the other. In the first chapter, 28-year-old Kim Lystrander—Canadian citizen, former Ph.D. student in history, current museum guard, and volunteer for an organization called GROUND, which assists immigrants rejected for asylum—is attacked on a dark street in downtown Toronto. She fights off her assailant but suffers a debilitating leg wound when she falls into a pit dug for a new building’s foundation.
Kim now knows the “well-founded fear” that asylum seekers must prove they have to be accepted by a host country. She first tries to evade her fear by fleeing the city, then attempts to work through her trauma by inventing the life of her masked attacker. Refugees need a believable narrative and probable villain, so Kim writes and rewrites her story, trying out different versions, combining minimal observation and considerable intuition to create a figure she calls “R.” Helm’s strategy of presenting his victimized protagonist as a “refugee” in her own country is rhetorically canny, sidestepping the “compassion fatigue” readers might feel if confronted with yet another horror story from a distant land.
Kim’s father Harold, a history professor specializing in South and Latin America, wants more for Kim than psychological recovery through imaginative writing. He suspects Kim’s attacker was an applicant refused aid by GROUND, so Harold begins investigating a politically engaged Anglican priest, Andre, and his rogue protégé, a volunteer named Rosemary who houses undocumented aliens, including the young Colombian Rodrigo who may have participated in drug cartel death squads, may have resisted them, or may have done both. Harold stalks Rosemary, as he presumes Kim was stalked by her assailant. When Harold pushes too far his unacknowledged xenophobia and coincidence—his daughter’s invented “R” and Rosemary’s Rodrigo—he gets a beating, paralleling Kim’s assault, that sets in motion unanticipated consequences just as her attack did. With Harold’s investigation Helm wisely shifts focus from Kim the figurative refugee to the literal experience of undocumented aliens such as Rodrigo, who works exploitive jobs, depends on charity, is chary of intimate relations, and lives in constant insecurity.
Because Kim cannot understand why Harold, who is separated from her mother and who has been an on-again, off-again father, is so suddenly active in her behalf, she begins looking into his past, searching a motive for his newfound passion for justice—and thus initiates Helm’s second plot. Rummaging through old boxes of Harold’s documents, Kim discovers that he was in Chile when Allende was overthrown in 1973, a period in Harold’s life he has concealed from his family. Harold’s investigation never identifies Kim’s attacker, “merely” a native-born Canadian whose disturbed and jumbled thinking resembles that of the stalker Lee Harvey Oswald in DeLillo’s Libra. But Kim, a plucky “batterer of authorities,” uses her training as a historical researcher to gradually uncover Harold’s life-altering secret, from which he has managed refuge as an academic. While I won’t give away that secret, I will say Helm adroitly connects Harold’s presumption—that a frustrated immigrant has betrayed a person (Kim) who tried to help him—with Harold’s betrayal 40 years earlier of persons who helped him in Chile. And just as Harold’s persistent investigation for Kim creates unfortunate unintended effects, Kim’s obsessive investigation of her father leads to disaster.
I’m pretty sure Helm doesn’t oppose truth commissions and doesn’t believe, like the Kierkegaardian Rosemary, that God will sort it all out in the end, but Helm does imply that the truth-seeking Harold and Kim might well have listened to her stepfather who is writing about Godel and undecidability. Although both Lystranders are complex people, under the pressure of trauma they demand the intellectual refuge of certainty and do harm in its pursuit. Privy to all the novel’s perspectives, readers understand more about causes and effects than the characters, but Helm still suggests that Toronto—or any city—is a place that resists certainty.
The scale of a city makes it a space of probability and improbability, of numerous intersecting or colliding or just-missing stories that often preclude the legal proof characters desire and question the religious certitude that several characters express. Helm presumably takes his title from Numbers 35 in the Old Testament, where Yahweh commands Moses to set aside “cities of refuge” where “the manslayers may flee”—but only if they meet many specified conditions. Not even the Bible is absolute about crime and refuge.
Helm ingeniously reinforces his “city” themes of intellectual humility and measured empathy by placing readers of Cities of Refuge in the position of immigration officials who must pore over asylum seekers’ narratives and weigh all the ambiguities that come before and after a decision: the combination of fact and fiction in the seekers’ stories, the political situations in their countries of origin, the official’s own moral and spiritual values, the consequences of both negative and positive decisions, and how those consequences may ripple out to persons not directly involved. Government officials eventually have to judge: yes or no, in or out, here or there. But Helm makes it difficult to judge any of his characters, including those with the most extreme beliefs. Even the stalker has his reasons, his need for a woman he hopes will give him refuge from his compulsions. I suppose Helm could be accused of a mushy moral relativism by Americans who think of themselves as more tough-minded than their northern neighbors, but I think Cities of Refuge demonstrates moral precision, a rigor of thinking and feeling, not often honored in debates about immigration.
Much as I respect Cities of Refuge—for its range of characters, Helm’s skill in connecting its conflicts, his depiction of a multi-ethnic city, the capture of various voices—I wish the novel would have given more space to the Hispanics seeking refuge. Helm also occasionally drifts into Terrence Malickisms, vague passages about the mystery and wonder of the “merciless streaming unseen world,” what Harold might think of as fiction’s “magic dust.” Helm is most persuasive when he sticks to complications of the concrete: hard lives rubbing against hard facts, leading to hard decisions and unforeseen hardships.
When I was preparing to write a novel about Kurdish asylum seekers in Athens, I observed interviews at the Greek Council for Refugees. None of the actions that create the ethical quandaries in Cities of Refuge compare with the drama of a single person sitting in a small room and telling a story to another single person, a story that might or might not save the teller’s life. It’s that present-tense drama I miss in the deep backgrounds and lengthy aftermaths that make up much of Cities of Refuge. Refuge takes more than a village, and Helm is right to concentrate on his complex city as both fact and metaphor. But refuge begins or ends in that small simple room.