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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Nationalism”

Montreal: The Only Canadian City Worth Mentioning

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Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, An Index (2012)

All the poems in this book relate in one way or another to the death of the poet’s lover, who, according to the back cover, disappeared while hiking a volcano in Japan. (Volcanoes, apparently, were an interest of his.)

The only reference to Canada comes in the long title poem, which is organized by the letters of the alphabet; under each letter there is a list of words beginning with that letter that are connected to the poet’s relationship with her lover.

This is the entire section on the letter “V”.

V

VANISH, dematerialize. Poof! How does one sail
to the land of vanished things? And what colour
does your flag have to be to get back?
VOLCANOES, we visited many: Vesuvius looming over Naples
like a history of violence and Pompeii’s ash
packed around a man-shaped hollow. The perfect cone
of Stromboli. Cloud-forests sweating around Poas,
its caldera cupping an aquamarine lake of boiling acid.
Thira’s thin crescent rising from the sea. A Mexican church
half-submerged in basalt. A cobbled path of fractured granite
descending into the North Atlantic. I thought I understood
your longing – it looked so much like mine.
VOLKSWAGON,
Golf (green), from Salt Lake City to Omaha in a day.
You were so angry because I’d stayed up late
the night before and couldn’t drive the first shift.
Later that summer, Duluth, Sault Sainte Marie,
Montreal, Marblehead. Harry Potter on tape,
your son asleep in the back with his feet on my lap
and his head resting on your guitar.
Golf (red), I could see you coming from so far
down the snowed-in road. Me at the bus station
freezing my ass off. You cranked the heat,
plucked off my wool cap, put your mouth over my ear.
VOW, I think as much now about the ones we failed to make
as the ones we faithfully kept.   (57)

The reference to Canada is a passing one, simply placing it on the itinerary of a road trip. A Canadian will naturally read Sault Ste Marie as the city in Ontario, but in fact there is also a Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, directly across the river from the one in Ontario – or perhaps they are better thought of as one city that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. So the mention of Sault Ste Marie alone can’t be considered definitively Canadian.

Once we come to Montreal, however, I think we can be certain. We can also guess at the outline of the trip: from Duluth, driving east along the southern shore of Lake Superior, then crossing into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, more or less straight across Ontario and into Quebec to Montreal, then back across the U.S. border and southeast to Marblehead in Massachusetts. So they would have passed through a significant chunk of Canada if that is the route they took.

In spite of that, Montreal is the only Canadian city to rate a mention: this book is yet another piece of evidence (along with recent examples such as Warren Harding’s love letters and Tao Lin) that Americans perceive Montreal as an exciting, romantic, interesting city, but see the rest of Canada as nothing more than a slightly blander extension of the United States. Having passed through Montreal is worth mentioning; having passed through Toronto, however, is not.

Other than the implicit judgement that Montreal is the only Canadian city that deserves to be named, there’s no real comment about Canada, so it’s hard to draw conclusions: our nation features here simply as a place that Americans occasionally journey through on their way to other places. In fact, Lindenberg makes no distinction between the naming of Canadian and American places and never explicitly mentions having crossed a national border. Duluth and Montreal appear equally in the list, as if the national divisions between us did not exist at all, which only adds to the sense that Americans see Canada as just an extension of their own country.

Ireland Invades Canada! (Paul Muldoon Part I)

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Paul Muldoon, The Annals of Chile (1997)

The references to Canada in this book are all contained in the long poem, “Yarrow,” which makes up the bulk of the volume. And let me say at the outset that I’m not going to attempt to offer an analyis of the poem as a whole; I’m merely trying to tease out the ideas that lie behind what Muldoon says about our country.

“Yarrow” is divided into numerous short sections; where references to Canada appear, I’ll quote the whole section in order to provide some context. And, to avoid becoming too predictable, I’ll consider them out of order.

First reference:

For the moment, though, she thumbs through a seed-catalogue
she’s borrowed from Tohills’ of the Moy
while, quiet, almost craven,

he studies the grain in the shaft of a rake:
there are two palm-prints in blue stone
on the bib of his overalls

where he’s absentmindedly put his hands
to his heart; in a den in St John’s, Newfoundland, I browse
on a sprig of Achillea millefolium, as it’s classed.  (43)

Third reference:

Only yesterday I heard the cry go up, ‘Vene sancti Spiritu,’
as our old crate
overshot the runway at Halifax,

Nova Scotia: again I heard Oglalagalagool’s
cackackle-Kiowas
as blood gushed from every orifice;

an ampoule of Lustau’s port; a photograph of Godfrey Evans
who used to keep wicket – perhaps even went to bat –
for the noble and true-hearted Kent.  (181)

In both of these passages, the reference to Canada doesn’t seem to go very far beyond a simple statement of the place where an event occurs.

The first is mainly a description of the poet’s parents; there’s something vaguely American Gothic about it, with the rake and overalls. And is there a conscious reference to Canadian Robert Kroetsch’s long poem Seed Catalogue buried there? (Would Paul Muldoon even have heard of Robert Kroetsch?) And is there a pun in “browse” – it seems to echo his mother thumbing through the (leaves of) the catalogue, but can also mean grazing – though he’s surely not eating the Achillea millefolium.

Achillea millefolium is the Latin name for yarrow, the plant which gives the poem its title; Muldoon associates it with his childhood in Ireland, reminiscences of which make up much of the poem, and with his mother. Why he’s in St. John’s, Newfoundland when he “browses” on it is not made clear.

The third reference apparently relates to a mishap at the Halifax airport (I’ve landed there myself a few times); presumably the Latin phrase recalls the Catholicism of Muldoon’s childhood?

It may be worthy of note that both these references are to places in eastern Canada; Newfoundland, in particular, being closely associated with Ireland.

And now, the second reference, which I’m going to treat  separately because it has a little more to it:

The day S—– came back with the arrow
through a heart tattooed on her upper arm, it made me think
of the fleur-de-lys

on Milady’s shoulder (not Milady Clark, who helped the U.D.A.
run a shipment of Aramis
into Kilkeel

but Milady Clarik, whose great-great-grandfather led the I.R.B.
invasion of Canada, the one who helped foil
the plot in which the courier

was none other than herself, her): she shrugs off her taffeta
wither-band and begs me to, like, rim
her for Land’s sakes; instead of ‘Lord’, she says ‘Land’.  (85)

One of the techniques Muldoon uses in “Yarrow” is a kaleidoscopic treatment of time: references to events in his childhood, events from Irish mythology, and events from the books he was reading as a child blend into one another and into later time periods, and individuals from various points in his life are merged with, or laid over top of, one another and characters from literature. This section gives a glimpse of that technique in action.

The “I.R.B. / invasion of Canada” refers, presumably, to the Fenian raids from the U.S. into Canada during the 1860s. “Milady Clarik” is one of the pseudonyms used by Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, already hinted at in the line about a “shipment of Aramis” (for “arms,” I suppose). Here – I may as well throw out a wild guess – it might refer to someone he knew in childhood, whose grandfather really was involved with the IRB, and who has been merged with the character of Milady de Winter, or perhaps played that role in childhood re-enactments of Dumas’ book. (Based on the evidence of “Yarrow,” Muldoon seems to have spent a good part of his childhood re-enacting books with his friends.)

The Fenian raids were brief and mainly unsuccessful attacks on Canada by Irish nationalists living in the U.S.; the idea, apparently, was to seize control of enough of Canada that they could then force an agreement with England whereby England would give up control of Ireland in exchange for the Fenians relinquishing Canada.

A bizarre idea, in retrospect, but one which at least reflects an impression of Canada as valuable. The main outcome of the Fenian raids was not freedom for Ireland, but rather the creation of enough fear of American invasion to convince some provinces – chiefly in the Maritimes – that it was worth joining Confederation in 1867 (the first Fenian raid occurred in 1866). So, through the law of unintended consequences, the Fenian raids actually helped form Canada as we know it.

This historical connection between Irish nationalism and Canada is also suggestive of a larger theme in Muldoon’s work: his interest in parallels between the colonial experience in North America, particularly Canada, and in Ireland.

Hooray for Alice!

lives_of_girls

Here at Wow – Canada! we recognize that we’re coming a little late to the “Hooray for Alice Munro” party – although we hope we’re still early enough to be considered fashionably late.

As a Canadian writer, Munro clearly doesn’t fall into our purview, which is references to Canada in books by non-Canadians. We do occasionally make exceptions, however, and as the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Munro certainly seems worthy of an exception. So congratulations to her. Perhaps she’ll mark the beginning of a run of Canadian winners.

I won’t try to analyze what the award “means,” or make any obvious remarks about how setting her stories (mainly) in small-town Ontario “put Canada on the literary map” or anything like that. But as Canadian book-lovers, we can all relax a little now that our country has produced a Nobel Prize winner.

As for the image above, Lives of Girls and Women is my favourite Munro book – I think because the structure of linked short stories makes it a little more like a novel than a typical story collection. (I have to admit, short stories are my least favourite literary form; interestingly, Russell Smith argues that Munro’s win is not just a victory for Canada, but also a victory for the short story.) I wanted to use a photo of my copy, but I couldn’t find it, so I borrowed this image from another blog because this is the cover on the edition I own. It looks like it was a calculated attempt to cross over into the romance novel market; I bought mine at some university book sale years ago when I needed it for my mandatory Can Lit class. (You couldn’t get an English degree without at least one full credit in Canadian Literature – though as I hope this blog suggests, we can still learn something about our country by reading non-Canadian writers.) Is it needless to point out that the book is better than this cover suggests?

No doubt there will soon be an elegant new edition graced with one of those “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature” stamps. Perhaps there already is.

Two (or Three) Solitudes

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Emily Nussbaum, “Clue” (The New Yorker, August 12 & 19, 2013)

This is from the “On Television” column, discussing a TV series called “The Bridge”:

Created by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, the show is a reworking of the popular Swedish-Danish mystery show “Broen.” Like the original, it begins with a body, split in two and dumped on a bridge that separates two countries – the bottom half from one corpse, the top half from another. In the original, the half-bodies are from Sweden and Denmark; their discovery forces two police departments to work together. The FX production has taken this setup and plunked it down at the border of Texas and Mexico, a concept with tremendous potential. (Hard to imagine Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the producers’ initial idea, working nearly so well.)  (79-80)

That sentence, in context, is almost unutterably hilarious. I don’t mean to put down my country by indulging in a typically Canadian bout of insecurity, but … how could anyone possibly think that a story about police having to cooperate across the Canada-U.S. border could be even remotely interesting? Particularly given the ongoing fascination of American culture with their lawless yet strangely magnetic neighbour to the South (see films like The Wild BunchTrafficJulia and countless others), as well as the obvious topical interest of the unsolved crimes in Juarez, which we’ve touched on briefly before.

Certainly Nussbaum’s reference to the (discarded) Canadian concept for the show makes it clear that she sees Canada as far too uninteresting, at least compared with Mexico, to make for compelling TV. (I can’t say I totally disagree.)

In the producers’ defence, I suppose if you’re asking yourself what country has a relationship with the U.S. that’s most like the relationship between Sweden and Denmark, Canada might spring to mind before Mexico. Like Sweden and Denmark, we have more similarities than differences – or is that just a North American assumption, along the lines of “Scandinavians – they’re all the same”? Canadians, after all, tend to bristle if someone suggests we’re just like Americans; do people from Sweden and Denmark bristle at the identical suggestion about them?

Fortunately, our vast and multicultural (very Canadian word, that) staff here at Wow – Canada! includes someone from Sweden, who assures me that Swedish and Danish people see themselves as very similar – more Windsor-Detroit than Texas-Mexico.

As a side note, here in Canada we have, of course, our own “two solitudes” with Quebec separated by language and culture from (most of) the rest of the country. One might almost say the Toronto-Montreal chasm is wider than the Detroit-Windsor separation. (And don’t people from Windsor cheer for the Red Wings? That alone marks them as brethren.)

While it’s hurtful that we didn’t end up being on the other side of “The Bridge,” we can take consolation from the fact that we already have a Canadian-made movie that tells essentially the same story, and we didn’t even have to look outside our own country to find cross-cultural tensions – the film Bon Cop Bad Cop:

So who needs you, FX producers?

Swine, Swine, Swine

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

From “5: The Part About Archimboldi”:

“Americans are swine, of course. And Canadians are big ruthless swine, although the worst swine from Canada are the French-Canadians, just as the worst swine from America are the Irish-American swine.” (642-3)

This comes from a page-long catalogue in which pretty well all the nationalities of the world are said to be swine. The lines are spoken to Hans Reiter by his father when Hans is a boy, in the 1920s or 30s; Hans will grow up to become the mysterious writer (Reiter = Writer?) known by the pen-name Archimboldi.

Since Canadians are “swine” just like the English, Welsh, Scots, Bavarians, Russians and so on, we can’t really draw any particular inference from this. It’s unfortunate that our French-Canadian brethren come in for even harsher treatment; at the same time, the idea of Canadians as “big” and, in particular, “ruthless” is a surprising one; aren’t we normally supposed to be polite to a fault? And so, while our presence in the catalogue is clearly meant as an insult, it’s hard not to take it as a back-handed compliment; we actually sound rather impressive and dangerous, instead of just dull and anodyne, which is more what we’ve come to expect.

I bought 2666 after reading the first couple of pages, which are about a group of literary critics obsessed with the mysterious Archimboldi. Based on that, I expected the novel to be a satirical romp through the field of literary criticism; what I got was – well, something quite different. The literary critics at the centre of the first section never appear in the novel again; in fact, their only purpose seems to be to travel to Mexico, where the main story begins to take over. With each passing section the novel is drawn, almost as if by an irresistible force acting against its will, toward “the crimes,” the brutal murders of women in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Theresa (presumably based on the murders in Ciudad Juárez), until the fourth section is completely taken over by a catalogue of the murders. The fifth section seemingly moves outward again, narrating the life of Hans Reiter/Archimboldi, but at the end of that section he, too, is drawn to Santa Theresa, as though the events there have a universal significance that makes them unavoidable. All of life, Bolano seems to suggest, is inevitably drawn into this vortex of death; but perhaps that’s a bit grandiose; to put it another way, it is impossible to avoid grappling with the events in Santa Theresa/Juárez; they are central to an understanding of modern life and tell us something we cannot ignore.

The novel ends with Reiter/Archimboldi leaving for Mexico, and never completely resolves the questions it has raised. This open-endedness made the rumours that an unpublished sixth part of 2666 had been found among Bolano’s papers after he died rather bewitching – there’s an undeniable appeal (at least to me) in the idea of a final section where “everything is explained”. But perhaps the uncertainty of the current ending is precisely what Bolano wanted; my impression is that he’s not a writer who traffics in tidy resolutions.

A word (or two) on epigraphs

The novel’s epigraph quotes a line from Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” in Fleurs du Mal – “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – and that seems to sum up the novel and Bolano’s view of contemporary life as well: we are all trapped in such a mind-numbingly pointless existence that the truly horrifying comes as a bizarre sort of relief. The line seems worthy of further contemplation:

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom

The more I think about that quote, the more profound it seems. (I had similar feelings about Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I bought because of the Virgil quote at the beginning (“Optima dies prima fugit”) and, while I enjoyed the novel, I felt it never quite lived up to its epigraph. Those four words say so much; more, perhaps, than Cather’s entire book.)

Likewise, that Baudelaire quote sums up the contents of Bolano’s novel so completely that, at times, I wonder if 2666 is a book with an epigraph so perfectly chosen that it renders the novel itself superfluous; everything in the book seems to simply amplify and illustrate the contents of Baudelaire’s single line.

Do Not Read about Canada

A Day in the Life of Canada (1985), featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

I’m perpetually getting distracted from literature by these foolish asides. Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother with this, but there are two points of interest for me here, one related to the subject of this blog, and the other purely personal.

Anyway, here is Jimmy Fallon’s “Do Not Read” List for Spring 2013:

The part about A Day in the Life of Canada starts around 2:25, and Fallon’s approach really seems a little easy; the book was part of a series of A Day in the Life of… books done in the mid-80s, so the fact that the clothes are a little outdated is hardly surprising. The choice of cover photo is a little … odd, I admit, once you start analysing it. (And why, incidentally, is a book from 1985 on the Spring 2013 “Do Not Read” list? Has some recent event catapulted A Day in the Life of Canada back into public consciousness? Is there an imminent danger that, without Fallon’s warning, millions would rush out and read it?)

You can learn a little more about the book, and the series (which also included Australia, Japan, and Hawaii, among others), from its Amazon page. And should you wish to ignore Fallon’s advice, new and used copies are still available!

More interesting for our purposes is the discussion between Fallon and his sidekick about what they might find inside in the book (around 3:10). Fallon starts off by saying he loves Canada and has a lot of fans here, but what we get is this rather depressing list of clichés:

Probably pictures of maple leaves, ice hockey…
Poutine…
Poutine…
Mountains…
Yeah, sure.

So there is a good look at the ground Canada has staked out in the American mind: hockey, poutine, and pleasant scenery (maple leaves and mountains). Fallon seems almost shocked to think we have anything as advanced as store mannequins up here; isn’t Canada just a wilderness with a few ice rinks scraped out of the endless tundra?

As for the personal reason: as a child, I had a copy of A Day in the Life of Canada. (And scrolling through the YouTube comments on the video, I see I’m not alone: the comment “Oh my god I own that Canada book!” had 29 likes as of this writing.)

I got it as a gift, and my recollection is that, with typical Canadian humility (or is it insecurity?), we were thrilled that our little country had been included in the series. Being part of it was a point of national pride, and I recall the book being written up as a great opportunity to present Canada to the world. No doubt the thoughtful aunt who gave it to me bought it partly out of a feeling that buying a copy was somehow showing her support for Canada itself.

Given that, 28 years later, Jimmy Fallon’s mind still turns to maple leaves and ice hockey when he thinks of us, it seems the book may not have been the roaring success we hoped for.

Canada: Meh?

The Meh List, January 20, 2013

The Meh List, January 20, 2013

Samantha Henig, “The Meh List,” New York Times Magazine (January 20, 2013)

So Canada is on the “meh” list. As you can see from the photo above, this is for things that are “not hot, not not, just meh”; in other words, things that arouse a response no more visceral than a shrug of the shoulders or a muted sigh. Isn’t it a little bit harsh to relegate a whole country to this list? Things like orange Starbursts and panini I can understand; particularly something like panini, which has been trendy for so long that it has now become tiresome. But Canada? We are, after all, a country that most Americans probably know almost nothing about; how can we have become ubiquitous enough to merit such aggressive disinterest?

And to add insult to injury, we place sixth on a list of seven; so, not only are we “meh,” but we’re not even particularly “meh”; we’re less “meh” than January and downward dog; we’re less “meh” than orange Starbursts, for God’s sake. We can’t even excel at being uninteresting.

(And even more stinging, every time I type the word “meh” I can’t help noticing that it contains “eh,” our national intrjection. It’s as if this whole thing has been carefully calibrated to be as insulting as possible.)

It’s especially hurtful considering that, just a couple of months ago, we were being lauded in the New York Times for our willingness to welcome left-leaning Americans in the event of a Romney victory in the presidential election. Now that the danger has passed, it’s safe to sneer at us once again.

Even stranger, though, is the fact that Canada is actually praised in another part of the paper, in an article titled “Inequality Is Holding Back The Recovery”; and it’s written by Joseph E. Stiglitz, no less, a Nobel laureate in economics and so perhaps a slightly more authoritative voice than Samantha Henig:

Our skyrocketing inequality – so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” – means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. (New York Times Sunday Review, January 20, 2013, p. 8)

Now that’s more like it. Canada – land of more opportunity than America! Doesn’t sound so “meh” to me. And notice we’re mentioned first in this list – ahead of France and Germany, and even ahead of Sweden. In my experience, when Canada is mentioned in this context, we always seem to be trailing behind Sweden, and perhaps another Scandinavian country as well, almost like an afterthought. But not this time.

Take that, Samantha Henig.

Our Lake Ontario … or Theirs?

We the Animals cover

Justin Torres, We the Animals

Justin Torres, We The Animals (2011)

Manny and Joel were flunking, so when a man paid my father to drive a package up to Niagara Falls, it was me Paps took out of school fro two days; it was me he brought along for company. We drove for four hours; Paps didn’t say much, just that we were headed east, around Lake Ontario, hugging the shore. We stayed in a dusty motel room, and in the morning Paps took me to see the falls….  (98)

If you’re curious to know what sort of writing is coming out of the big U.S. writing workshop programs (and, really, why would you be?), then this novel will give you a sense of it – both the good and the bad – and all in only 120 pages! (The Acknowledgements section – which is as long as some of the chapters – mentions the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bread Loaf conference, among others, and thanks a number of well-known, and doubtless well-connected, authors.)

Even over such a short distance, the self-consciously “poetic” and “writerly” style goes from intriguing to grating as the plot, such as it is, meanders – I was going to say in circles, but that would suggest some sort of patterning; more like in a series of shaky spirals that eventually make their uneven way off the page and into the mist of the reader’s disinterest.

And does it even contain a reference to Canada? I have to admit that it’s impossible to be sure from the book itself. The narrator’s family lives in upstate New York, and the Niagara Falls referred to could easily be on the American side; there’s no specific reference to crossing the border. But my instinctive nationalism is such that when I read the words “Lake Ontario” I immediately thought “Canada!” Only after a few seconds of more sober reflection did I recall that, like most lakes, Lake Ontario has two sides, and in this case the other side is in another country entirely.

In this chapter, after showing the narrator the falls, the father leaves him and disappears for most of the day, presumably to deliver the mysterious “package” referred to in the quoted passage. The set-up suggests there is something shady or illegal about the delivery,  and I like to imagine it involves crossing and re-crossing the Canadian border, and so is a reference to Canada, which represents unknown, mysterious, and probably criminal errands – all the things we see but don’t understand about our parents.

But I could easily be mistaken.

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