The gadfly of Quebec

Mordecai Richler sets off another furor

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 30 1992

The gadfly of Quebec

Mordecai Richler sets off another furor

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 30 1992

The gadfly of Quebec


Mordecai Richler sets off another furor

OH CANADA! OH QUEBEC! REQUIEM FOR A DIVIDED COUNTRY By Mordecai Richler (Penguin, 277 pages, $14.99)

Midway through Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country, Mordecai Richler discusses the “fits of sentiment” that prompted him to write his latest book. As Canada “teeters on the verge of fracturing,” writes Richler, he finds himself looking at anglophones and francophones and wondering why they cannot “learn to celebrate what binds them together.” The answer, says Richler, is what “I would unhesitatingly place as the number 1 adhesive, the true common denominator—bad taste.” The remark is vintage Richler: the perpetual outsider who seemingly has never met a social, ethnic or religious group whose foibles he could not skewer with acerbic wit and often painful accuracy. That quality has earned him much critical acclaim internationally in close to 40 years as an author and essayist—and much resentment from his invariably offended subjects. Last week, as Richler contemplated the explosive early reaction in Quebec to his newest book, he told

Maclean ’s. “There is nothing -

like pointing at childish behavior to make people even more petulant.”

After excerpts from the book appeared last week in several newspapers, it drew an apoplectic reaction in forums ranging from the editorial pages of Quebec’s major newspapers to the House of Commons. The objection, in each case: that Richler’s view of Quebec and its nationalist movement is overly harsh and unfair—particularly his assertion that the province’s history reflects a deep strain of anti-Semitism. Bloc Québécois MP Pierrette Venne demanded that the book be banned on the grounds that it incites hatred against Quebecers, although her party’s leader, Lucien Bouchard, later said that he disagreed with the demand. And columnist Pierre Foglia called Richler “an imbecile” in the Montreal daily La Presse. But Richler

was unrepentant. He declared: “I would rather these people look at why I say these things rather than just whining about what I say.”

In fact, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, which is also being published in Britain and the United States, paints an often devastating description of pettiness, paranoia and anti-Semitism in Canada, and most particularly Quebec, from the 1930s to the present. Although Richler has written of his home province in the past with a mixture of affection and frustration, his mood now hovers much closer to exasperation. Some elements of the book have already appeared in an extended essay in the Sept. 23,1991, issue of The New Yorker magazine. That essay, although often pedantic in tone, caused a furor in Quebec. In the book, Richler has restored the customary acid edge to his writing. And many of his critics within the Quebec intelligentsia, who receive harsh treatment in Oh Canada!, including Lise Bissonnette, publisher of the Montreal daily Le Devoir, have unwittingly done him a favor by responding to his original criticisms in ways that perpetuate the images he creates of them as self-important, blinkered ideologues. More disturbingly, their reactions on one contentious issue indicate another shared characteristic with English-Canadians:

an unwillingness to confront the nationwide existence of anti-Semitism in this country.

In structure, the book is

little more than a series of loosely strung anecdotes dealing with recent political history and language bickering in Quebec. Often, Richler

mocks the absurdity of Quebec’s draconian laws forbidding the use of languages oth-

er than French on commercial signs. Oh Canada! opens with a description of a middle-aged francophone standing outside Richler’s favorite Montreal pub, preparing an outraged complaint to the Quebec government over the existence of a sign in English reading, “Today’s special: Ploughman’s lunch.”

The man, says Richler, was one of a group of “self-appointed vigilantes” who “dutifully search the downtown streets for English-language or bilingual commercial signs that are an affront to Montreal’s visage linguistique [linguistic face]—‘Hiya! Vermont baseball fans welcome here,’ say, or ‘Happy Hour 5 to 7.’ ” At other points, Richler creates short but devastating images of Quebec’s provincial and federal politicians. Premier Robert Bourassa, he says, “belongs to that big band of wearisome but enduring politicians, strangers to wit or charm, of whom it is unfailingly said: ‘Ah yes, but the private man, if only you knew him, is an absolute delight. ’” Prime Minister Brian Mul-

_ roney appeared upon first

meeting as someone who “smiled too eagerly and was a shameless flatterer” and who, “wearing a suit that looked too expensive by far and Gucci shoes, glib in both English and French, struck me as the quintessential South Boston [politician].” And although Richler professes a sneaking admiration for former premier René Lévesque (who died in 1987), and calls him “charismatic [and] vulnerable,” he adds that he “did not merit his reputation for honesty.”

The most controversial theme of the book, however, and one about which Richler clearly feels most strongly, is the anti-Semitism that he4 claims many of Quebec’s leading political and intellectual leaders exhibited in the past. In earlier works, most notably in his 1984 series of essays, Home Sweet Home, Richler has focused on anti-

Semitic attitudes in English Canada, citing as culprits, among others, former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Richler writes that King, “doing his utmost to keep undesirables [Jews], out of the country during World War II, failed to turn the trick.” And in an essay in New Statesman in 1969, Richler declares that former governor general Lord Tweedsmuir is “abhorrent to me, because under the name of John Buchan he wrote thrillers choked with anti-Semitic nonsense.”

Similarly, he has seized upon that issue in essays and novels set outside the country. But Richler, who grew up in the mean streets of inner-city Montreal in the early 1930s and 1940s, says that anti-Jewish feeling was higher in Quebec than in the rest of the country, and he documents numerous instances.

Among them, he quotes Abbé Lionel Groulx, a leading figure in Quebec intellectual life until the 1960s, as saying that Jews “can be found behind all businesses, all shady enterprises, all the pornography operations. . . . This same concern for money makes [them] put aside all moral scruples.” And Richler cites a series of blatantly anti-Semitic remarks made in the pages of Le Devoir in the 1930s by the newspaper’s writers. Those remarks included advice to readers to avoid Jewish shopkeepers, who have “cheating and corruption in their bloodstream,” and the rhetorical question, “Why change one’s name if one can’t change one’s nose?” As well, Richler says, the newspaper at various times advocated policies that included denying Canadian nationality to Jewish immigrants, denying Jews the right to vote, issuing them a special passport—and even deporting them. Those positions led Richler to make the

provocative declaration that during the 1930s, “the racist effusions of Le Devoir more closely resembled Der Stürmer [a German Nazi newspaper of the same period] than any other newspaper I can think of.”

Disturbingly, much of the early comment on Richler’s book has centred more on his linking of Quebec nationalism of that time with antiSemitism than on the documentation he provides that the sentiment existed. In a long and bitter editorial in Le Devoir last week, Bissonnette condemned Richler’s comparison of the newspaper to Der Stürmer by calling it “defamation” and failed to rule out legal action. But Bissonnette’s editorial did not discuss the examples that Richler gave to substantiate his allegations. Instead, she responded with an unfavorable comparison of her own by suggesting that a recent interview featuring Richler and journalist Barbara Frum televised by the CBC resembled a “Rhodesian scene” featuring “a high-society matron” and “a poor disaffected neighbor who complains that the neighbors are ingrates.”

Richler’s assertion that anti-Semitism was worse in Quebec than in the rest of the country before the Second World War is, in fact, debatable, largely because dislike and suspicion of Jews was widespread in Canada then among both anglophones and francophones. Another new book, entitled Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada, 1920-1940, by political scientist Martin Robin, offers ample evidence of discrimination against both Canadian-born Jews and immigrants fleeing oppression in Europe.

Many of Richler’s criticisms of life in Quebec, including those dealing with anti-Semi-

tism, are scarcely more damning than those he has levelled at other parts of Canada. And Richler’s fondness for some of the things that make Quebec distinctly different from the rest of the country is still evident, although less so than in the past. Quebec City, he writes, is a “shining exception to the rule” that Canada is usually “better known for its spaces rather than the places we have built.” And the province of Quebec, Richler insists, is still the only place in Canada that he could possibly live in. Said Richler last week: “There is nowhere else in the country as interesting, or alive.”

And, Richler added, he would be prepared to continue living in an independent Quebec “at least long enough ô to assay what life would be like for those of us who are o less than pure.” It is a scenario io that Richler says he hopes u he does not have to confront.

But until that happens, the Montreal curmudgeon seems certain to remain Quebec’s bestknown—and least favorite—figure on the international literary scene.