Books

The collapsing vaults of history

VOICES IN TIME by Hugh MacLennan

Katherine Govier September 22 1980
Books

The collapsing vaults of history

VOICES IN TIME by Hugh MacLennan

Katherine Govier September 22 1980

The collapsing vaults of history

VOICES IN TIME by Hugh MacLennan

Macmillan of Canada, $14.95

In Voices in Time the only consistently moral man is a traitorous admiral in Hitler’s navy who is likened to “a mind trapped in the collapsing vaults of history.” The author might be describing himself, such is the pervasion of doom in this seventh novel by Hugh MacLennan. “Learn to dissimulate . . . in order to survive,” advises a fleeing Jewish 3scholar. The book is perhaps a lesson in how to live in unconscionable circumstances and keep the spirit alive.

Why is it that writers in their maturity abandon the present for a theoretical future, only to pose in that future looking on us with detachment? Doris Lessing has; Marge Piercy has as well,

perhaps temporarily; and now MacLennan. The trouble with the science fiction which proceeds is that it is often a thin disguise for nostalgia.

John Wellfleet, a 75-year-old “inoperative” receives a telephone call from an unknown young man. During excavations in what must have been Montreal, two cast-iron boxes of papers have been found, referring to the Wellfleet family, prominent in a lost and forgotten society. So opens the first Chinese box. Wellfleet agrees to read the papers and write a book about the lives and especially the deaths of relatives he loved and whom he has forced out of his mind. Within his book smaller books are opened: the story of Wellfleet’s stepfather, Conrad Dehmel, a German professor who joins the Gestapo in order to rescue his Jewish lover; and that of his cousin, Timothy Wellfleet, an irresponsible young television host whose facile power becomes paramount.

Through the memoirs of Timothy and Conrad, consigned to the boxes which outlive all else, we learn how the world died. In Timothy’s media record we see terrorism become self-righteous and efficient. Gangs of intellectuals hold up governments and demand billions with the threat of blasting whole cities out of existence. Eventually such threats are carried out. The final bang is an

impersonal sort of destruction, set off, we are told, by a massive computer error. Simultaneously, Conrad’s experiences in Nazi Germany remind us of a more personal social collapse: the reaping of that torture feeds the liberal guilt which allows the next form of destruction to take place.

When destiny comes to Montreal, John Wellfleet escapes because he is at his summer cottage. He participates, for a time, in the bland, international social organization that follows, teaching “the Diagram” instead of history to young people who have seen no books and have never heard of videotape. (Some losses are more tragic than others.) But soon he retreats to his barracks where we meet him, not knowing how it was that his famous cousin caused the murder of his stepfather. Only when he is presented with the papers that solve the puzzle, and asked to write a book, does the old man come alive again. As “author” of the book within the book, Wellfleet is, of course, a stand-in for MacLennan.

John and Timothy and Conrad are men who find and use women casually. The television star can have his choice of several hundred on a good night, apparently. Despite this, they tend to drift off to sleep longing for someone’s soft body: they are prevented from loving by the cataclysmic events of history, and

by the very ease with which they approach sex. “No salmon ever sang in the streets for me,” remarks the old man sadly. Although MacLennan has grappled with today’s politics and extended them to their logical—and technological-extreme, he has remained deeply in his earlier emotional views. Sexual love is brief and doomed; men are most often violent and ultimately regretful; mothers are the bedrock of society. As Conrad says of his mother: “She had understanding, deep and experienced,

but she had no authority____She had an

understanding so total that she had resigned herself to the fact that her understanding made no difference.” This dated psychology, encapsulated as it is in a futuristic vision, makes MacLennan himself sound at times like a voice out of time. It is an unfortunate anathema in a novel that has all the fluid power of the best of his writing and the breadth of vision that came to us first with Barometer Rising almost 40 years ago. The sadness of the old, their hunger—for food, for relevance— the double-edged sword of their memory, these are the strong chords running through the novel. At the heart of it is the old man’s belief that in the evolving new world the rediscovery of books will bring life back to life. It is a stubborn, naïve and most admirable conviction.

Katherine Govier