In search of nowhere

BRIAN BETHUNE September 11 2006

In search of nowhere

BRIAN BETHUNE September 11 2006


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In search of nowhere


Noah Richler's literary atlas is a sensitive, shrewd portrait of Canada BY BRIAN BETHUNE


The nerve novelist Yann Martel struck in 2002, when he called Canada “the greatest hotel on earth” after winning the Booker prize, continues

to reverberate. No matter that Martel is in his fourth year of patiently explaining he only meant there were a lot of interesting people from all around the world living here now; everyone knows the artist is the last man to grasp his own meaning. Commentators weighed in, sure they knew what Martel meant, because it was an idea in the air at a time when multicultural Canadian fiction was exploding into international awareness, an idea the novelist seemed to have captured in an arresting metaphor: Canada as the perfect rooming house, a peaceful, accommodating post-nation-state. Or as a soulless railway terminus, a place that demands little of its citizens and stands for nothing in international affairs.

But hotel good or hotel bad, few tried the argument that Martel was merely a writer giving a thank-you speech. Because this country is so insecure in its very existence, and lacks any sort of agreed-upon national history, we have always put a heavy weight on our writers to explain us to ourselves, a reliance that has only grown along with CanLit’s international reputation. As the controversy over Martel’s comment showed, in a culture revealed and defined by its stories, no literary theory can ever be purely literary, can ever escape making an inherently political judgment. The same, axiomatically, goes for a “literary atlas,” although, to be fair, Noah Richler didn’t even try to avoid politics.

This is My Country, What’s Yours? (McClelland & Stewart) was a monumental undertaking, involving four years of work and interviews with 100 writers before Richler could shape it into the CBC Radio series that preceded the book. Immensely thoughtprovoking—and, at times, simply provoking—the book by its title might seem to put

RICHLEP AND COMPANY: The author in conversation with (clockwise from top left) Cree poet Sky Dancer, Michael Ondaatje, short-story writer Nancy Lee, Robert Bringhurst, Margaret Atwood, Michael Turner, Saskatchewan writer Michael Helm, and James Ungalaaq

Richler firmly on the relativist “good hotel” side of the Martel debate, where any view of Canada is as valid as any other. But that’s not true. Richler is really relativist only in his epilogue, where he floats the possibility he believes what he does about Canadian writing—that it’s the product of our unforgiving land—because of his own personal circumstances. Being one of five children of iconic Montreal novelist Mordecai and his wife, Florence, meant being part of a selfreliant nuclear family that lived, physically, either in England or Canada and, psychically, somewhere between the two. The rootless outsider’s perspective may have made him more nationalistic than many more anchored to their particular place within Canada. The epilogue is charming and very Canadian in its polite and slightly apolo-


getic tone. You can tell that Richler doesn’t really mean a word of it.

Canada may have its “illogical, accidental beginnings,” Richler says in an interview, but circumstances have turned it into fortune’s favourite—a place well worth defending. Everyone who has arrived here since the glaciers began to melt 17,000 years ago has been whipsawed by climate and history: First Nations savaged by European guns and germs; conquered French Canadians; British refugees from victorious Yankees; wave after wave of survivors from the 20th century’s murderous spasms. Our struggles with the land and our lack of a binding national myth have combined to make Canada barren ground for epic thinking—a tremendous boon according to Richler, who sees the world’s current convulsions as rooted not so much in a clash of civilizations as in a clash of narrative forms. Canada, the anti-

epic society, is fertile soil for the novel, an inherently individualistic, rights-based form of story that has done more than laws or government programs to give Canadians sympathetic insight into other lives and other cultures.

For a Canadian, arguments about epic thinking and national mythology naturally turn to a comparison with the United States. That’s only a small part of This Is My Country, and mercifully so, because it brings out Richler’s worst instincts. His anti-Americanism is rawly expressed, at times almost cartoonish. The American Dream—essentially, from log cabin to White House (or to billionaire’s corner office)—is both “a very, very good myth” and “a lie,” as most recently proved by the hurricane Katrina fiasco.That’s a crude comparison Richler would never use elsewhere: he may believe that Aboriginal founding myths fell in cultural battle before the settlers’ wily novelistic narratives, but it’s inconceivable he’d ever call those myths lies. And his adoption of poet George Bowering’s gratingly cute term for citizens of the republic, USAmericans, is simply irritating.

In his own country, however, Richler is sensitive, shrewd and subtle. While Canada was once—geographically and metaphysically—Nowhere, a place where Nothing happened, time passes and things change. Writers wrest Nowhere onto the map, Richler

writes, and as history accumulates, Nowhere becomes Somewhere, “an Address with Virtues.” To the point, in fact, that Douglas Coupland doesn’t hesitate to call being middle-class Canadian today “the biggest grand prize of all in the genetic and geographical lottery that is life on earth.”

Canadians have moved from the Age of Invention (when stories bring a place into existence), through the Age of Mapping (when stories “chart the history, geography, and imagination of a country”), into our current Age of Argument (when we debate what it all means). The present moment is both opportunity and danger. We could, given the multiplicity of voices in Canada, fall into the relativist trap and decide there is nothing distinctly Canadian we can offer the world. Or we could, just possibly, shake things out into a common view, a kind of national epic that would guard against the danger of becoming what critics of the hotel metaphor fear, a common address rather than a common society. In either case, Richler argues, we are on so

beautiful a knife edge that we have to be careful in what we wish for. “The business of this age,” he says, “is the reconciliation of our novelistic plural-

ist values with a nation worth preserving.” Surveying the three ages and talking to writers from coast to coast, Richler finds commonalities in the way we tell stories— the metaphor of the house, for instance (standing for protection against what Margaret Atwood calls Bad Mommy Nature), or the motif of the photo (which once indicated that the interesting stuff happened elsewhere). And then there’s the big one, the unifying thread that links our writers across even the French-English divide: the myth of disappointment. The term is another of Richler’s bland Canadian ironies. Disappointment hardly seems to describe the emotion behind Je me souviens or the curse of the Saskatchewan farmer in the old joke who,

having learned hail has destroyed his crops and his wife has run off with the hired hand, raises his fists to heaven and cries “Goddamn the CPR!” But it works for most of us, most of the time, reflecting our mixture of reliance upon and distrust of authority in a land of company towns and far-away government. Here Richler is at the essence of his argument: the stories that bind us the most, across language and region, are ones that teach us to beware of blind allegiance.

Most immigrant writers, including those who have lately added considerable lustre to CanLit’s reputation, arrived here from countries where governments routinely do considerably more than disappoint their citizens, so they share that basic distrust of authority. What they don’t have, at least at first, is that sense of Canadian place Richler searches for in fiction by the native-born. We look to new Canadians’ writing, Richler points out, for unfamiliar stories and “for an affirmation”

of Canada as everyone’s best possible home. But what of those who never write of Canada, who give real bite to Richler’s title question: this is my country, what’s yours? How do they fit in his scheme of evolving CanLit? Richler has a long conversation with Rohinton Mistry, who has been ensconced in urban southern Ontario for 30 years writing brilliant fiction about his Indian homeland. Asked if Canada has entered into his work in any way he can identify, Mistry pauses for some time before answering in the affirmative, in a way that resonates with anyone who has trouble articulating what makes home home. Essentially, he told Richler, he writes here about

there: “If either one was taken away from the equation, then it would collapse for me.”

It’s not all politics and theory, of course. Richler is also deeply interested in literature as literature, in the alchemy of writing itself. When he speaks with Gaétan Soucy, the author of The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, whose fiction can scarcely be shoehorned into any known theory of writing, Richler quite sensibly lets the Québécois genius carry on an existentialist and aesthetic argument with himself. “Perhaps I have been expecting too much from literature,” says Soucy, troubled by the fact he was having difficulty with his current novel. “Basically, I have been asking it to save me.” And in St. John’s, Richler assembles a group of talented and interconnected Newfoundland artists to discuss the thorny ethics of writing about friends and family.

A good novel, like any genuine work of art, requires what Graham Greene called “the

sliver of ice” lodged in a true artist’s heart, the willingness to portray emotional truth even when others see it as a betrayal. Among those present in St. John’s were author Michael Winter and filmmaker Mary Lewis, Winter’s companion during the time he wrote This All Flappened. The novel’s protagonist bore a remarkable resemblance to Winter, and his lover was much like Lewis. She thought she was all right with that “because I knew where the fiction is and where the reality ends.” But everything changed when they heard, in a crowded family kitchen during a Christmas visit, a radio discussion about who the characters really were. “Michael and I looked at

each other, and we looked at my parents, and Michael kind of caved in the middle of it all, and his face died, and that was the turning point for me. I realized that even friends could not help but draw the comparison.”

Historical fiction, too, often tiptoes through the same ethical minefield. Sometimes relatives and admirers of recent histori-

cal personages object just as much as hurt lovers; other times, as with the case of the made-up mistress Wayne Johnston gave Joey Smallwood in The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, they don’t. But no fewer than three Newfoundland women have claimed to be the “real” person behind Johnston’s entirely fictional character. The issue is important because historical fiction is one of CanLit’s dominant genres. One reason we love to write it, it’s clear, is to create history, to make up for its perceived lack in Canada. Authors also relish the chance—you can’t libel the dead—to name names and play with real-life characters as they wish. Then again, some writers might be motivated by Prairie author Guy Vanderhaeghe’s snarled response to a query about why so much great historical fiction was coming out of Saskatchewan: “Because we’ve got no f-king future, that’s why.”

Regardless, writers go on writing, ice sliver firmly embedded, and rightly so, in Richler’s opinion. To worry about being nice is to “condemn the writing to being second-rate.” It’s a lesson the Richler children learned for themselves, “at my father’s hands,” he says. “I had a car accident when I was 16, and a scene not unlike that later appeared in Joshua Then and Now.” And Noah Richler, under the name ofjude Weiss, is a frequent presence in sister Emma Richler’s two books. “My sister does have the necessary ruthlessness,” he laughs, “though I don’t—I’m too nice a guy to be a novelist.” More irony from a first-rate polemicist.