Books

CORRECTING A LITERARY DEFICIENCY

How the judges in CBC Radio's second Canada Reads contest chose a toughie

Brian Bethune May 5 2003
Books

CORRECTING A LITERARY DEFICIENCY

How the judges in CBC Radio's second Canada Reads contest chose a toughie

Brian Bethune May 5 2003

CORRECTING A LITERARY DEFICIENCY

Books

How the judges in CBC Radio's second Canada Reads contest chose a toughie

BRIAN BETHUNE

THE PRINCIPAL CHARM of CBC Radio’s inaugural Canada Reads contest last year was how it shed light on the notoriously murky world of literary prizes. Listeners finally had an answer to the oft-asked question: how on earth did they pick that book? Over the course of five half-hour programs in April, an admittedly atypical literary juryformer prime minister Kim Campbell, Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and actor Megan Follows joined writers Leon Rooke and Nalo Hopkinson—winnowed a field of five Canadian works down to one single “book that Canada should read.” With no cash prize attached, it was all good, clean fun until Page’s winning pick, In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, went on to sell 90,000 copies in 2002—an unexpected bonus for publisher Vintage Canada.

This year’s taping began in January with moderator Bill Richardson greeting the judges, as motley a crew as last year’s. Montreal broadcaster Denise Bombardier is championing Next Episode, Hubert Aquin’s 1965 tale of a separatist terrorist. Will Ferguson, Calgary novelist and Maclean’s contributing

editor, argues for Paul Hiebert’s 1947 classic, Sarah Binks. Mag Ruffman of Richmond Hill, Ont., actor and TV’s Ms. Fix-It, has The Lost Garden (2002) by Helen Humphreys. Vancouver author Nancy Lee defends Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s Booker-winning 2001 fantasy. And Justin Trudeau, who is, well, Justin Trudeau, backs The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1998) by Wayne Johnston.

Ferguson kicks things off by calling Sarah Binks, a fictional biography of a dreadful poetess, an exquisite spoof of CanLit pretension. The others don’t exactly rally to the flag. “ ‘Wonderfully bad,’ you call it,” says Trudeau. “You can drop the ‘wonderfully’.” Lee, picking up on Ferguson’s comment that few Canadians under 5 0 will have read it, says, “There’s a reason for that.” When the first-round ballots are counted, Sarah suffers another early demise (in the novel she dies of mercury poisoning from a horse thermometer at age 23). For Fer-

guson, it’s a merciful release. No longer saddled with a lost cause, he gleefully embraces his new role as agent provocateur. He’s not the only one to find a niche. From early on Ruffman decides to play the ditz, a part she takes on with shrewdness and comic timing.

For Round 2, Ferguson zeros in on Life of Pi. The jury shouldn’t promote a book already so well-known, he suggests, and particularly not one with a plot first found in a 1981 Brazilian novella, even if Martel acknowledges his debt to it. It’s almost possible to hear Lee’s eyes roll as she snaps, “It’s not originality of concept that matters, but what you do with it.” Then she adds, “You and I were supposed to have an alliance!” “Yeah,” Ferguson retorts, “and you broke it so fast you made my head spin.”

The intriguing implication of this, that a Lee-Ferguson cabal was to have propelled Sarah Binks and Life of Pi to the finals, is studiously ignored by everyone. The voting is another 3-2 split with Ferguson, Ruffman and Trudeau uniting to sink Lee’s choice. Ferguson flashes an evil grin at Lee as he tosses his copy over his shoulder. She then

launches a cogent defence of Pi—‘‘big questions, brilliantly grappled with”—while the detractors assail its “pretentiousness” (Bombardier), “contrived scenes” (Trudeau) and “naive theology” (Ferguson). It’s one of the event’s best exchanges, even if it takes place after they’ve already voted Martel off.

Round 3 begins with Trudeau’s defence of Colony, “about a strange little man”—that would be Johnston’s fictionalized Joey Smallwood—who eventually decides that Newfoundland has “to give up the dream of nationhood, but believes it’s still possible to be a Newfoundlander and a Canadian.” Of course it’s Trudeau’s fate that anything remotely political he says will conjure up his father (just read “Quebecer” for “Newfoundlander”). Ferguson, stirring the waters again, wants to talk about historical distortion. What about the fictional adulterous affair Johnston created for Smallwood? How would a descendent of Joey feel about that?

There’s a slight pause, as if the judges were wondering who’d be first to mention the obvious. Trudeau himself does. “Yeah, I’d hate it if someone wrote something like that about my dad. And someone probably will.” Still, he grants artists’ right to make what they want of the past. It’s an important question these days, when historical fiction is so dominant in CanLit, but it’s not pursued by the judges, probably because the writers present—including Ferguson—are incomplete agreement with Trudeau. Only

Ruffman, the actor, seems troubled. “After I read Colony, I thought I knew a lot about Newfoundland, but maybe I don’t.”

After Rufftnan’s Lost Garden is finally weeded out, it’s down to the finals. Richardson asks whether it’s possible to “love” Next Episode. “OK, it’s not beach reading,” Bombardier concedes. But “you can learn things and also encounter very deep emotions.” By that, Bombardier is emphasizing Aquin’s central place in Quebec cultural life in the sixties. Born in 1929, the brilliant, tormented Montrealer announced in 1964 that he was going underground to seek independence through terrorism. Arrested shortly afterwards, he spent four months in a psychiatric institution, where he wrote Next Episode, about a violent revolutionary imprisoned in a psychiatric institution. In 1977, suffering from severe depression, Aquin killed himself.

The novel, written in fiery, romantic, hardto-translate French by a mentally unstable author about a mentally unstable protagonist, is very hard slogging. But for Bombardier, the book is emblematic of the nationalist generation that came of age in the ’60s. That prompts Ferguson to declare, “Canadians could learn something.” To which Lee peevishly replies, “You keep going back to this idea novels are about facts.” The battle lines, and the outcome, now seem clear. Lee is backing Trudeau’s choice; Ferguson, Bombardier’s. Ruffman, the swing vote, has never hidden her distaste for Next

Episode. So everyone is somewhat stunned when the 3-2 decision names Next Episode as the book Canadians should read. Bombardier is so surprised she utters the event’s single most inane comment: “I can say this, there is a future for Canada.” Ferguson, meanwhile, has rightly deduced from Ruffman’s body language that she’s afraid she wrote down the wrong title. But a check of the ballots shows that the actor voted for Colony, just as she’d intended. As the penny drops, every head suddenly swivels toward Trudeau. Yes, he cheerfully admits, he voted against his own book: “Canadians should read Next Episode to understand Quebec.”

With an air of “what have we done” hovering about them, the judges attempt to salute their winner. Trudeau, absurdly, declares that Colony is the better book, “the one that will live,” implying that Next Ep iso de is better for us—a dose of literary castor oil for improved national unity. Ferguson calls Aquin’s novel “irrational,” but good. Right, adds Ruffman, who has ratcheted her perkiness up yet another level, “if you ever want into the mind of an irrational terrorist...” That Canadians may well reply “no thanks” to the invitation occurs only to Lee.

The jury’s choice of an essentially unreadable novel arose partly from the ambiguity of the job. They were to pick not the best book, but the book Canada should read—an opening that gave free rein to CanCult’s ingrained nannyism. Far more crucial, however, was the judges’ unpredictable chemistry—proof of the axiom that the jury always trumps the titles. Lee, who presented the best literary arguments, didn’t win over anyone. Meanwhile, Trudeau, every inch a politician-in-training, seemed to be demonstrating his Quebec credibility and winning Bombardier’s approval. Two personalities dominated: Bombardier and Ferguson. The Montrealer doggedly and adroitly promoted Next Episode either as literature or as a civic duty depending on how the conversation was unfolding. Ferguson was the event’s loose cannon, shaking up previously settled opinions. His decision, once he had lost his own book, to adopt the cause of Aquin was the turning point of Canada Reads.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. Will dutiful Canadians bear down and swallow Next Episode in anything near the numbers who picked up Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion? Or will they opt for something tastier? A slice of Pi, perhaps? M