Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Adventure”

The Perfect Place for a Safe Adventure


Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (2005)

This novel begins with Olga’s husband, Mario, announcing that he is leaving her and their two children; from there, it becomes an intense account of the anger and humiliation Olga feels as she struggles to deal with Mario’s departure and to re-create herself now that she has lost the relationship that defined her identity to the world and to herself. She becomes increasingly distracted, loses herself in the past, obsesses over Mario’s new lover — all of which culminates in a gruelling single day in which she becomes trapped in her apartment with her two children, one of whom is sick, a dying dog, and no phone or other means of communicating with anyone outside. She begins to hallucinate, she can’t manage her children, she can’t even unlock the door: she goes through a mental and emotional collapse in which her entire identity breaks down.

Ultimately she emerges from this, finds a job, makes a sort of uneasy peace with her husband, and “gets on with her life,” as the contemporary phrase has it. And yet perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is its portrayal of the rebuilt life of a divorced working mother of around 40 as, in a way, more brutal and humiliating than the complete breakdown. At the beginning of the novel, Olga has the mask she has been wearing for years — wife, mother, homemaker — ripped from her face, and she is gradually forced to confront the mysterious stranger beneath. But this experience of being directly in touch with her true, unfiltered self is unbearable, a direct path to breakdown and insanity. In the end she learns to put on a new mask of normalcy, but the self-abnegation necessary in this makes it seem like the most horrifying transformation of all.

The book refers to Canada, but unfortunately not at one of the more interesting or intense points in the story; I wish the reference to our country had come up when Olga surprises Mario and his new girlfriend on the street and beats her husband bloody, for example, or at some point during her one-day breakdown, which is described in excruciating detail. But it comes near the beginning, as Olga is reflecting on her history with Mario — not a particularly interesting context. And perhaps that in itself says something about Canada: we’re just not a country that people associate with excitement. In any case, here it is:

Where was I coming from, what was I becoming. Already at eighteen I had considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes. At twenty I was working. At twenty-two I had married Mario, and we had left Italy, living first in Canada, then in Spain and Greece. At twenty-eight I had had Gianni, and during the months of my pregnancy I had written a long story set in Naples and, the following year, had published it easily. At thirty-one I gave birth to Ilaria. Now, at thirty-eight, I was reduced to nothing, I couldn’t even act as I thought I should. No work, no husband, numbed, blunted.  (30)

No details are given about Canada; it is simply mentioned as a place Olga and Mario lived for a while shortly after they were married, but we aren’t told what made them decide to go to Canada in the first place, or why they left. It stands out as the only North American location they lived in, and it’s hard not to wonder if they weren’t particularly impressed with Canada, given that they went straight back to Europe (Spain and Greece) before returning to Italy.

I suppose we can assume that Olga and Mario didn’t find anything particularly appealing about Canada — nothing appealing enough to make them stay, anyway — but that’s about it. We can perhaps think they were drawn to Canada out of a very contemporary, toned-down (we might almost say “denatured”) version of the “spirit of adventure”: Canada is a completely safe place and yet just different enough that it might draw a young European couple for a brief period, if they want to “see some of the world,” perhaps, or “get some different experiences,” before returning to Europe, where they have children and build their real lives.

A Perfect Destination for Honeymooners (Munchausen Part II)


Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

The Second Volume

As I noted at the beginning of the post on the first volume, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is actually the product of several hands, and while the differences are not quite so noticeable in the first volume, the second volume marks a significant turn in the work. In the Preface to the second volume, the author writes:

I do not say that the Baron, in the following stories, means a satire on any political matters whatever. No; but if the reader understands them so, I cannot help it.  (117)

It’s hard to imagine a more direct way of informing the reader that the ensuing chapters are meant to be read as a satire on political matters. And a few lines later, referring ahead to the chapter where the Baron comes upon a ship of Africans transporting a cargo of white slaves:

If we were to think this a reflection on any present commercial or political matter, we should be tempted to imagine, perhaps, some political ideas conveyed in every page, in every sentence of the whole. Whether such things are or are not the intentions of the Baron the reader must judge.  (118)

This is a fascinating comment on literary interpretation, seeming to suggest that once you see an allegory in one place, you’re likely to start seeing them everywhere (“in every page, in every sentence”) until you finally lose yourself in a forest of multiple meanings. In the case of the reversed slave ship, the idea is fairly obvious; in many other parts of the book, however, one has a feeling that some point is being made, but without knowing the specific historical context (this edition provides no notes to elucidate such points), it’s difficult to figure out exactly what is being satirized. The writing style is also somewhat garbled in places, and weird details are piled on without in any way clarifying what is being described, which makes the second volume notably more difficult and bizarre reading than the first.

Before I journey too far down the path of criticism, however, I should recall the wise words of Lady Fragrantia, a character introduced in the second volume:

The fact is this, there is a right and wrong handle to everything, and there is more pleasure in thinking with pure nobility of heart, than with the illiberal enmities and sarcasm of a blackguard.  (181)

In any case, the following passage is clear; it recounts a conversation between the Baron and the Lady Fragrantia at a concert. She is talking about the benefits of the waters at a spa:

“…There is a certain something in the waters that gives vigour to the whole frame, and expands every heart with rapture and benevolence. They drink! good gods! how they do drink! and then, how they sleep! Pray, my dear Baron, were you ever at the falls of Niagara?” “Yes, my lady,” replied I, surprised at such a strange association of ideas; “I have been, many years ago, at the Falls of Niagara, and found no more difficulty in swimming up and down the cataracts than I should to move a minuet.” At that moment she dropped her nosegay. “Ah,” said she, as I presented it to her, “there is no great variety in these polyanthuses. I do assure you, my dear Baron, that there is taste in the selection of flowers as well as everything else, and were I a girl of sixteen I should wear some rosebuds in my bosom, but at five-and-twenty I think it would be more apropos to wear a full-blown rose, quite ripe, and ready to drop off the stalk for want of being pulled – heigh-ho!” ‘But pray, my lady,” said I, “how do you like the concert?”  (179-180)

Now admittedly Niagara Falls has both Canadian and American parts, but since the Horseshoe falls, located mainly in Canada, are higher, and therefore swimming up the Canadian falls would be a more impressive feat than swimming up the American, I think we can safely assume that he is referring to the Canadian falls here. He would never brag about a lesser accomplishment when the option of bragging about a greater one was available.

More interesting, however, is the surrounding context. The Baron admits himself puzzled by why Lady Fragrantia suddenly brings up Niagara Falls; however, as the immediately following passage about the nosegay makes clear, the lady is obviously making a (somehwat clumsy) pass at the (oblivious? or just uninterested?) Baron. (He has, after all, turned down marriage proposals from queens and empresses and been thrown out of a volcano by Vulcan for seducing Venus herself.) So Lady Fragrantia wants the Baron to marry her; reading backwards, then, we must ask ourselves: could the apparently unmotivated question about Niagara Falls have also been a hint at marriage? And if so, is this the earliest ever reference to one of the great cliches of Canadian culture, the honeymoon at Niagara Falls?

I think we have to assume it is.

A Land Without a Name

Finally, it’s interesting to note that all the references in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are to places in Canada (the St. “Laurence” river, Hudson’s Bay and Niagara Falls), but none of them actually uses the name “Canada”. To the author, the St. Lawrence, Niagara Falls and Hudson’s Bay are known as places of importance (major river, high waterfall, fur trade) but the country that surrounds them is not named. Canada contains certain specific features that Europeans know about, but as a whole it has no national identity, and so no real existence.

The Abodes of Despair (Munchausen Part I)


Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

This edition of Baron Munchausen, published in 2012 by Melville House as part of the Neversink Library, is based on an edition published in London in 1895. There is a lengthy “Afterword” by Thomas Seccombe, which I think served as an introduction to the 1895 edition; in it, Seccombe suggests that Raspe was the author of only a relatively small portion of the present book (Chapters II through VI of the first volume), and that what Raspe published in 1785 was little more than what we might think of as a “pamphlet,” as opposed to a full-length book. The stories told in Raspe’s chapters are all quite short, and mainly concern exploits in war and hunting, which could conceivably be exaggerrated versions of events from the life of the historical Baron Munchausen.

According to Seccombe, following the success of Raspe’s work, the publisher employed other writers to add to and expand the Baron’s adventures; by the seventh edition, in 1793, they had reached essentially the form in which we have them now.

But then there is this edition:


In his Introduction, John Carswell attributes more of the work to Raspe than Seccombe does, and argues….

But I find myself unwilling to venture too far into the thickets of these questions of authorship; for our purposes, the book was written near the close of the 18th century, and can be taken to represent some ideas that Europeans had about Canada at that time. Those who wish to know more about the history and authorship of the Baron’s adventures can follow those questions on their own.

The book is divided into two volumes, each containing references to Canada, and each slightly different stylistically. I’ve decided to treat the two volumes in two separate posts, mainly to keep the treatment of Raspe from becoming too unwieldy.

The First Volume

The Baron’s adventures are narrated in the first person, as if he were relating them to dinner guests. The events become more outlandish as the first volume proceeds, ranging  from the highly improbable (single-handedly killing thousands of polar bears with a knife) to the utterly impossible (making love to Venus (the goddess, not the planet) at the centre of a volcano) to the completely fantastical (his trip to the Moon).

Here’s one example, just for fun: while travelling in Ceylon, the Baron is suddenly confronted by a hungry lion about to spring at him; he turns to run away, only to find a crocodile right behind him with its jaws wide open, about to devour him. Seeing no hope for escape, when the lion springs at him, the Baron simply falls to the ground; to his great delight, the lion jumps headfirst into the crocodile’s mouth, and the Baron is saved.

But on to the references to Canada. This first one comes from a part of the book which Carswell attributes to Raspe, but Seccombe does not; I prefer to think it is by Raspe, just so that our country (or at least one of its major features) can be mentioned by the original author:

I embarked at Portsmouth in a first-rate English man-of-war, of one hundred guns, and fourteen hundred men, for North America. Nothing worth relating happened till we arrived within three hundred leagues of the river St. Laurence, when the ship struck with amazing force against (as we supposed) a rock….  (35)

Of course it’s not a rock – it’s the nose of a gigantic whale, which attacks the ship, then takes the anchor in its mouth and drags the ship off. There isn’t much about Canada here; the St. Lawrence river (note the alternate spelling)  is merely used as a marker of location, and one could argue that it is really just a generic feature of North America. However, the river played such an important role in Canada’s history that we Canadians tend to feel somewhat proprietary about it.

A more interesting reference comes after Munchausen has flown from Europe to South America on the back of one of two giant eagles. (To avoid any possible confusion, the “bladders” mentioned in the passage below are pods that grow on a certain South American tree and are filled with “the most delicious wine”.)

Each [i.e. each eagle] reassumed its former station; and directing their course to the northward, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico, entered North America, and steered directly for the Polar regions, which gave me the finest opportunity of viewing this vast continent that can possibly be imagined.
Before we entered the frigid zone the cold began to affect me; but piercing one of my bladdders, I took a draught [aren’t you glad I explained the “bladders” in advance?], and found that it could make no impression on me afterwards. Passing over Hudson’s Bay, I saw several of the Company’s ships lying at anchor, and many tribes of Indians marching with their furs to market….
In these cold climates I observed that the eagles flew with greater rapdity, in order, I suppose, to keep their blood in circulation. In passing Baffin’s Bay I saw several large Greenlandmen to the eastward, and many surprising mountains of ice in those seas.  (112-13)

What we have here are not the genuine impressions of a European traveller who had visited our country; rather, we are treated to a tour of what an educated European would have thought he knew about Canada in the absence of any direct knowledge.

First, a very familiar idea: ice, cold, Polar regions, frigid zones – in a couple of short paragraphs we have a catalogue of different ways of making essentially the same point: Canada is cold.

But then, a reference to something we haven’t come across before: “the Company,” which, coupled with the mention of Hudson’s Bay, can only refer to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Founded in 1670, the Company was more than just a trading concern; for a long time, it owned and essentially governed a large swath of what is now Canada, from the area around Hudson’s Bay west to Vancouver Island. The reference here is brief, but the description of the “tribes” bringing their furs to market offers a clear (though obviously oversimplified) picture of European colonialism exploiting the natural resources of the New World for profit.

An Aside

For those unfamiliar with the world of Canadian retail shopping, the Hudson’s Bay Company still exists, now in the form of a chain of department stores. My recollection is that for a long time it was known as “The Bay” and seemed, if anything, to want to elide its history and present itself simply as a one-stop destination for contemporary shoppers. Recently, however, “The Bay” has begun to incorporate historical elements into their branding, as you can see from the current version of the bag you get when you shop there:


Yes, that’s the official company coat of arms, including the company’s Latin motto, “Pro pelle cutem” (which translates roughly as “we have skin in the game“). Does Google have a coat of arms and a Latin motto? I think not.

Back to the Main Subject

At this point the Baron and his eagles are leaving what we would think of as Canada; unfortunately, his eagles crash into a frozen cloud (?) and fall to the ice below; the Baron does everything he can to resuscitate them,

fully sensible that was only by means of them that I could possibly be delivered from these abodes of despair.  (114)

Don’t worry – he survives. But not without first serving Canada one final insult, calling our land an “abode of despair.” We could make the case that the “abodes of despair” referred to here are not clearly in Canada, but it seems that our nation’s polar regions are more or less the location of these events, and on the whole the phrase seems a little too close for compliment.

Retired Quebecoises on a Pornographic Rampage


Michel Houellebecq, Platform (2001)

The main character in this novel, (coincidentally?) named Michel, is typical of Houellebecq’s narrators: a lonely, disconnected, middle-aged man with a boring but well-paid job who wanders through life seething with misanthropy and sexual frustration. In this case, however, he goes on a vacation in Thailand, where he meets Valerie, a much younger woman who works in the travel industry and who, somewhat improbably, falls for him and becomes his lover when they return to Paris.

The first reference to Canada comes just after Michel and Valerie have sex in her childhood bedroom while visiting her parents for a week-end:

On a shelf, just above the Bibliotheque Rose series, there were several little exercise books, carefully bound. “Oh, those,” she said. “I used to do them when I was about ten, twelve. Have a look if you like. They’re Famous Five stories.”
“How do you mean?”
“Unpublished Famous Five stories. I used to write them myself, using the same characters.”
I took them down: there was Five in Outer Space, Five on a Canadian Adventure. I suddenly had an image of a little girl full of imagination, a rather lonely girl, whom I would never know.  (139-40)

This is not a reference to Canada as it is, but rather to Canada as it might exist in the mind of a young French girl: a distant, mysterious, exciting and probably slightly dangerous place where heroic children would go to have an adventure. It is completely innocent of reality.

It also seems a bit out of date; as a character, Valerie is in her mid-twenties when the novel takes place in 2000-2001, so she would have been born around 1975. She says she wrote the stories when she was 10 or 12, which means they were written in the mid-eighties. Now, admittedly, large areas of Canada were an unoccupied wilderness at that time – large areas of Canada are an unoccupied wilderness now – but there were also major cities, railroads crossing the country, radio stations, TV channels, air travel, the CN Tower (tallest free-standing building in the world at that time) – in short, all the markers of a modern industrial nation, which makes the 1980s seem a bit late in the game for Canada to be playing the role of uncivilized wilderness where European children go for adventures.

On the other hand, we can give Valerie credit as an early practitioner of Enid Blyton fan fiction.

The second reference is somewhat more bizarre and requires a lengthy quotation. At this point in the novel Michel, Valerie, and Valerie’s boss Jean-Yves have gone to stay at a resort in Cuba. Valerie and Jean-Yves work for the same travel company, and they are in the process of expanding the company’s offerings to include a chain of resorts catering to European sex tourists. (Needless to say, it was Michel who originally suggested this idea.) The trip to the Cuban resort constitutes “research” for the sex resorts.  This passage begins by describing some of the other guests at the resort and then spins off into one of Michel’s pornographic fantasies:

As I was heading back to my table, having obtained, with extreme difficulty, my fourth cocktail, I saw the man approach one of the neighbouring tables, occupied by a compact group of fifty-something Quebecoises. I had already noticed them when they arrived: they were thickset and tough, all teeth and blubber, talking incredibly loudly. It wasn’t difficult to understand how they had managed to bury their husbands so quickly. I had a  feeling that it wouldn’t be wise to cut in front of them in line at the buffet, or to grab a bowl of cereal that one of them had her eyes on. As the aging hunk approached the table, they shot him amorous glances, almost becoming women again for the moment. He strutted extravagantly in front of them, accentuating his coarseness at regular intervals by gestures through his swimsuit, as though to confirm the physical existence of his meat n’ three. The Quebecoises seemed thrilled by his suggestive company; their aged, worn-out bodies still craved sunshine. He played his part well, whispered softly into the ears of these old creatures, referring to them, Cuban fashion, as “mi corazon” or “mi amor.” Nothing more would come of this, that was clear – he was content to arouse some last quivers in their aging pussies – but perhaps that was sufficient for them to go home with the impression that they had had a wonderful holiday, and for them to recommend the resort to their girlfriends. They had at least twenty years left in them. I sketched out the plot of a socially aware pornographic film entitled Senior Citizens on the Rampage. It portrayed two gangs operating in a resort, one a group of elderly Italian men, the other of pensionettes from Quebec. Armed with numchucks and ice picks, both gangs submit naked, bronzed teenagers to the most vile indecencies. Eventually, of course, they come face to face in the middle of a Club Med yacht. One after another the crew members, quickly rendered helpless, are raped before being thrown overboard by the bloodthirsty pensionettes. The film ends with a massive orgy of pensioners, while the boat, having slipped its moorings, sails straight for the South Pole.  (154-55)

Hard to know where to begin with that; these “bloodthirsty pensionettes” (“pensionette” seems to be roughly equivalent to “pensioner” or “retiree” here) from Quebec are certainly a long way from the polite, humble Canadian we’ve encountered elsewhere. The only reference to Canada that remotely compares with this is the description of Canadians, and French-Canadians in particular, as “big ruthless swine” in Bolano’s 2666 – but even there, that opinion was expressed by a character sometime between the First and Second World Wars.

This passage about the Quebecoises reads so neatly as a catalogue of misogynistic stereotypes that it almost seems like parody: the women are “tough,” they are “all teeth and blubber” and prone to violence at the buffet table; apparently they have somehow killed off their husbands, either directly or simply by driving them to an early grave through the sheer force of their abominable personalities. The reference to the bowl of cereal seems a little weak – wouldn’t it make more sense if the contested food item were more desirable (and redolent of violence), like a hunk of rare beef? But maybe the point is that they’re prepared to fight for even the most inconsequential food.  

Does this track some perception of Canadians in general, or French-Canadians in particular? Are Quebeckers looked down on by vacationers from other countries at tropical resorts, or are they considered rude or unpleasant guests? Does some segment of the French population harbour a prejudice against French-Canadians? (They certainly didn’t in Proust’s Time Regained.) Does this passage even represent prejudice against Quebeckers, or is it simply misogyny directed at women who happen to be from Quebec?

Whatever the case regarding general anti-Quebec prejudice, Michel clearly finds these (Quebec) women weirdly threatening, and his fear and revulsion at them takes over his train of thought and turns it towards the “socially aware pornographic film” that he outlines in his mind. By making the Quebec pensionettes carry out acts of overt sexual violence in his film scenario, he seems to be trying to justify the fear and sexual horror he instinctively feels while watching them interact with the Cuban man and his “meat and three” (which perhaps should be “meat and two“?).

Ultimately, it seems the unpleasant character ascribed to these “Quebecoises” is related less to their being from Quebec, and more to the fact that they are old, and therefore sexually undesirable, women – not really a group for which Michel, in the novel, expresses much sympathy. (He seems to hold to Seidel’s dictum: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.”) For him, there is really only one woman – one person, if you come to that – that he views with any genuine affection, and that is Valerie, who, being a gorgeous woman in her twenties who will do anything to satisfy him sexually, can seem like little more than a middle-aged man’s pornographic fantasy.

The Neil Young Connection

Of course, there has to be a Neil Young connection. Apparently, among his other accomplishments, Houellebecq also co-wrote the article on Neil Young for something called the Dictionnaire du Rock:

Coauteur d’une notice sur Neil Young dans le très recommandable Dictionnaire du rock dirigé par Michka Assayas….

That’s a passing mention from an article about Houellebecq; if you want to give your French chops a workout, you can read the entire Neil Young entry; according to Wikipedia, Houellebecq wrote the second half, so maybe you’ll be able to tell when his distinctive style kicks in.

We may as well wrap up with a Neil Young song; here’s one in a slightly Houellebecqian mode:

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