Books

FROM MEMORY TO MEANING

Four Canadian authors look back with insight, passion and anger

Brian Bethune March 24 2003
Books

FROM MEMORY TO MEANING

Four Canadian authors look back with insight, passion and anger

Brian Bethune March 24 2003

FROM MEMORY TO MEANING

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

Four Canadian authors look back with insight, passion and anger

THE PAST may be a foreign country for most of us, the place where they do things differently, but it’s a writer’s natural home, the source of memory, meaning and—above all—stories. Much of the last decade’s best Canadian fiction, from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient to Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, has burrowed deep into history, personal and political, na-

tional and global. Writers have looked to the past not only to explain how we came to the here and now, but to explore themes ranging from the treachery of memory to the art and morality of storytelling itself. An obsession with history, in fact, has become the

Basilières’ Black Bird is a wildly inventive and darkly funny take on the October Crisis

dominant mode of CanLit—the common Canadian link among this multicultural country’s wide diversity of writers.

The standouts in recent fiction from lesser-known authors are all works that look back, with varying degrees of passion and anger. Characters in Jacqueline Baker’s A Hard Witching (HarperCollins), fine short stories as austere as their setting—the Sand

Hills region of Saskatchewan—never quite shake their awareness of a more hopeful past. Kipligat’s Chance (Penguin), playwright David Odhiambo’s gritty novel about an Affican-Canadian teen reaching for track stardom in contemporary Vancouver, is explicable only in the light of flashbacks to the boy’s Kenyan childhood. In Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen (Doubleday), theatre critic Kate Taylor, born in France and raised in Ottawa, creates a moving meditation on Parisian and Toronto history. But nothing plays with history like Michel Basilières’ stunning debut novel Black Bird (Knopf), a wildly inventive and darkly funny take on the October Crisis.

Not your father’s October Crisis, though. Basilières, who grew up in Montreal with his francophone father and anglophone mother, was 10 years old when an FLQ cell kidnapped British diplomat James Cross in the fall of 1970. Childhood memories filtered through a delight in the macabre make Basilières’ version very different from the start. Although the place is very clearly Montreal, and someone named Cross is abducted, the time is impossible to pin down. One character, among many who feel powerless to make any impact on the world, is reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel first published in 1984. There’s already a Parti Québécois premier in office—something that was, of course, not the case in 1970—and this unnamed chain-smoker runs over a pedestrian one New Year’s Eve. (The victim was not, as in René Lévesque’s 1977 accident, a homeless man lying on the road, but a tipsy FLQ terrorist screaming “Vive le Québec fibre!” at the moment of impact.)

An obsession with history has become the common Canadian link among this multicultural country’s wide diversity of writers

Then again, since Basilières’ main characters, the extended Desouche family, five off Grandfather’s sinister trade of bodysnatching, the whole novel has an anachronistic feel. Unlike 19th-century “resurrection men,” who provided corpses for medical schools, Grandfather—like the premier, many characters are known only by their archetypes—has just one customer. That would be mad doctor Cameron Hyde, whose name reflects both Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego and Montreal’s real-life evil scientist, Dr. Ewen Cameron, (in the 1950s and ’60s, Cameron, a world-renowned Montreal psychiatrist, used experimental methods—including massive doses of electroshock, and injections of LSD and the muscle relaxant curare—on unsuspecting patients. In most cases, they were permanently brain-damaged or psychologically shattered.)

Montreal police, the target of Basilières’ most vicious barbs (even nastier than the ones he directs at the Catholic Church), know all about the family business. When they need to cover up the premier’s unfortunate incident, they show up at the Desouche door, dead terrorist in hand. Everything seems to work out nicely. The cops shed an inconvenient burden, Grandfather gets a rare winter prize—things are always slow after the cemetery grounds freeze—and the doctor receives an unusually fresh body. “This was one good

corpse,” sums up Basilières’ sardonic narrator. The exception to the general delight is granddaughter Marie, the dead man’s secret lover and fellow FLQ member. Her reaction to Hubert’s broken body—she assumes he was beaten to death by the police—eventually fills the streets of Montreal with soldiers.

Bravura plotting—the author ties up loose ends with Dickensian aplomb—and comic talent are only the surface of Black Bird’s achievement. Basilières has the essential qualities of a first-rate satirist, in spades. He displays an abiding love for his characters, however awfully they behave, but his rage is equally inextinguishable. After Grandfather loses an eye to his pet crow—which then, in Black Bird’s funniest sequence, takes to following the old man about like Capt. Hook’s crocodile, hoping for another taste—the reader assumes some obvious transcendence is in the offing: having lost an eye, Grandfather will gain perspective. Basilières briefly raises the possibility before gleefully slamming the door on it. This man, who dug up his first wife, sold her body to Hyde and gave the ring she wore in the coffin to his second bride, emerges from his ordeal nastier than ever.

And there are intriguing themes as well, including the potential quagmire of bilingualism. The Desouches are an uneasy AngloFrench blend; some speak both languages, some only one, and misunderstandings abound. Grandson Jean-Baptiste prefers French novels to English works but cannot read them in the original. That feeling of being suspended between the two solitudes probably reflects Basilières’ own fife—he now fives in Toronto and wrote Black Bird in English. His brilliant novel is, in fact, an extended metaphor for the messy, intractable,

essentially unbreakable web that history has made of Canada.

Bilingualism is also a theme running through Kate Taylor’s elegant first novel Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen. Marie, the contemporary Montreal protagonist of a story that stretches back a century, is a translator who often looks wistfully on unilingual lives: “no awkwardness or difficulty, false starts or left turns.” But her linguistic hesitations are only part of her larger concerns over identity and belonging.

Madame Proust, whose diaries Marie is reading, is an assimilated Jew who sees her family torn apart by the anti-Semitic overtones of the Dreyfus affair, even as she frets over the future prospects of her delicate son, Marcel, whose homosexuality she never openly acknowledges. A generation later, Sarah Bensimon is a young Jewish girl sent from Paris to Canada to escape the Nazis; after she learns her parents have perished in the Holocaust, she builds an uneasy life in Toronto, trying to recapture the past in her kitchen. Marie, for her part, is in Paris on the run from an unrequited passion for Sarah’s son, another gay man.

Marie, the protagonist of Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, comes to view literature as ‘the cure for heartbreak’

Fittingly, in a novel coloured by the presence of Marcel Proust, the original obsessedwith-the-past writer, pure memory comes to have no value for Marie. The translator dedicated to “words, not meaning,” begins to “aspire,” in her words, to the higher calling of storytelling, starting down the path to the conclusion of this subtle and beautiful novel: “I have found the cure for heartbreak. It is literature.”

Few people in Jacqueline Baker’s A Hard Witching, eight stories set among the hardscrabble farm country near the Sand Hills of Saskatchewan, actively feel sorry for themselves. But they’re aware there were once more people, more good times, more hope, and many feel the fragility of their way of life. In Sand Hills, the narrator’s dying mother,

the daughter of a family who constantly told tall tales to brighten their drab existence, explains a line of boots stuck upside down on fence posts. “Those boots have been there as long as you and as long as me and as long as your grandmother, as long as people have lived and died on this land.” And, conveniently forgetting the natives, three generations is about right.

Baker’s style is spare and elliptical; none of her stories has the feel, like some short fiction, of being novels that didn’t quite work out. Nor do they yield their meanings easily. But Baker’s insights into the human heart are acute, and she displays a gift for extracting large meaning from brief moments, such as in the title piece. There, a lonely widow feels the underpinnings of her whole life knocked loose by the sight of a diviner climbing out of her dry well: “As her eyes adjusted to the darkness and the man drew nearer, she could make out his shape coming slowly toward her, and she was overcome by an awful terror, as if everything evil in the world was about to climb up out of that pit.”

David Odhiambo’s Kipligat’s Chance promises, at first glance anyway, a more straightforward story. At 16, John “Leeds” Kipligat, an African refugee living with his parents in a rundown part of Vancouver and doing his best to win a track scholarship at an elite U.S. university, seems as newly made as any immigrant or teenager. He’s at ease in contemporary street idiom, a nice kid with prospects and friends—including girlfriends—capable of bantering with local whores and being helpful to his parents. So why, then, does Leeds occasionally lock himself in the bathroom and slice his arms with his father’s razor blade?

The answer lies in the upheavals that, five years earlier, had driven his family from Kenya and led to the disappearance of his adored older brother, the favoured child. Odhiambo, 38, who came to Canada from Kenya at about the same age as Leeds, describes Vancouver life in an engaging, choppy, hip-hop style. And the running sequences, far from being a too-easy metaphor for a kid fleeing his troubles, are gripping. But Odhiambo’s writing moves up another notch in Leeds’s Kenyan flashbacks—in which the teenager is visibly straining to keep childhood memory alive by shaping it into a narrative. Remembrance of Things Past, the title of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, seems to be CanLit’s goal as well. I?il