Books

Is it Lucien or Lucifer?

A biographer is fair and intimate at first, but slips away into caricature

PAUL WELLS September 22 1997
Books

Is it Lucien or Lucifer?

A biographer is fair and intimate at first, but slips away into caricature

PAUL WELLS September 22 1997

Is it Lucien or Lucifer?

Books

A biographer is fair and intimate at first, but slips away into caricature

THE ANTAGONIST: LUCIEN BOUCHARD AND THE POLITICS OF DELUSION

By Lawrence Martin (Viking, 356 pages, $35)

One day in the mid1960s, when Lucien Bouchard was just starting out as a lawyer, his youngest brother, Gérard, drove from Quebec City to visit him in Jonquière. As Lawrence Martin writes in his new biography, The Antagonist, young Lucien was surprised to learn that his brother didn’t have

good snow tires on his Volkswagen. So the next morning, Lucien took Gérard’s car to a garage, had it fitted with fine new tires, and paid the bill. “He was very generous,” Gérard told Martin.

It is the kind of small, telling anecdote that makes a biography come alive. It is exactly the sort of story English-Canadian audiences are not used to reading about Bouchard, who is usually portrayed as some kind of Darth Vader, a twisted genius of the Quebec sovereignty movement. And it is the kind of detail that makes the first third of The Antagonist a pleasure to read.

Only the first third. After that, Martin’s subject begins to elude his grasp, and his nuanced and broadly sympathetic approach slips into caricature. Martin writes that there have been “two Lucien Bouchards.” He continues: “One was the rational, brilliant leader of Athenian ideals. The other was a thin-skinned, demagogic tribalist.” Similarly, Martin has offered two Bouchard biographies: a fascinating inside look at the early years of a complex man, and a hodgepodge of press clippings and interviews with the mature politician’s enemies.

Martin’s biography of the dashing, mercurial Quebec premier became a source of controversy last month when some of its spicier sections appeared in several publications. The excerpts dealt with essays about Bouchard written by Toronto psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff at the behest of Liberal MP John Godfrey. In an interview with Martin, Rakoff mused that Bouchard, a man he had never met, shows signs of “esthetic character disorder,” Rakoff s term for a

condition in which a person is feverishly committed to a project or cause before dropping it entirely for another. But even an esteemed professional like Rakoff can offer only limited insight into a stranger. The psychiatrist serves up the sort of dishwatery clichés that are all too common from freshmen students of Quebec nationalism, pompous hoo-ha about idealized yearnings for France, the mother country.

Martin gets far better mileage out of humbler souls whose advantage over Rakoff is that they actually know Bouchard. The problem for Martin, a proud federalist whose last book was a tough but fair biography of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, was that Bouchard’s current friends were hardly likely to open up to a writer who was not on side politically. So the personal touch of Bouchard’s inner circle enlivens only the book’s opening chapters. This is not really Martin’s fault, and he proves his good faith by writing sympathetically even about Bouchard’s early flirtations with the sovereignty movement during his student days at the Collège de Jonquière and Laval University.

The future premier of Quebec was no ordinary lad. The eldest of five children born, in 1938, to Philippe and Alice Bouchard of Jonquière, he drew from the personalities of both parents. Martin was able to interview two of Bouchard’s brothers, Roch and Gérard. They describe their father as a simple but honest truck driver who instilled ambition in Lucien, and their quick-tempered mother as a “forbidding, God-fearing” woman whose religious zeal Luden carried into his secular activities.

It all made for a disciplined, brilliant young man with a short and explosive temper of his own. In the book’s most satisfying passages, Martin follows Lucien through the early days to Laval, where he met the sovereigntists he would join, and the glad-handing lawschool classmate Brian Mulroney, the federalist he would one day cruelly disappoint.

The growing friendship between Bouchard and Mulroney—“the thinker and the doer,” as Martin calls them, whose roles in the Conservative party would resemble those of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien among the Liberals—is told from several angles by firsthand observers. So is the first of many surprising career moves by Bouchard—his stormy departure from a prestigious federalist law firm in 1973 after Jacques Parizeau sold him a Parti Québécois membership card.

In later years, Bouchard became a virtuoso of contradiction, at one point managing to campaign almost simultaneously for Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals and René Léveque’s PQ. Martin considers Bouchard’s conversion to the PQ with a dispassionate tone that readers will soon miss. In recounting the rest of Bouchard’s story— his stint as Mulroney’s ambassador in Paris, his bizarre tenure as a federal cabinet minister, the birth and growth of Bouchard’s Bloc Québécois—Martin is largely unaided by sympathetic sources, and the author’s tone grows correspondingly baffled and hyperbolic.

He writes that Bouchard is capable “of lifting the culture of grievance to the fevered heights of Greek tragedy.” The cane he uses to walk becomes “a sort of religious symbol.” In speeches, he works himself into “a feverish lather from which the vitriol [shoots] like spears.” Martin recounts spectators’ astonishment at tantrums Bouchard threw after being called a “frog” or compared to a Nazi propagandist—actually pretty good reasons for throwing a tantrum.

Soon, Martin’s flailing finds other targets besides Bouchard. After Parizeau resigned as premier in 1995, “the people of the province were falling to their knees beseeching Saint Lucien to become their pope.”

Through these final pages, Martin makes the kind of pinprick factual errors that deflate his credibility. Liberal Cabinet Minister Marcel Massé’s name is misspelled (as Masse). The 1988 federal election is held in 1987. Martin has the First Ministers discuss a report from economist Tom Courchene in Ottawa in June, 1996, when in fact it was discussed in Jasper two months later.

But despite its flaws, The Antagonist is valuable on several fronts. The very absence of sovereigntist sources in the book’s latter sections is telling: this is a movement that proclaims its openness and willingness to engage with Canadians in a dialogue, but the separatists’ absence mirrors their post-1995 insularity. This is a gang that has just about given up on trying to explain itself to the unconverted.

And Martin offers one insight into Bouchard that is very nearly worth the price of admission. Bouchard’s changes in allegiance, from Trudeau Liberal to Péquiste to Mulroney Tory to separatist loner, have always been changes from a losing cause to a winner, Martin notes. “He preferred to jump onboard trains that were already at a good speed, as opposed to charting a new course.” Now that Bouchard’s own government, and the sovereignty train itself, appear to be losing speed, the question Martin’s book leaves behind is where Bouchard will jump next.

PAUL WELLS