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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Prejudice”

A Canadian Interlude: Emily Carr on “Remittance Men”


Emily Carr, Growing Pains: An Autobiography (1946)

I wouldn’t normally discuss a book written by a Canadian here, since that contravenes the essential principle of this site, but, being once again stranded at the cottage with nothing to read, I happened to pick up an old copy of Emily Carr’s autobiography that has been lying around there for years. I was struck by how neatly one particular passage picked up what I suppose could be called the “Canadian side” of ideas about immigrating to Canada that we have seen in works by Dickens and Basil Bunting:

The most particular sin for which we were whipped was called insubordination. Most always it arose from the same cause — remittance men, or remittance men’s wives. Canada was infested at that time by Old Country younger sons and ne’er-do-wells, people who had been shipped to Canada on a one-way ticket. These people lived on small remittances received from home. They were too lazy and too incompetent to work, stuck up, indolent, considering it beneath their dignity to earn but not beneath their dignity to take all Canada was willing to hand out.  (13)

This passage gives us a glimpse of how someone like Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit, would have been viewed in Canada in the last quarter of the 19th century. While Amy clearly sees Canada as a country that offers her brother an opportunity for a fresh start in life, those already in Canada have a markedly more negative view of new arrivals.

The word “infested” is particularly interesting. That’s the sort of word that is typically used when the writer wants to associate immigrants with some sort of vermin that are going to overrun the country and destroy its existing social fabric; in the contemporary world, we would probably associate it with diatribes against immigrants of a different race or religion. And yet Carr uses it here to refer to immigrants from England (the “Old Country”) — the country her own parents had immigrated to Canada from not that much earlier.

I suppose it shows that in the absence of racial, cultural or national differences, some reason will still be found to dislike newcomers.


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.

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