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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “First nations”

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity

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David Foster, The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

I bought this book for two reasons: first, its seductively minimalist, Rothko-esque cover (see above), and second, because it bills itself as a “re-telling” of the myth of Attis, which I’m familiar with from Poem 63 by Catullus (available online in Latin and in English — essentially, Attis, swept up by the ritual of Cybele, emasculates himself, then regrets it. (Apologies to Catullus (and his fans) for that summary.))

The novel takes place mainly in 1968 and tells the story of a group of young people (more or less “hippies”) who move to the remote Erinungarah Valley to start a commune. It’s made up largely of unattributed dialogue and long-ish digressions on history, mythology and Australian botany, not all of which is as fascinating as it might be; in the end (SPOILER ALERT!) it turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog story (à la Tristram Shandy, I suppose) since the main characters have only just arrived in the Valley and begun setting up the commune when the narrator announces that he is about to die and can’t finish the book.

Foster, however, has woven in enough hints and “flash-forwards” that we can figure out more or less what is coming: at some point in the relatively near future, Attis (a foundling who grew up in the Valley and becomes a leader of sorts to the communards) will decide that all the problems of the world are caused by men, and that the only way to bring peace and harmony to humanity is to eradicate the scourge of “maleness”, at which point he will castrate himself and be transformed into a tree. Most of the other men follow his lead and castrate themselves as well (but don’t turn into trees), and after that the Valley becomes a paradise where everyone gets along and no one ages–or maybe they just age more slowly than normal, it’s a little hard to be certain. But you get the idea: when male genitalia disappear, society’s problems vanish as well.

Note

Since writing the above summary, I have acquired (no mean feat) and read Foster’s The Ballad of Erinungarah (1997), a book-length poem purporting to be written by Timothy Papadimitriou, who appears in The Glade as a small child. It is in some sense a continuation of the story of the novel, describing how the goddess Brigid appeared in the Valley and seduced (in a purely intellectual/spiritual sense) Attis, which ultimately leads him to castrate himself. It is written in a rather fragmented style, though, and certainly doesn’t answer all the questions a reader will have after finishing the novel. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much you could get out of the poem if you hadn’t read the novel first. The Ballad, alas, fails to mention Canada and so can’t be treated more fully here.

The Canadian Dodge

The novel includes a (very minor) Canadian character, as well as a couple of other additional references to Canada and Canadians. We’ll start with the Canadian, who first appears in the list of characters at the beginning of the book — a list that Foster uses throughout the novel to further the plot, which is helpful given the book’s “unfinished” state. It’s also a handy way to keep track of who’s who in a novel full of unattributed dialogue spoken by a huge and shifting cast of (largely indistinguishable spaced-out hippie) characters:

Johnny Dakota. Late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian vocalist. Guest at the Latin Quarter nightclub in Sydney. Used Michael Ginnsy on one of his albums (appeared recently at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, according to the Herald Metro).  (xxiv)

We can’t glean much about what Foster thinks of Canada from that brief description. He’s clearly aware that we have a First Nations population, and perhaps he adds that element to Johnny Dakota’s background to give him a little more interest. (As a side note, the novel also mentions “Eskimos in igloos” (351), which at least has the advantage of bringing up the common idea that Canada is cold.)

When Johnny Dakota actually appears in the novel, he is described as “a plump man with the Oriental eyes of a native Indian” (110). He then engages in a brief conversation with Diane Zoshka, a teenaged protester who will become the lover of Attis and one of the founders of the commune in the Erinungarah Valley:

‘I’ll have a large Scotch.’
‘You will not!’
‘Come on, let her have one. Don’t be a party poopa.’
‘She is just fifteen, Johnny.’
‘I’m jailbait, Johnny. Better watch out for me. So what do you think about Vietnam?’
‘I dunno. I’m Canadian.’
‘But are you happy with the situation in Vietnam?’
‘I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.’  (110)

Fascinating, no? Diane, a professional protester with communist leanings, is obviously against the war in Vietnam. Whether she assumes that Johnny is American and wants to confront him about the war, or whether demanding what people think about Vietnam is simply her way of making conversation, is a bit hard to tell. Johnny’s response, however, is the classic move of Canadians when they are mistaken for Americans by people from other countries — essentially, “Hey, don’t blame me for that whole Vietnam thing, I’m Canadian, I had nothing to do with it.” (We might compare this with the idea of Canada as a haven for draft dodgers, which came up in a Lorrie Moore novel.)

The dodge doesn’t work, though. Diane follows up by asking what he thinks of the situation in Vietnam (a Canadian can have an opinion, after all), and Johnny responds with “I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.” This also strikes me as characteristically Canadian: he doesn’t come out strongly for or against the war, instead trying to stake out a middle ground while leaning a bit towards the perceived opinion of his interlocutor. But where did that “we” come from? In answer to her first question, he distanced himself from Vietnam by saying he was Canadian, implying that it was an American war that he had no part in. The next time he speaks, however, he is suddenly saying “we” opened a can of worms, as if admitting some sort of Canadian complicity in the war.

This tiny scene contains a very astute portrayal of the position of the Canadian in the world: on the one hand, we don’t want to be associated with Americans and we insist on distinguishing ourselves from them; on the other, if we aren’t careful we slip into identifying with them because, at some level, we recognize that we really are very similar and that we have tended to be on the same side in major conflicts. Johnny Dakota, with his insistence that he’s Canadian and his slipping into “we” when talking about Vietnam, is emblematic of our country’s ambiguous position with regards to the U.S., and our own frequently conflicted feelings about it.

This appearance is then followed by a modified bio:

Johnny Dakota: late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian. Had a hit with that Crash Craddock cover, what was the name of it again? Appeared at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, in the nineties. Needs a new agent.  (112)

That gives you a sense, at least, of how Foster uses the repetition of his character descriptions to further the plot of the novel and hint at the outcome, though it’s not the best example because Johnny is such a minor character that he doesn’t come in for much development. I don’t think he appears again after this, which might be suggestive in itself: Canada, a place you think of once or twice, and then promptly forget about.

(As a side note, my research indicates that a character named Johnny Dakota appeared in a 1991 episode of the American TV series Saved by the Bell. I have no idea whether Foster was referring to this.)

The Potato Makes Its Way to Canada

There is also a brief mention of Canada in a passage dealing with the spread of the potato around the globe:

It was the potato blight caused the famine of 1845 and led to the Great Emigration of Celts to northern Tasmania, northern California, to Gippsland, Canada, the State of Idaho — to anywhere, in short, where conditions were found to comport with the propagation of the ancestral aliment.  (xxxviii-xxxix)

This is just a passing reference, obviously, with Canada lumped in with several other places, but it does represent another example of the theme of immigrants coming to Canada in search of a better life.

A Canadian Expert

In an excursus on the disappearance of cedar trees large enough to provide fine cabinetwood, we come upon a reference to another Canadian, this one not fictional but real:

World population, about 500 million in the time of Juvenal — David Suzuki says one billion, Paul Ehrlich about a third of that: I’d say they were guessing — was only one or two billion by the time of the Industrial Revolution. By 1990, it was five billion.  (361)

Now David Suzuki is a name well known to me — as a child, his CBC show The Nature of Things was one of the few television programs I was allowed to watch (because it was judged “educational,” I suppose). I haven’t been able to track down the source of the idea attributed to Suzuki here, but he’s a Canadian being mentioned as an expert on the issue of world population (something he has commented on).

The Video Evidence

Since our Canadian, Johnny Dakota, apparently had a big hit with a Crash Craddock cover, I thought we might as well put up some Crash Craddock. He’s so utterly original — never heard a voice or a sound like that before — that I can’t understand why he isn’t better known, although this song was apparently a big hit in Australia. Maybe it’s the song Johnny Dakota covered?

And here’s one from his later, “country” phase — ahead of its time, as it’s all about the importance of applying sunscreen:

And here are the opening credits of The Nature of Things:

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The Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit

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François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (1850)

Canada has an interesting presence in French literature. Based on my (admittedly limited) reading (further study is needed, as they say) our country seems to be much more in the minds of earlier writers (i.e. in the 17th and 18th centuries) than in the minds of 19th-century authors. I suppose this makes sense in that references to Canada dwindle in French literature after France loses its colonial interest in our country; still, it feels counterintuitive, somehow, that when, in the 19th century, we would expect Canada’s profile in Europe to be growing, in France, at least, it seems to be shrinking.

Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb enacts this process in miniature: there are a number of references to Canada in the early parts of the book, which deal with the last couple of decades of the 18th century; as the book proceeds into the 19th century, however, Canada vanishes from the narrative and European matters take up Chateaubriand’s attention. (I should also mention that the Penguin edition I read (pictured above) contains  only selections from the book, so there may be later references to Canada that weren’t included.)

The “Father of French Romanticism” Considers a Career as a Lumberjack

This passage relates a discussion between Chateaubriand and his parents about what career path he should choose (it’s basically down to the army or the church):

I hit on an absurd idea: I declared that I would go to Canada to clear forests or to India to join the army of one of the princes of that country.

By one of those contrasts which are to be found in all men, my father, normally so reasonable, was never greatly shocked by an adventurous project. He grumbled to my mother about my changes of mind, but decided to despatch me to India. I was sent off to Saint-Malo, where a ship was being fitted out for Pondicherry.  (71)

It’s hard to know how seriously to take this suggestion of going to Canada “to clear forests”; the author himself calls it “absurd,” and it may be no more meaningful than a modern teenager’s threat to run away from home if they don’t get their way. Still, the idea of Canada as a wilderness of trees needing to be cut down is apparently already firmly established, and while Chateaubriand doesn’t use the word “lumberjack,” we can see the outline of that quintessentially Canadian figure hovering in the background.

This perceived lack of civilization is in marked contrast to the impression we get of India, where apparently there are princes with armies on the move — something much more aligned with the activities of European men in the late 18th century. It’s perhaps not surprising that Chateaubriand’s father in the end chooses the aristocratic pursuit of war-making for his son rather than the more laborious job of tree-cutting.

A Country that Keeps Getting In the Way

But Chateaubriand didn’t just fantasize about running away to Canada; after the French Revolution, he actually came here. (You can get a sense of his overall impression from two quick facts: the chapter of his book that includes the trip to Canada is called “Among the Savages,” and the phrase “the Canadian forests” comes up repeatedly.) His reasons for the trip were, first, to see the United States (not Canada), and second, to discover the Northwest Passage, which he seems to have thought would be a fairly simple matter.

Before he reaches North America, however, his ship encounters some difficulties due to wind and weather. Instead of arriving in the U.S., he finds himself off the coast of Canada, as if our country were somehow preventing him from reaching his destination. This is part of a description of the journey after a stop-off on the island of Graciosa:

The wind forced us to bear north, and we arrived at the Banks of Newfoundland. Some floating icebergs were drifting around in the midst of a pale, cold mist.  (123)

It’s pretty clear that Newfoundland is not where he wants to be, and the description has a compressed quality that shows a distinct lack of interest. This vision of Canada is probably more or less what a European of the period would imagine: a few icebergs and a cold mist — which isn’t so bad since there’s nothing to see anyway. What do these French sailors do now that they have arrived on the shores of Canada? They beat a hasty retreat to the nearest French possessions:

We steered for the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, looking for a new port of call.  (124)

In fairness, Canada isn’t really his object, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

What’s The Opposite of “Civilizing”?

They make it to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Chateaubriand strikes up a bit of an acquaintance with the Governor there:

I dined two or three times with the Governor, an extremely polite and obliging officer. He grew a few European vegetables on a slope outside. After dinner she showed me what he called his garden. A sweet, delicate smell of heliotrope came from a small patch of flowering beans; it was not wafted to us by a gentle breeze from home, but by a wild Newfoundland wind which had no connexion with the exiled plant, no attractive element of reminiscence or delight. In this perfume which was no longer breathed in by beauty, purified in its breast, or diffused in its wake, in this perfume of a changed dawn, a different culture, another world, there lingered all the melancholy of nostalgia, absence, and youth.  (125)

And in the next paragraph, still referring to the Governor:

My host inquired after the Revolution; I asked him for news of the North-West Passage. He was in the van of the wilderness, but he knew nothing of the Eskimos and received nothing from Canada but partridges.  (125)

The opposition between the “wild Newfoundland wind” and the flowering bean plants sets up the contrast one would expect between the wilderness of Canada and the civilization of Europe. We get the impression that Canada is a desolate country where fragile beauties are beaten down rather than cherished and enjoyed.

The statement that the Governor is “in the van” (i.e. the vanguard) of the wilderness is an interesting one. We should perhaps expect the opposite statement: that as the governor of these French islands right next to the wilds of Newfoundland, he is in the van of civilization, standing at the tip of the civilizing influence which Europe has pushed out towards the wilds of Canada. And yet Chateaubriand sees it the opposite way; if Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are the van of the wilderness, then that suggests that the process is moving in the other direction, and that the wilds of the New World are stretching their influence back towards the supposed colonizers, and perhaps will somehow uncivilize the civilizers, so to speak.

(I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the use of a specific word in a book I have only read in translation, but just for comparison, here is a passage where Chateaubriand uses “vanguard” in the more expected way:

It has been observed that the settlers are often preceded in the woods by bees: these are the vanguard of the farmers, the symbols of the industry and civilization whose coming they herald.  (143)

There we can see “vanguard” used in its more standard sense, which suggests that perhaps Chateaubriand was intentionally playing with its meaning in the earlier passage, suggesting that Canada had a kind of de-civilizing power that Europeans had not yet recognized, as it does in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Two Campers in Cloud Country.” Or perhaps it’s just an instance of carelessness, by either Chateaubriand or his translator.)

Melancholy Reflections on Past Defeats

Chateaubriand has some interesting observations on the failure of the French colonial project in Canada:

In the shameful years of Louis XV’s reign, the episode of the Canadian War consoles us as if it were a page of our ancient history discovered in the Tower of London.
Montcalm, given the task of defending Canada unaided, against forces which are regularly replenished and four times his own in number, fights successfully for two years, defeating Lord Loudon and General Abercromby. At last his luck deserts him; he falls wounded beneath the walls of Quebec, and two days later breathes his last: his grenadiers bury him in a hole made by a bombshell, a grave worthy of the honour of our arms! His noble enemy Wolfe dies facing him; he pays with his own life for Montcalm’s life and for the glory of expiring on a few French flags.  (142-43)

It seems odd, at first, that Chateaubriand would go to the trouble of describing a defeat, and yet it’s in character with the overall tone of much of the book, which could perhaps best be characterized by the world “melancholy”. His vision of life is one in which anything good is always in the past; the present is always slipping away; and the future holds only the promise of worse things to come. It is fitting, then, that he sees a tragic glory in Montcalm’s defeat, and awards him what would now be called a “moral victory” simply for having held out so long against such terrible odds. This kind of ringing, elegiac tone is the essence of Chateaubriand’s style and one of the key elements of his romanticism.

A Visit to the Falls

While in America Chateaubriand naturally wants to see for himself one of its greatest natural wonders, Niagara Falls. He makes his way there, travelling with “a troop of settlers and Indians”:

It was there that I first made the acquaintance of the rattlesnake, which allows itself to be bewitched by the sound of a flute. The Greeks would have turned my Canadian into Orpheus, the flute into a lyre, and the snake into Cerberus or perhaps Eurydice.  (144)

It’s hard to be certain what to make of this; the “Canadian” is presumably one of the natives, not one of the settlers. At first Chateaubriand seems to be saying that Canada does not lend itself to mythologizing, in the way the world of the ancient Greeks did; and yet, with his tales of rattlesnakes charmed by flutes, is he not himself actually mythologizing in much the same way?

In any case, he goes on to visit Niagara Falls:

The Niagara Falls savages in the English dependency were entrusted with the task of policing that side of the frontier. This weird constabulary, armed with bows and arrows, prevented us from passing. I had to send the Dutchman to the fort at Niagara for a permit in order to enter the territory of the British government. This saddened me a little, for I remembered that France had once ruled over both Upper and Lower Canada. My guide returned with the permit: I still have it; it is signed: Captain Gordon.  (145-46)

The phrase “English dependency” means Canada, as opposed to the United States, and makes clear that the Falls Chateaubriand went on to visit were what we now think of as the Canadian side. This passage offers a very different take on the French colonial experience than the earlier one: there, Montcalm’s loss was portrayed as being somehow honourable, even glorious; here, the loss of France’s possessions in Canada brings only sadness. (Sadness — at least in its literary form, “melancholy” — is, as I alluded to above, the keynote emotion of this book.)

It seems worthwhile, since we’ve come across references to Niagara Falls several times before, to quote at least a bit of Chateaubriand’s impressions:

Already, six miles away, a column of mist indicated the position of the waterfall to me. My heart beat with joy mingled with terror as I entered the wood which concealed from my view one of the most awe-inspiring sights that Nature has offered to mankind.
We dismounted, and leading our horses by the bridle, we made our way across heaths and copses until we reached the bank of the Niagara River, seven or eight hundred paces above the Falls. As I was moving forward, the guide caught me by the arm; he stopped me at the very edge of the water, which was going past with the swiftness of an arrow. It did not froth or foam, but glided in a solid mass over the sloping rock; its silence before its fall contrasted with the roar of the fall itself….
The guide continued to hold me back, for I felt so to speak drawn towards the river, and I had an involuntary longing to throw myself in….
Today, great highroads lead to the cataract; there are inns on both the American and English banks, and mills and factories beneath the chasm.
I have seen the cascades of the Alps with their chamois and those of the Pyrenees with their lizards; I have not been far enough up the Nile to see its cataracts, which are mere rapids; I make no mention of the waters of Terni and Tivoli, graceful adornments for ruins or subjects for the poet’s song: “Et praeceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus.”
Niagara eclipses everything.   (146-47)

That passage pretty much has it all, doesn’t it? What a concentration of romantic ideas: the joy mingled with terror as he is about to come face to face with Nature’s sublime; the strange, bewitching appeal of death as he yearns to throw himself into the current; the reference to the shallow consumerism that has now taken over and degraded the site, so different from its unspoiled state when he visited; and finally the implication of a wild and savage beauty in the Falls, utterly unlike the refined waters of Terni and Tivoli.

That last is, of course, a typical association with Canada, but in the view of the romantic mind, the idea of a wilderness ceases to be something menacing, or something that needs to be tamed or civilized, and becomes instead something that must be appreciated for its natural beauty. We are seeing here the idea, which would ultimately become a cliché, that the unspoiled wonders of nature are more beautiful than all the works of man, and that God is, in a sense, the first and ultimate artist.

Conclusions?

Chateaubriand inaugurates several strands of what we might think of as a “romantic” view of Canada. First, in his plan to run away here to become a lumberjack, we glimpse the petulant teenager strain of romanticism, always trying to shock or upset his parents. In his desire to find the Northwest Passage, we see the romantic image of the discoverer-hero, setting out to map the uncharted wilderness for the benefit of all mankind. His references to First Nations people seem to partake of the “noble savage” idea, while his discussion of Montcalm’s loss on the Plains of Abraham is replete with the melancholy sense of vanished glory and noble failure.

And finally, there is the discussion of Niagara Falls. Chateaubriand may not have had a huge impact on Canadian history — he never got around to locating that pesky Northwest Passage, after all — but he certainly had a major, if unwitting, impact on the Canadian tourist industry. His account of visiting Niagara Falls is the earliest one by a major European writer that I have come across, and in his visit he essentially set the pattern of Canadian tourism that still prevails today: when people come to Canada, if there’s one thing they know they want to see, that one thing will be Niagara Falls. In places around the world where Canada is known for absolutely nothing else, we are known for Niagara Falls.

And the reason Chateaubriand wanted to see the Falls — the desire to be confronted with what we might call “the natural sublime” — is the same reason people come today, and his description of the feelings aroused by the sight will be meaningful to anyone who has been there. Beyond that, in his description of the “great highroads” and the “inns” that have sprung up around the Falls since his visit, he took note of the beginnings of the tourist industry that dominates Niagara Falls today, and he probably wouldn’t be surprised by the hotels, gift shops, and casinos that have appeared since. Ripley’s Museum might shock him a little.

The Abodes of Despair (Munchausen Part I)

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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:

 carswellmunch

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:

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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.

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs

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Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (1983)

I tend to think of Renata Adler as a journalist rather than a novelist; she is perhaps best known for her legendary takedown of Pauline Kael in the NYRB, and used to write for The New Yorker. She also wrote novels, however, and this one is apparently a sequel of sorts to Speedboat, which I haven’t read. Pitch Dark doesn’t exactly have a plot; it’s a fragmented narrative which isn’t as interested in recording a sequence of events as it is in capturing the shifting thoughts of a woman after the break-up of a long-running affair with a married man.There is a lot of repetition, a lot of going back and cycling through things, each time in a little more detail – the overall effect, for the reader, is of watching as events and emotions are gradually illuminated and the pieces of the story fall into place.

For the first reference, I’ll quote a little more than the mention of Canada, just to give a sense of the book’s style:

The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.
The turning point at the paper was the introduction of the byline.
Here’s who I knew in those days: everyone.
Everyone?
Well, not everyone in the world, of course. But a surprising number and variety, considering the lonely soul I was when I was young, and the sort of recluse I have since become.
“It’s really too much. I can’t tell you who they’ll seat next to you,” Claire said, after dinner, at the guarded island villa. “Wives, Canadians. They sit you next to anyone.” Also, “The daughter married an octoroon. A baboon. I don’t know.”  (49)

When I first read this I thought it was a reference to seating on an airplane. (For some reason, the use of “seat” as a verb makes me think of airplanes.) But I think it’s really about who you’re seated next to at a dinner party. The speaker seems to be a wealthy woman of leisure (“guarded island villa”), accustomed to eating out and with nothing much to think about other than who sits beside her.

As for the reference to Canadians, even my generally sunny outlook on life can’t convince me that it’s a compliment. The statement that “[i]t’s really too much” makes it clear that the people being discussed have offended her with their seating plan; the example of “Canadians” (coupled with “wives”) seems to suggest that these two categories of people are composed of utterly uninteresting and undistinguished individuals who have either nothing, or too much of no interest, to say, and that enduring a meal beside them is pure torture. This fits neatly into a pre-existing stereotype of our country: that it is – and we are – boring.

There seems to be an issue of, if not class, precisely, then of status, tied up in this as well; behind Claire’s statement lies the unspoken assumption that being seated next to interesting or important people is an indication that you are also considered important; being seated next to “wives” or “Canadians”, on the other hand, shows that you are an afterthought rather than a significant guest. And so sitting next to a Canadian doesn’t involve only the torture of a boring evening; it’s also a form of social insult. Life in high society is tantamount to warfare, and dull Canadians are its skillfully deployed ordnance.

Later in the novel, there is a cluster of references to Canada in a section in which the narrator is looking for a place to rent – the implication is that she wants a secluded place where she can escape after her affair has ended.

To begin with, I almost went, instead, to Graham Island…. I mentioned wanting to go somewhere, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Gavin said he had friends who had a place on an island off Vancouver. Maybe I would like to rent it.  (105)

Here, Vancouver is merely a place marker, giving a sense of the location of the island they are talking about. A description of the island follows:

The island had a rain forest. One flew to Vancouver, from there to another island, then took the ferry; two islands later, there one was. No worry about hospitals, there was a military installation there of sorts, the nearest observation post for Siberia. Siberia, I said. Well, yes, the island was six hundred miles, in fact, from Vancouver. There was a car there, I should pick it up from their friend the Danish baron.  (106)

One of the characteristics of Adler’s narrator is that she is persistently worrying at things, mentally going back over experiences, questioning, trying to read into events and comments. This is the process that is beginning here, as she finds out more about this island retreat, and it begins to seem a little less appealing than it did at first. Suddenly, it is a long way from Vancouver – and Vancouver itself has become richer in meaning than it was when it was first mentioned: no longer simply a place marker, it has now come to represent the last outpost of civilization, and we sense that proximity to Vancouver has suddenly become desirable.

Then the presentation of Graham Island begins to take on a darker cast:

Well, I called the Dutch baron, and his accent seemed instantly recognizable to me. I thought, What was this German pretending to be a Dane doing on an American island, six hundred miles from Vancouver, which is the nearest outpost to Siberia. I thought, a war criminal. My state of mind. I still resolved to go. It was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Two nights before I left, however, I had a thought. I had begun to worry a bit about the isolation. I called the owners of the house. I reached the wife. How far, I asked, how far from their house was the nearest neighbouring house. Oh, she said, not far. You can see it from the window. It’s just up the hill actually. A very interesting house. Built and owned by a Haida. Of course, he leases it now. The first trace of a hesitation in her voice. To the government of Canada. She distinctly paused. As a retreat. I said, A retreat. She said, Yes. But there are never more than six. I did not ask six what. She said, Alcoholic. Indians. Well, I couldn’t do it. Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.  (106-7)

There are several difficulties – or at least oddities – in this passage. First, the transformation of this “baron” from Dutch to German to Danish is very rapid and somewhat difficult to understand; he could certainly be a German pretending to be Dutch, but then how does the idea that he’s (pretending to be) a Dane arise? Is this an intentional error meant to convey the narrator’s confused state of mind?

And then there is the reference to Graham Island as “an American island”. In fact, Graham Island is a Canadian island, off the coast of British Columbia and part of the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands (now a popular tourist destination). Although close to Alaska, it is definitely part of Canada – is this, again, some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the narrator?

Regardless of these issues, a couple of distinct ideas about Canada emerge. First, we have the common idea of a remote wilderness – it contains a rain forest, it is “beautiful, and quiet,” which no doubt means sparesely populated, the sort of place where one can escape from the pressures of modern life and retreat into peaceful solitude. And yet as the narrator seeks further details, a more menacing element emerges, first in the form of the possible war criminal – admittedly we can’t say that he is a war criminal, as the narrator herself admits that her “state of mind” has suggested this inference – and then the Haida house, being leased to the Canadian government as a retreat.

This, finally, is the breaking point for the narrator; when she learns the nature of this house she states, “I couldn’t do it.” Yet this seemingly unequivocal statement is followed immediately, and characteristically, by one that adds a layer of ambiguity: “Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.” What, precisely, does this mean? Our country’s treatment of first nations people is certainly one of the greatest stains on our collective conscience; does the narrator feel that, in living on the island, she would be implicitly condoning a history that she finds morally repugnant? Or is it that she feels the occupants of this retreat would be unpleasant neighbours who would compromise the peaceful solitude she is seeking? It’s hard to say, though the phrase “Maybe I should have done it” – if we read it to mean, Maybe I should have been more open-minded and not pre-judged the situation – seems to suggest the latter. But her attitude is difficult to interpret.

Without question, however, there has been a development in the idea of Canada: as the passage begins, Adler’s narrator sees it as nothing more than a quiet wilderness where she can escape her problems; within a couple of pages, however, Graham Island has changed from a fantasy getaway into a real part of the real world, complete with its own real-world problems that grow out of the difficult history and politics of Canada itself. (One could say, in fact, that the isolation and solitude that originally attracted Adler’s narrator to Canada are the same factors that attracted the other residents, and it is the presence of those other residents that ultimately convinces her not to go. Further proof of Marvell’s dictum, “Two Paradises ’twere in one / To live in Paradise alone.”) The passage questions and complicates obvious notions about Canada, and ends up providing a more nuanced and complex portrait of our country than we often see.

But before I go on too long, I will recall the following sentence from Pitch Dark:

So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time. (43)

Indeed.

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