BOOKS

Two spring hits

Timothy Findley visits the heart of darkness

John Bemrose April 19 1993
BOOKS

Two spring hits

Timothy Findley visits the heart of darkness

John Bemrose April 19 1993

Two spring hits

BOOKS

Timothy Findley visits the heart of darkness

JOHN BEMROSE

Thirty-six years ago in Washington, Timothy Findley witnessed a trial that changed his life. The accused was the American playwright Arthur Miller. Victimized by the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy period, Miller had been charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to co-operate with a government committee bent on rooting out Communist sympathizers. Findley, 26 at the time and working nights as an actor in a local theatre, attended the court sessions during the day. Miller’s composure and courage made a deep impression on him. “I never got over seeing him there,” the 62-year-old writer said in a recent interview.

“I was moved by his dignity, and his refusal to betray the people he knew by naming names.”

Findley says that the experience helped shape his beliefs about the importance of the conscientious individual who stands up against the convenient, collective lies of society. He has played with that theme throughout his fiction, including The Wars (1977), which won a Governor General’s Award (and later became a movie), and Famous Last Words (1981), which consolidated his international reputation. Now, he has explored it—more richly than ever—in two new works. The Stillborn Lover, a play which runs at the Grand Theatre in London,

Ont., until April 17 (it opens at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on April 29), is Findley’s first original work for the stage in 17 years.

And Headhunter (HarperCollins,

440 pages, $24.95), a dark and beautifully realized tale set in a plague-ridden Toronto of the near future, may be his finest novel yet.

Findley, who lives on a farm northeast of Toronto with his companion of many years, writer Bill Whitehead, has used both plays and novels to present characters who rebel against the demeaning compromises that life tries to force on them. “There comes a moment when people of stature— and I mean people of true stature, and not those who are merely highly visible—say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Findley remarked. Inevitably, in Findley’s vision, those characters of good conscience are opposed by peo-

ple of wealth and power who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo—no matter how much suffering it may cause others. In Headhunter, Findley’s exploration of the conservatism and selfishness of such people penetrates the realm of pure evil.

Findley’s inspiration for Headhunter was Joseph Conrad’s great 1902 novella, Heart of Darkness. “I would tell people I was working on Heart of Darkness set in Rosedale, and everybody would laugh, including me,” Findley re-

called, clearly still amused at the idea of setting a novel about ultimate evil in Toronto’s respectable, old-money enclave. “But in truth, I’ve always thought of Rosedale as one of the river-stations Conrad writes about—one of the points on the journey to the heart of darkness.” And certainly the Rosedale of Headhunter is a feeding ground for the worst human vices. Marriages are preserved in the gel of habitual hatred, while parents manipulate their children with all the finesse of master torturers.

Rosedale is far from the only treacherous locale in the novel: all of Toronto resembles a battle zone. Rancid fog rolls in from the polluted lake. AIDS has run rampant. And a new plague called stumusemia is killing hundreds. Because it is believed to be carried by starlings, bird killers roam the city, gassing flocks and cutting down the trees where they roost.

Into the middle of this ruined landscape, Findley has dropped one of the most original, lovable and, at times, comical characters that he has created. Lilah Kemp is insane. A former librarian, she storms around the city pushing a baby carriage with nothing in it but an imaginary baby. And she takes books so seriously that their characters come to life— literally. As Headhunter begins, Lilah opens Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and watches in alarm as its incarnation of evil, Kurtz, escapes into the streets of Toronto. At first, the temptation for the reader is to observe this event rather patronizingly as an amusing fantasy of Lilah’s. But Findley quickly establishes Kurtz’s objective reality, and so forces the reader to accept and trust Lilah’s point of view. That is one of the book’s great accomplishments: it establishes a voice for the dispossessed, and even lends them an odd potency. Lilah not only has the power to talk to ghosts and animals, but in her demented way she threatens the supremacy of those who control the city.

Rupert Kurtz is one of that select circle. Brilliant and amoral, he is the head of a psychiatric institute where he is involved in questionable, drug-centred experiments on patients. He also seems to have shadowy connections to a secret group called the Club of Men, which drafts teenagers for sexual purposes. Feeling responsible for Kurtz’s escape, Lilah summons up another Conrad character, Marlow, who in Heart of Darkness is responsible for bringing Kurtz to heel. Charles Marlow plays a similar role in Headhunter, where he works as a psychiatrist at Kurtz’s institute. When a friend and colö league commits suicide before his eyes, Marlow, a man of steady I decency, sees Kurtz’s shadow I looming over the event, and so m begins the chilling task of bringing his boss to justice.

That melodramatic, good-versus-evil scenario lends a certain primitive drive to the novel. Yet Findley moderates that simplistic picture by seducing his readers into identifying, at least briefly, with Headhunters sleaziest characters. Even Kurtz has his attractive side: a cultured intelligence and a political skill whose workings are a pleasure to behold. As a result, the evil in Headhunter becomes less the property of isolated villains than a subtle web of selfishness and compromise in which nearly everyone is impli-

cated. Even the harrowing scenes involving violence and incest with children (passages that Findley says he wrote with “a terrible sense of self-revelation,” since they drew on the shadowy comers of his own imagination) have a banality and sense of possibility that make them all the more shocking.

For all that, the novel is not entirely heavy going. There is humor in Filah’s manic tunnel vision, and there is a beguiling playfulness in the way Findley pays homage to the great novels he has read and loved, including Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s famous tale of a bored provincial wife finds its echo in Findley’s character Emma Berry who, like her famous predecessor, entertains her lovers in the back of a moving vehicle—in Berry’s case a white stretch limousine that prowls the streets of Toronto. Findley claims to have observed a similar character himself. “There is a woman in Toronto—I call her a courtesan because she’s so elegant—and I saw her collect a client once in her white limousine,” he recalled. It is not necessary to catch the literary name-dropping in order to enjoy Findley’s book. But it lends weight to Headhunteds final affirmation of the ability of good stories to shed light on the state of society’s soul.

Where Headhunter is a sprawling work crammed with characters and subplots, The Stillborn Lover has the quiet self-possession of an artfully painted Japanese vase. Indeed, the

play reflects Findley’s long admiration for Japanese literature: for years, he says, he has kept a copy of the 11th-century book of court gossip, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, beside his bed. The beleaguered hero of Lover, Harry Raymond (William Hutt), is a Canadian diplomat who, years before the events of the play, used a Japanese posting to cultivate a deep knowledge of that country’s culture. As the drama opens, it is the fall of 1972, and he and his wife, Marian (Martha Henry), find themselves in a Japanese-style house perched on the bank of the Ottawa River.

The Raymonds are in trouble. Marian is sinking ever deeper into Alzheimer’s disease. And Harry, the current ambassador to Moscow, has been brought home because of a looming international scandal: a young Russian man, a friend of the Raymonds, has been found murdered in Moscow, and the Soviets are demanding that the Canadian government throw some light on Harry’s apparent connection with his death.

Under relentless RCMP questioning, Harry exposes comers of his life that he has kept secret for years. And while he painfully remembers, his wife wanders in ever-deepening labyrinths of forgetfulness. Hutt and Henry play a deeply moving duet with the two characters as they reveal an unusual but profound married love that has survived storms that few couples could have weathered. The play also establishes a telling opposition between the vulnerability of the Raymonds and the guard-

ed duplicity of their friends, External Affairs Minister Michael Riordon (Donald Davis) and his suave, socialite wife, Juliet (Patricia Collins). As in Headhunter, it is the apparent losers in The Stillborn Lover who make the truest contact with their own humanity, while the upwardly mobile Riordons (Michael is about to become prime minister) are willing to sacrifice friendship on the altar of expediency.

The word “Nagasaki” is repeated like a mantra throughout the play. The Japanese city, destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945 (the Raymonds were once posted there), symbolizes the evil destructiveness of those who have sacrificed decency to their lust for power.

The play ends on a tragic note, while the bleak vision, of Headhunter offers, surprisingly, a conclusion in which the possibility of defeating evil, at least for a time, is affirmed. Findley admits that the original draft was far more pessimistic. “That ending is not the one I honestly would have put there,” he said, “except upon the urgings of others. They told me I couldn’t shut the door in people’s faces. I had to keep it open a little. So I did.” His decision seems the right one. In the end, Headhunter returns from the heart of darkness with a small but hard-earned modicum of hope. Dike the playwright Findley once watched in a Washington courtroom, the novel affirms the ability of the courageous individual to make a difference.

JOHN BEMROSE