BOOKS

The ambassador’s wife

John Bemrose August 10 1987
BOOKS

The ambassador’s wife

John Bemrose August 10 1987

The ambassador’s wife

BOOKS

BRAZILIAN JOURNAL By P.K. Page (Lester and Or pen Dennys, 21+1 pages, $22.95)

For some women, the prospect of marriage to an ambassador would conjure up daunting visions of strange cultures and long separation from all that is near and dear. But for a woman in the 1950s with the unflagging curiosity and adventurous spirit of poet and painter P. K. Page, the chance to live in an unknown country must have been like an invitation to a dance. Early in 1957 Page accompanied her husband, diplomat W. Arthur Irwin —a former editor of Maclean's—to Rio de Janeiro as he began his stint as Canada’s ambassador to Brazil. Over the next 2xh years she played Irwin’s hostess and travelling companion, as well as plunging seriously into a painting career that would eventually bring her respect and renown under the name of P. K. Irwin. She also kept a diary. Recently published at the suggestion of her friend, Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, Brazilian Journal offers a densely lyrical, acutely observant—and ultimately exhaustingview of a country with which Page clearly fell in love.

The romance did not start at first

sight. Arriving in the middle of Brazil’s torrid summer, Page was dismayed by the near-saturation humidity that caused “long beards of mildew” to grow from the undersides of chairs in the ambassador’s residence. She recounts that the soaring temperatures made it so difficult to move about that it was necessary to employ servants to keep the household running. Dealing with those employees—who frequently quit or were fired for incompetence or stealingtried Page’s patience. But it also inspired some of her most memorable diary entries. With her poet’s gift for meticulous observation and inventive metaphor, she describes a laundress deformed by elephantiasis: “Ready for the clothes-line her great brown arms full of white sheets, rows of clothes pegs clipped to her dress like rows of nipples on some gargantuan sow.”

But Page’s chief passion was for the beauty of Brazil. Brazilian Journal is a riot of images, crammed with perceptive salutes to the glories of Rio de Janeiro: its artfully costumed women, its harbor, its stunning architecture. Outside the city, she was equally enthralled by the lush tropical vegetation that generated orchids and butterflies in astonishing profusion.

The Journal also reflects Page’s sensitivity to the often-bizarre secrets of ambassadorial life. In 1958 she met the Canadian secretary of state for external affairs, Sidney Smith, when he visited Brazil. Page reveals that she found Smith to be a genial but deeply insecure man who called his wife “Mummy” and who was afraid of finding himself awake at night in the dark while she still slept.

Yet despite such illuminating detail, Page’s book ultimately fails to satisfy. In the absence of any narrative control or intellectual overview, all the description finally weighs on the reader like too

much party chatter. Page might have given her book greater depth and direction by revealing more of herself. But except for the occasional teaser, as when she writes, “Strange how I rarely write of things that distress me,” she remains coolly detached from her creation. Brazilian Journal reads like a series of brilliant notes towards a book that, sadly, was never written.

JOHN BEMROSE

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—Compiled by Frances McNeely