Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Of Lion Tamers and Tents

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

This novel is divided into five parts, four of which contain references to Canada. This isn’t too surprising, as 2666 seems to have ambitions to be an “encyclopedic” novel, and what encyclopedia would be complete without Canada?

To prevent the post from becoming unwieldy, I’ve divided it into three.

From “1: The Part About the Critics”:

The owner was a Chicano in his fifties who had worked a long time in European circuses that crossed the continent from Copenhagen to Malaga, performing in small towns with middling success, until he decided to go back to Earlimart, California, where he was from, and start a circus of his own. He called it Circo Internacional because one of his original ideas was to have performers from all over the world, although in the end they were mostly Mexican and American, except that every so often some Central American came looking for work and once he had a Canadian lion tamer in his seventies whom no other circus in the United States would employ.  (132)

I think it’s meant to appear rather pathetic that, in hoping to be truly international, all the circus owner can get are a few Central Americans and one Canadian – not even a European. And why will no other circus (in the United States) employ the Canadian lion tamer? Is this a slight on our (notional?) national ability to tame large carnivores? Or is it because, being in his seventies, the Canadian lion tamer is considered too old to be reliable?

Certainly the overall impression is that the “Chicano” who owns the circus is the only one desperate enough to employ this (presumably incompetent or semi-senile) Canadian lion tamer. And then there is the word “once” – no details are given, but it seems to suggest that the Canadian’s time at the Circo Internacional was brief and not altogether successful. One imagines the owner going through a stack of résumés and muttering, “A Canadian lion tamer? I’m not making that mistake again.”

And why does the narrative specify that he can’t be employed anywhere else in the United States? Are we to assume that in some other country with less stringent standards (Canada, perhaps?) he could find work? If so, why is a Canadian lion tamer so desperate to work in the United States that he will take a job at the Circo Internacional if he has options in his homeland?

More questions than answers. Perhaps this is Bolano’s comment on the frequently noted fact that no Canadian is considered a success by other Canadians until they succeed in the United States.

From “2: The Part About Amalfitano”:

For two days, said Lola, we were working at a roadside restaurant in Lerida, for a man who also owned an apple orchard. It was a big orchard and there were already green apples on the trees. In a little while the apple harvest would begin, and the owner had asked them to stay till then. Imma had gone to talk to him while Lola read a book by the Mondragon poet (she had all the books he’d published so far in her backpack), sitting by the Canadian tent where the two of them slept.  (166-7)

A Canadian tent – not exactly paradigm-breaking. Being (apparently) nothing more than a vast wilderness with a few widely spaced population centres huddled along our southern border, as if cuddling up to the hectic machine of the United States in search of warmth, Canada is associated with nature, the outdoors, hiking and camping – we Canadians know all about that sort of thing, so no doubt we make good tents.

Camping was also central to the experience of Canada portrayed in the Sylvia Plath poem that we considered recently, and the idea that we are essentially a wilderness nation crops up again and again – in fact, it was there at our literary inception.

This Canadian tent sits in Bolano’s novel like a two-word symbol crystallizing everything our country means to the world. We’ll just have to learn to accept it.


Canada Killed the Passenger Pigeon?

Tom Waits, Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour

I don’t know whether, once you have an idea in your mind, you start to see it everywhere, or whether taking up an idea makes you a magnet for anything to do with that idea … but I do know that since I started writing about references to Canada, I seem to be coming upon them everywhere, even (or perhaps especially?) in the least expected places. So there I was, innocently trolling YouTube for Tom Waits videos the other day, when I came upon this: a compilation of bits Waits has done on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show over the last few years. The reference to Canada is part of a segment on “Birds”, which begins around 1:28; the relevant quote comes at about 2:38.

Here’s the quote if you don’t want to sit through the video:

The last wild passenger pigeon was shot by a Canadian in Quebec in 1907.

That’s an interesting claim. The passenger pigeon is probably one of the most famously extinct animals in the world – by which I mean, if you asked people to name extinct animals, the passenger pigeon would likely be near the top of the list (after the dinosaurs, of course). Not that wiping entire species off the planet is anything to be proud of, but this would mean that Canada played a key role in a fairly major event in North American natural history.

But is it true?

Here, by way of contrast, is an excerpt from the “Last wild survivors” section of the Wikipedia entry on the Passenger Pigeon:

The last fully authenticated record of a wild bird was near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, on March 22, 1900, when the bird was killed by a boy with a BB gun.

The Canadian Encyclopedia gives the same information as Wikipedia, as does the Smithsonian. So the weight of evidence seems to be against Waits here.

Curioser and curioser, as Alice would say. What’s going on? Has Tom Waits just made up his facts? What lies behind this attempt to slander Canada (and Quebec in particular) as the place of the passenger pigeon’s final demise? Why does he insist it was a Canadian who shot the last wild bird?

It’s possible that Waits picked up this false fact somewhere and is passing it on in all innocence, actually believing it to be true. But that seems both too likely and too uninteresting to be worthy of discussion.

Three other possible reasons for his statement present themselves:

1. Personal vendetta

For some reason, Tom Waits hates Canada. Who can say what might lie behind this – a bad experience on tour? Lukewarm reaction to Franks Wild Years from the Massey Hall crowd? Rejection by a Canadian woman – perhaps a Quebecoise, to explain his specifying Quebec as the scene of the crime?

2. Wishful thinking

Waits simply can’t face up to his own nation’s responsibility for the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and so he shifts the guilt to the always-amenable neighbour to the North. U.S. history isn’t the brightest when it comes to the treatment of wild animals, and any American of conscience could be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy about it; but Canada has nothing to brag about in that respect either, so we shouldn’t throw stones.

3. Performance art

Perhaps Waits just enjoys slipping a made-up fact in among historical truths to see who he can fool?

This is particularly troubling given that Waits has a reputation for knowing unusual but true facts. Jon Pareles, in a  New York Times profile, describes him this way:

In unscripted conversation … with the buzz in his voice, the metaphorical mind-set and the strange-but-true fact at his fingertips….  (“A Grizzled Troubadour Dusts Off His Bowler” NY Times, Oct. 20, 2011)

If Waits had dropped his “fact” about the passenger pigeon’s wild existence being extinguished by a Canadian in Quebec, no doubt Pareles would have bought it. Who knows – maybe he did.

Waits may see this as a form of performance art: he weaves together tapestries of odd fact, and occasionally he adds something fake in order to keep his audience on their toes.

And what does this tell us about Canada? Apparently Waits considers Canada a country of convenience for raconteurs: we’re the sort of place that is well-known enough that people have heard of us, but obscure enough that you can say almost anything about us without being challenged because nobody really knows the facts. The last wild passenger pigeon was shot in Quebec? Hey, sure, why not. That’s that snowy country to the north of us, right? Sounds plausible.

How should we take this: offended at being falsely accused of murdering the last wild passenger pigeon? Or slightly depressed because, while naturally we abhor the extinction of animals, it did make us sound, for just a moment, like kind of a badass country, and now that we know it’s false, we almost wish it were true? And has Tom Waits insulted us … or actually paid us a distinctly Waitsian compliment by believing a Canadian could be capable of such a thing?

Digression on Truth and Tom Waits (unrelated to Canada)

Now if I were blessed with unlimited time and indefatigable energy, I would take the initiative and check all the other “facts” Waits proffers in the course of those clips from Dylan’s radio show. But I really can’t be bothered.

I did, however, look into his story about the origins of the phrase “baker’s dozen,” which is from a show about “Numbers” and starts at around the 4:30 mark in the video above. According to Waits:

The expression “baker’s dozen” originated with King Henry VII of England. He ordered bakers who sold underweight loaves to be beheaded.

Bakers would therefore add an extra loaf to a dozen to make sure they weren’t underweight. Again, there seems to be at least some truth to this; here’s Wikipedia on the same subject:

The oldest known source for the expression “baker’s dozen” dates to the 13th century in one of the earliest English statutes, instituted during the reign of Henry III (1216–72), called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Bakers who were found to have shortchanged customers (some variations say that they would sell hollow bread) could be subject to severe punishment including judicial amputation of a hand.

In Waits’ version, Henry III has become Henry VII (a difference of around 200 years, but who’s counting? Oh, wait – I am); but perhaps the most characteristic – dare I say Waitsian? – change is the shift from the amputation of a hand to full beheading, which ratchets up the cruelty quotient significantly. And yet in this case, it seems even the Wikipedia entry may be exaggerated. Once you start researching things on the Internet, it becomes pretty difficult to come to any sort of conclusions about objective truth, but with that proviso, here are a couple of other notes on the same subject.

From The Phrase Finder:

The law that caused bakers to be so wary was the Assize of Bread and Ale. In 1266, Henry III revived an ancient statute that regulated the price of bread according to the price of wheat. Bakers or brewers who gave short measure could be fined, pilloried or flogged, as in 1477 when the Chronicle of London reported that a baker called John Mund[e]w was ‘schryved [forced to admit his guilt] upon the pyllory’ for selling bread that was underweight.

From The Straight Dope:

In the mid-13th century, British law imposed strict regulations on bakers regarding the weight of bread. Bakers wanted to make sure they complied, since the penalties were severe (a fine or the pillory, although nothing involving ears, so far as I know). It was difficult to make loaves of uniform weight in those days before automation, so bakers added a 13th loaf to every shipment of 12–better to be overweight than under. Thus “a baker’s dozen” meant 13.

So both these sources agree with Wikipedia except in the matter of punishment, where both mention fines or the pillory, and one adds flogging, but there is nothing about the amputation of hands, and certainly nothing as severe as beheading. Which means Waits has arguably taken us from bakers being punished by a fine all the way to their being beheaded.

Anyone familiar with his music will be aware of a certain passion for the Grand Guignol (here is just one example), which perhaps colours his recollection of the “facts” he’s so famous for dropping. And far be it from me to cast aspersions on the working methods of a great artist … but I can’t help feeling that some of these changes are a little extreme. Particularly when it comes to slandering an entire country.

A Plaything for Aristocrats

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sévigné, Selected Letters (1648-1696)

My interest in Madame de Sévigné grew out of my interest in Proust; those familiar with In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past/A la recherche du temps perdu (whatever title you prefer) will recall that the narrator’s grandmother is one of the most affecting characters in the first couple of books; Madame de Sévigné is her favourite author, and she carries a book of her letters around with her and continuously re-reads it. The Penguin edition (pictured above) is a useful introduction, though I would have appreciated a few more explanatory notes.

This passage is from a letter, dealing with issues of household economy, from Madame de Sévigné to her daughter (the majority of her letters are to her daughter):

M. de Grignan [Mme de Sévigné’s son-in-law] is asking for a very good jerkin. This is a matter of seven or eight hundred francs. What has become of a very fine one he had? Do let me remind you, my love, that one doesn’t exactly give away rags of this kind and that even the pieces are good. For God’s sake do save at least some of the excessive expense. Without knowing exactly what effect it will have, do keep a general eye so as not to let anything be lost and not to relax your efforts about anything. Don’t, as they say, throw away the handle after the axe. Look at Canada as a good thing no longer available. M. de Frontenac possesses it, and others don’t always have the same resources. (134; letter dated April 6, 1672)

The basic meaning of the letter is clear: Madame de Sévigné is instructing her daughter not to be wasteful or careless with money, and reminding her that once something is gone, you can’t always recover it. First she quotes a cliché (marked by “as they say”) about not throwing away the handle with the axe; this leads directly into Canada as an example of a “good thing no longer available.”

But in what sense is Canada “no longer available”? Unlike the reference to Canada in Casanova, which occurs after France lost Canada to England in 1759, this mention of Canada occurs when it was still solidly in French possession. In fact Frontenac had just been made Governor General of New France at the time of the letter – Madame de Sévigné observes that he now “possesses” its “resources.”

This is a classically colonialist view of Canada as a treasure trove of natural resources to be exploited by a European country. But Madame de Sévigné seems to see it in very personal terms, as though it is not really France that possesses Canada, but only Frontenac. Why?

I found the answer here:


Francis Parkman’s 1877 book Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, which includes the following:

The Comte de Grignan, son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné, was an unsuccessful competitor with Frontenac for the government of Canada. (20; footnote in Chapter 1)

So there it is: Madame de Sévigné seems to take Frontenac’s possession of Canada personally because, for her, it was personal. She is essentially telling her daughter, “If your husband had been made governor of Canada, he could have all the new jerkins he wanted. But since he wasn’t, you have to be more frugal.”

This reveals another way Canada was viewed by Europeans: as a career opportunity which would, no doubt, offer plenty of chances for self-enrichment; and also as a kind of bauble that could be passed by the King to a favourite courtier as a reward for some service or as a sign of favour – or to get him out of the way so that the King could court his mistress, as Parkman suggests may have been the case with Frontenac.

It’s fascinating to see how large-scale political decisions about who would govern our country could be made on the basis of nothing more than royal whim, and then reverberate all the way down to such a personal level that they would become part of a domestic discussion about spending money on a jerkin.

And would our history be different if Grignan, rather than Frontenac, had been made Governor? Who knows; certainly some details would have changed. Quebec City’s most famous hotel, for example, might be called the Chateau Grignan.

Canadian Bacon?

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn, Bad News (The Patrick Melrose Novels) (2003)

Bad News, the second novel in the original Patrick Melrose trilogy, picks up the story of Patrick, now 22, over the course of a week-end in New York, where he has gone to collect the ashes of his father and spends most of his time searching for and taking a harrowing smorgasbord of drugs. At this point in the trilogy I began to experience the sad sensation of diminishing returns: extended, simile-laden descriptions of drug injection become tedious pretty quickly, and there’s really not a lot else here. The devices by which Patrick encounters several of the characters from the first novel (all, coincidentally, in New York at the same time he is) become a little creaky; this problem grows even more pronounced in the third novel, Some Hope, which, like Never Mind, centres around a single day and a single party, at which almost every character from the first two novels is present, as well as some new ones.

Bad News does, however, contain a second reference to Canada:

Patrick hung up the phone and glanced at the clock. Six-thirty-five. He ordered Canadian bacon, fried eggs, toast, porridge, stewed fruit, orange juice, coffee, and tea. (225)

Canadian bacon (which can mean either peameal or back bacon) is apparently regarded quite highly by some Americans: check out the Real Canadian Bacon Co., which specializes in importing Canadian bacon (peameal in this case), “the finest gourmet meat available from Canada.” (It’s a bit sad to think the finest gourmet meat we offer is bacon. Not our Alberta steaks? Our Ontario lamb? Our wild Pacific salmon? (Does salmon count as meat?))

And on the next page:

Patrick’s breakfast was devastated without being eaten … rashers of bacon hung on the edge of a plate smeared with egg yolk…. (226)

So what exactly has Patrick ordered? In the U.S., “Canadian bacon” can mean either peameal or back bacon; but the word “rasher” in the second quote strikes me as more suggestive of back than peameal, though I’m not sure why. In the end it may not be possible, based on the references in the book, to determine a) what St. Aubyn himself means by Canadian bacon, or b) what the New York hotel at which Patrick orders the meal would mean by Canadian bacon. St. Aubyn himself is British, so the curious can peruse this rather exhaustive (not to say exhausting) survey of what exactly bacon means to the British.

To return to the point: what does this say about St. Aubyn’s views on Canada and Canadians? It seems we’ve gone from lumberjacks to producers of bacon; not what I would call making massive strides in the imagination of the world. Canada remains, in the mind of St. Aubyn, a nation devoted to providing products for the consumption of others.

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