Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Violence”

The Decline of the Francophone Empire

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986)

For those not familiar with it, The Golden Gate is a verse novel written in the same 14-line rhyming stanzas as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. The book follows the interlocking lives and love affairs of a series of mostly young characters who live in and around San Francisco in the Reaganite America of the early 1980s.

Among its many other virtues, the book contains one brief reference to Canada. It occurs at a party when one of the main characters, Liz, is cornered by Professor Pratt, an academic who (like many other academics) believes that his own peculiar hobby horse is as fascinating to everyone else as it is to himself. Here’s the full stanza:


But now Professor Pratt’s recaptured
His fugitive, and Liz endures
The bludgeonings of this most enraptured,
Most indefatigable of bores.
He raves of western Pennsylvania
With zealotry approaching mania:
“…Had we not taken Fort Duquesne,
My dear, the French would still remain
Entrenched in a confederation
From Louisiana to Quebec.
I tell you , Pittsburgh saved our neck —
Pittsburgh — redeemer of our nation!
My fourth book reexamines this.
It’s called The Pratt Hypothesis….”     (78)

This refers to a corner of history that I don’t know much about, but to give a rough outline: in the 1750s, when the French still controlled a large swath of North America (“New France”), they built a series of forts to try to consolidate their control of this territory. Several of the forts, including Fort Duquesne, were in what is now Pennsylvania. The fort was attacked several times during the Seven Years’ War (aka the “French and Indian War”); in 1758 the French burned the fort just before it could be captured by the British.

(The above paragraph is summarized from Wikipedia; if you’re curious to learn more, you can start where I started, with the Wikipedia entry on Fort Duquesne. It also includes an account of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, in which George Washington and his men attacked a French Canadian scouting party — really, the references to Canada multiply so quickly that I can’t keep up.)

The details of the Pratt Hypothesis seem, to me at least, a little garbled. The location where Fort Duquesne stood is now part of Pittsburgh, and the basic idea is that if the fort had not fallen, the French would still control a large chunk of North America. But how Pittsburgh — a city that didn’t even exist at the time being discussed — could be considered the “saviour” of the United States is difficult to make out. Of course Professor Pratt is being satirized here, and so presumably his theory is meant to seem preposterous.

The use of “we” in the seventh line, however, is fascinating. The battle for Fort Duquesne happened in 1758, before the countries of Canada and the United States existed. Forbes, the general who took the site of the fort after the French had burned it, was Scottish, not American, and he named the place Pittsburgh after the British statesman William Pitt the Elder (again, see Wikipedia). So the people who took the fort (the British) are not really the “we” being spoken of by Pratt, who would presumably be Americans. The British drove the French out, but when the Americans rebelled against British rule and formed their own country, they reaped the benefits. Pratt’s summary of events elides this distinction, making it sound as if the Americans defeated the French, captured Fort Duquesne and thus “saved” the United States.

As for Quebec itself, there isn’t any actual information about the province contained here; it simply marks the northernmost point of the imagined French region, just as Louisiana marks its southernmost extent.  This is quite a common way of referring to Canada, particularly in American writers, who often use our country as a marker of distance or the extent of something: see our post on Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March for one recent example.



The Demonstrably More Peaceful Land to the North


Pascual Restrepo, “Canadian Violence, From the Prairie to the N.H.L.,” The New York Times (October 11, 2015)

I happened to come across this article as I was browsing through the Sunday NYT this past weekend. The whole thing is about Canada, and I can’t quote the whole thing, obviously, but you can read the article if you’re curious. Here’s the first sentence:

For many Americans, the phrase “Canadian violence” is an oxymoron.

There, in miniature, is the American attitude to Canadian violence: Canadians are peaceful by nature, and therefore Canadian violence cannot exist.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the article, which argues that the presence of RCMP outposts at the time the Canadian west was settled prevented it from becoming a region of lawless violence like the American west. Instead, I just want to note a couple of points that relate to our purposes here at Wow — Canada!

First, the article suggests that specific historical factors could have made Canada a less violent nation than the U.S., and so it offers some background for the cliché of peaceful Canadians that we have considered several times ourselves.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the article indicates that Americans find Canada’s peaceful nature compelling enough that it is the subject of scholarly research at major American universities. (The author the article is originally from Colombia, but he’s studying at MIT, so, if we wanted to be grandiose — which of course we don’t — we could almost say that interest in the history behind Canadian non-violence spans the rest of the Americas.) And not only that, but it is compelling enough — and the apparent oxymoron of the words “Canadian Violence” in a headline is considered “grabby” enough — to be featured as an op-ed in the closest thing the U.S. has to a “paper of record.”

Whatever you think of the content of the article, its existence (like the presence of cartoons about Canadians in The New Yorker) indicates that our neighbours to the south have noticed us and find us, to some extent, interesting. At last we’re getting some of the attention we deserve — and we haven’t even had to change our polite, non-violent nature to get it. Who says virtue isn’t rewarded?

So Polite It’s … Creepy


P.C. Vey, “Whack A Canadian,” from The New Yorker (February 23 & March 2, 2015)

I have to admit there are moments when even I grow tired of thinking about Canada. And I suspect that most people have even less tolerance for Canada-related thinking than I do. In fact, people in general probably find thinking about Canada rather wearying, even at the best of times.

There is one group of people, however, who have demonstrated time and again that, when it comes to thinking about Canada, they are indefatiguable. Who are these people, you ask?

Why, New Yorker cartoonists, of course.

For them, it seems, jokes about Canadians are an inexhaustible well of hilarity, one whose brackish waters they go back to draw from again and again. Above is a recent example; if you can’t read the caption at that size, it says, “I just want to apologize beforehand if you miss.

I have already laid out my Platonic theory of New Yorker cartoons, and I’m not going to go through it again here; you can click on that link and consult it if you like. The cartoon above represents yet another iteration of what is perhaps the most common type of Canadian New Yorker cartoon: “Canadians are so polite that….” So polite, in this case, that we would apologize in advance to someone who might fail to whack us on the head with a mallet.

The precise joke in this particular cartoon is a little elusive, at least for me; at first I thought it meant, “I want to apologize in case you miss because I’m so polite that I will feel bad for you if you fail to hit me and therefore don’t win a prize.” After further reflection, though, I think the joke is actually based on the idea that Canadians are so polite that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. Read in that way, the joke means something more along the lines of, “As a polite Canadian, I plan to apologize if you hit me on the head with that mallet, but I’m actually so excessively polite that I want to apologize in advance just in case you miss me and leave me with no reason to apologize later” – as if apologizing for suffering physical violence were such a thrill for Canadians that we don’t want to lose any opportunity to do so.

Either way, the cartoon suggests that Canadians are so polite that it is weird, and perhaps beginning to border on the creepy.

There are even visual similarities between this cartoon and previous Canada-related cartoons in The New Yorker. For comparison, here are a couple we’ve looked at before. The “Canadian Standoff” cartoon:

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

And the “Canadian Lemmings” cartoon:


In all three, the word “Canadian” appears prominently, paired with something already familiar to readers: a standoff, lemmings, and replacing the word “mole” in the game Whack-A-Mole. All three cartoons are also by different artists, which suggests either that these ideas about Canada are so common that all Americans share them, or that these cartoons are being generated according to some proprietary New Yorker “polite Canadian” cartoon template.

But there’s really nothing new in any of that.

What is new is the strange undercurrent of violence in the “Whack A Canadian” cartoon, which is essentially about an American (presumably) who is going to attempt to clobber a Canadian with a mallet as part of a carnival game. In other Canada-related New Yorker cartoons, Canadians have been portrayed as if they were slightly weird relatives: a little different from Americans, but harmless, really, and maybe even a bit lovable on account of our odd foibles. What accounts for the edge of viciousness in this cartoon? Are our southern neighbours beginning to turn against us? Are we so polite that we have transformed politeness into a form of passive aggression that needs to be combated with direct violence?

Or perhaps there’s another issue here – is the cartoonist frustrated at not being able to come up with anything but another “polite Canadians” cartoon, and so he is subliminally taking out his anger against us, as if it were Canada’s fault that his inspiration had flagged? Or perhaps the Canadian cartoon was imposed on him by New Yorker Cartoons Editor Robert Mankoff, who seems to have a fondness for this sort of Canadian joke, and the violent attitude against the Canadian in the cartoon is just the expression of the cartoonist’s attitude towards his material?

Or is it just a cartoon, and I’m a hyper-sensitive Canadian reading way too much into it?

Sex, Drugs, Classical Music … and Canada, Of Course


Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2004)

This is a strange book. I suppose you could categorize it as a memoir and not be too far off; it also seems to purport to be an “exposé” of the dark side of the classical music scene, though it really isn’t, or not to any great extent. There’s very little in the way of a narrative thread running through the book: much of it concerns Tindall’s own life, of course, but she often drops her story for long disquisitions on the history of classical music in the U.S., the lives of particular performers, and so on. As a result, the book ends up being a heterogeneous mix of personal anecdotes, social history, and op-ed type passages on “the state of classical music.” If I had to sum it up in a word, I would call it “lumpy”.

When I got to the end of the book and found out that Tindall had become a journalist, the book’s form – or maybe I should say, its lack of consistent form – made a little more sense to me: it’s more like a lot of articles on various topics related to classical music strung together without much of an organizing principle. And when I looked up a few of her articles online, there were definite parallels with the book, suggesting that perhaps some repurposing had gone on. That said, a lot of the personal anecdotes are interesting or amusing enough to be worth reading, and the portrait of the life of freelance classical musicians in New York, which hovers somewhere between subsistence and poverty, is sharply drawn and affecting.

And, of course, there are a few references to Canada to make it all worthwhile. The first comes in a description of one of Tindall’s fellow students at the North Carolina School of the Arts:

Next door to me was Kristin. She’d brought her French horn from a Montana town of 250, where, at best, girls returned home to a husband and farm after attending a local college. One snowy night, pianist Lili Kraus had played eighty miles away in Great Falls, the only big town between Billings and Calgary.   (22)

The passage on a general level speaks to the cultural desolation that exists outside major cities. Interestingly, however, Canada is not mentioned as an example of some kind of wasteland, as often happens with American authors; rather, Calgary represents one outpost of civlization at the far end of the musical desert in which Tindall’s roommate has grown up. I think we can take that as a compliment.

The next reference to Canada is simply a brief mention in a performance itinerary about Tindall’s friend (and sometime lover), the pianist Sam Sanders:

By April, Sam hit the road with Itzhak, traveling to Dallas, Quebec and across the Midwest.  (182)

There’s an interesting pattern of decreasing specificity there: Dallas is a city, Quebec a province, and the Midwest a region that encompasses several states. Ordinarily it’s Canada that is treated in the vaguest way in lists like this and U.S. locations that are named more specifically, but here the one Canadian location actually occupies the middle position, and it is “the Midwest” that is treated like a vast expanse of nothingness.

So that’s a nice step up for us. Of course it would be Quebec that the famous Itzhak Perlman includes on his tour.

And finally, there is this, which was definitely the most interesting Canadian reference in the book:

Schlepping back from a gig in Jersey, I held my instruments tightly while passing through Port Authority. The bus station had long been known as a magnet for crime. However, today it felt safe, even bucolic, as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray,” a term coined by Northwestern University professor Robert Gjerdingen. The technique was first used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. The trend spread as Pavarotti cleared out Denver parking lots, Chopin thwarted Toronto thugs, and an endless loop of Mozart blared across a Florida slum….
I thought about the message of the Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime.  (205)

Tindall doesn’t seem to think the trend towards using classical music to chase away loiterers is anything to be proud of, but at least in this somewhat questionable area, Canada can claim to be a leader. This passage also reflects an idea of Canadian cities that runs counter to their usual image of being much “safer” than American cities: even Toronto, it turns out, has thugs.

Personal Reminiscences

In an example of what Northrop Frye might have called the “pre-critical response,” I have to confess a particular fondness for that paragraph because I experienced what it describes first-hand. In the mid-90s, when I used to travel to the wilds of Scarborough to work, I had to take a bus from Kennedy station (apologies for the Toronto references for those who have no idea what I’m talking about), and during that time the TTC, in response to a couple of stabbings, instituted exactly the program Tindall is describing at Kennedy: in an attempt to make the station feel inhospitable to the sort of people who stab other people, they started piping in classical music (I think it was mostly Beethoven) all day. And so every morning, while I waited for my bus, I was treated to some music.

(Of course in the age of the iPod/iPhone, when anyone who wishes can walk around permanently cocooned in whatever music they choose, this “musical bug spray” idea would never work. But those were different times.)

What were the results? I don’t personally recall feeling any “safer” in the station, but then I was only waiting around there in the mornings, and the stabbings likely occurred at night. I don’t think anyone else got stabbed while the classical music was being played, so I suppose it “worked,” in some sense. The program didn’t last very long though – I think after a month or two at most the station was silent again. No doubt non-stop Beethoven was driving the TTC employees crazy and they complained about a “poisoned work environment” or something like that.

The Music

Since the book is about music, it seems a shame not to include a little. Here is Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, just to give a sense of what Tindall’s instrument (did I mention she’s an oboist?) sounds like:

“An ill wind that no one blows good,” as a repeated joke in the book has it.

One of Tindall’s boyfriends has a particular fondness for Mahler’s Fifth; here’s a version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who also features in the book:

Though I find this version by von Karajan more compelling, particularly the first movement:

Bonus Pop-Culture Tie-In

Mozart in the Jungle has recently been used as the basis for a TV series by Amazon. I haven’t watched it, but here’s the trailer:

My impression, based on that, is that the show bears little relation to the actual content of the book, but really just uses the subtitle as the jumping-off point for a largely fictionalized narrative. Still, it might be fun.

The Tender Wilderness


Leigh Stein, Dispatch From The Future (2012)

Many poets – mainly insecure ones, of which there is no shortage – are in love with difficulty – or, more precisely, they are in love with the idea of their work being perceived as difficult. There is a romance to the difficult, born out of its association with genius, that makes it very attractive. But the difficulty we find in works of genius comes from an attempt to communicate genuinely complex ideas – and alas, genius is rare. For most poets, the desire to produce difficult works of genius tends to collapse into masking mediocrity with willful obscurity.

Why this tendency to lean on obscurity as a substitute for difficulty? Many poets just don’t have anything that profound to say, and that makes clarity tremendously risky. If you express yourself clearly, there is a good chance someone – perhaps a lot of people – will find what you’re saying trite or shallow, which would only confirm the insecure writer’s fear that they have nothing interesting or original to say. If you’re a poet, then, and you’re not certain that you have anything interesting to say, how much safer it is to express yourself in the most obscure way possible. When people are confronted with a poem that is clear, they tend to evaluate its “sense”; when they’re confronted with a poem they find obscure, they may assume that the writer is saying something that is too complex for them to understand. Obscurity thus becomes the perfect cover for vacuity.

The poems in Leigh Stein’s collection, Dispatch From The Future, read as if they have been studiously composed to avoid making conventional sense. As you read them, you often feel, over a stretch of lines, that there is a narrative taking shape or an idea being developed; and then there will come a sudden wrenching aside of the poem into another, seemingly unrelated direction, as if the poet has caught herself making sense and veered sharply into the thickets of obscurity out of fear that she might reveal something – or worse, reveal that there is nothing to reveal.

There are two references to Canada in two different poems. Though both references are passing ones, I’ll quote the poems in their entirety – partly for context, and partly because I find it disrespectful to both poets and poems to chop out a little chunk a few lines long.

Try A Little (Canadian) Tenderness

Here’s the first:

Katharine Tillman vs. Lake Michigan

Mitsu flips a lot of coins. Katharine told me that once
she was in the middle of a tantrum and a coin
told him he should love her, and yet, he wasn’t
satisfied so he went to the dictionary and closed
his eyes and found a word and when she asked
what word he found, the only thing he would tell her
was that he was one step closer to the secret
of the universe. Can you tell me what it rhymes with,
she asked him. Is it a verb? Is it a country? Have I
been there? Will you write its name on my back
while we sit on the pier and watch the blue dusk
chase the sun to Jersey? The last time I ever
saw Katharine she asked me the name of the lake
in the distance and I said Michigan and she said
she’d heard of it, and then she showed me the diaries
she kept when she lived under the overpass
near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,
when all she had was a travel Scrabble set and
the reason she’d run away. Milan Kundera
has a lot to say about our tenuous insignificance.
When he wants to decide something he, too,
flips a coin, but in his case heads is Little Rock,
Arkansas, and tails is Little Rock, Arkansas, and
it’s just a matter of who to blindfold and bring with
on his motorcycle. On page one hundred and seven
of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I get lost
driving Katharine to the airport. On page one hundred
and forty nine, Tereza dreams that they take her away.
After I see Katharine for the last time I don’t go home;
I go to Prague and it’s 1968 and the man I love won’t
touch me; he just holds an empty gun to my temple
and even though we both know it’s empty there’s the small
comfort that the worst thing that could possibly happen
would be the thing I want most. Mitsu says the secret
of the universe is obvious in any planetary shaped
object you can find on the floor of a parking garage.
Katharine says how. I say I want to move to Canada;
the only tenderness anyone can get around here
is in the time it takes him to untie my wrists.  (22-23)

Several elements in this poem recur throughout the book and seem to mark points of interest  (“obsessions” might be more apt) for Stein: women in peril, usually at the hands of men; references to Milan Kundera (a writer who seems sophisticated when you’re 18); suicidal thoughts and the desire for death.

I’m not going to attempt to interpret the whole poem – you can tackle that yourself if you’re so inclined. Canada appears at the very end, as a place to which the speaker wants to move. She doesn’t explicitly say why, but if we take the next two lines as explanatory (and that seems to me the most reasonable way to read them), then her desire to move to Canada comes from the feeling that there is not enough tenderness in her life in the U.S., and moving north of the border might be a way to find some.

This idea of searching for tenderness in Canada represents yet another iteration of the familiar American idea that Canada is a gentler, more pacifist nation than the U.S., and that those seeking to escape the violent, martial side of the American character (represented in this poem by the man who apparently keeps the speaker tied up most of the time) can do so here.

You Can’t Have Paris (But You Can Have Canada)

On to the second Canadian reference:

Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness

My favourite book is the one with the woman
who wears a balaclava every time she goes
under the viaduct because it’s Canada, and
because she’s married to a man who loves
her sister, and because if her family found her
under the viaduct, she would lose everything;
more than that, she would lose the end of the story
he began. Il était une fois, he said, there are rugs
made by children who go blind and turn
to crime, and/or rescuing sacrificial virgins
from the palace the night before the sacrifice.
Turn one page if you want to be the woman,
listening to the story, but you’ll have to
keep the hat on. Turn three if you’d rather
be a girl alone in a bed, waiting. I was
always that girl: you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do but follow the blind boy, watch
as he puts the body of the strangled guard
in your bed, in your place, follow as he leads
you through the air ventilation system and over
the palace walls? I never chose any other way
because what could the woman do but love him
and listen to a story that wasn’t about her.
After you get over the walls you run
through the darkness, the darkness that isn’t
darkness to the blind boy because of his blindness,
the silent darkness to you who can’t describe it,
you run until you turn the page, but then instead
of safety, a valley, and the woman under the viaduct
puts her skirt on and goes back home and you think
you’ve ended up in the wrong story, but months later
she gets a phone call saying the man was killed
in the Spanish Civil War and that’s the end
because the only person who knows
what happened to you is dead.   (45-46)

The title of the poem refers to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books (which are another recurring reference/obsession for Stein – she even mentions “the great R.A. Montgomery” in a couple of poems), and the poem itself recalls the format of those books with its “turn one page if … turn three pages if…” conceit. The direct association of Canada with the idea of “wilderness” should surprise no one at this point – we are, by now, quite familiar with the fact that many Americans think of our country as little more than an uninterrupted band of forest topped with an uninterrupted band of tundra.

The idea of choice does, however, complicate this impression: apparently there are different Canadian wildernesses, which are distinct enough from one another that a person could make some sort of choice among them. But the poem itself never explains the differences.

And then we have “the woman / who wears a balaclava every time she goes / under the viaduct because it’s Canada”. Presumably when we are told the woman wore a balaclava “because it’s Canada,” we are meant to understand, “and Canada, as everyone in the United States knows, is cold all the time and therefore the wearing of balaclavas is essential in order to prevent your skin from instantly freezing the moment you step outside” (or something along those lines). So Canada is cold – another common idea.

And does “Il etait une fois,” which is the French equivalent of “Once upon a time,” appear here because of some half-buried notion that everyone in Canada speaks French? It’s difficult to say for certain, but the possibility hums in the air.

From there Stein drops Canada, but ultimately, a reading of the poem returns us to the question of the title. Why did Stein give the poem that particular title? In what sense is anyone in the poem choosing a Canadian wilderness?

I don’t think there is necessarily a linear link between the title and the body of the poem, nor does there need to be. To me, the title is of a piece with what follows.  There is a bleakness, verging on despair, in the implication that while you can choose your own Canadian wilderness, you can’t choose anything other than a Canadian wilderness – you can’t choose your own Parisian arrondissement, for example, or your own cottage in the Lake District – it’s just one Canadian wilderness or another.

Likewise the poem, which seems to be about women caught in threatening narratives that offer no escape or resolution, creates an overall sense of repetitive hopelessness, and the idea of choosing a Canadian wilderness is emblematic of that hopelessness. This is quite different from the idea of Canada in the previous poem: there, Canada represented a hope for refuge from the man who kept the woman tied up; here, there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of escape, except perhaps to some Canadian wilderness, which is apparently not a very appealing prospect.

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:

Anti-Semitism? In Canada?


Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)

I’m pleased to announce that I have now achieved such popularity that my friends tip me off about references to Canada in books they’re reading. This not only makes my job easier, but also allows me to cast a slightly wider net, as it leads to books I might never have got around to reading on my own.

This is one of those, so thanks to Craig Proctor. I’d never read Howard Jacobson before, but this novel won the Booker Prize, so he’s clearly doing all right. The main character, Julian Treslove, is not Jewish, but his two best friends (Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler) are; the central idea of the novel seems to be that Treslove is a non-Jew who is obsessed with the idea of Jewishness, and in some sense wants to be Jewish.

To understand the context of the following quotations, you really only need to know this: in the opening chapter, Treslove is mugged by a woman who breaks his nose, steals his wallet, phone and credit cards and, he thinks, calls him “you Jew”. After the mugging, he begins to wonder how frequent anti-Semitic attacks are in the world, and this leads to several references to Canada.

Not expecting to find anything post-thirteenth-century Chelmno, he looked up ‘Anti-Semitic Incidents’ on the internet and was surprised to find upward of a hundred pages. Not all of them round the corner from the BBC, it was true, but still far more in parts of the world that called themselves civilised than he would ever have imagined. One well-maintained site gave him the option to choose country by country.  (80)

There are entries for a couple of other countries (alphabetical order) before we reach the one that concerns us:

Canada? Yes, Canada.
And read that in the course of Canada’s now annual Israeli Apartheid Week events held on campuses throughout the country security officers roughed up Jewish hecklers, one of them warning a Jewish student to ‘shut the fuck up or I’ll saw your head off’.
Was that a home-grown Canadian deterrent, he wondered, sawing Jews’ heads off?  (81)

Treslove then calls his friend Sam Finkler:

He rang Finkler after all to say how nice it had been to see him and did he know that in Caracas and in Buenos Aires and in Toronto – yes, Toronto! – and in Fontenay-sous-Bois and in London, but Finkler stopped him there.  (82)

The most obvious thing to note here is the tone of incredulity: the repetition of Canada in italics with a question mark, and then the word “yes,” along with the subsequent repetition of Toronto, again with “yes” added, indicate that anti-Semitic attacks in Canada are completely unexpected.  These verbal and typographical markers of surprise are reserved for Canadian anti-Semitism; none of the other countries with anti-Semitic incidents generates this kind of response, which adds to the sense of Treslove’s shock that such things go on here. Canada is certainly one of the places that “calls itself civilised,” as the first passage has it, but, more to the point, it is also a place that non-Canadians consider civilized. A contemporary Englishman like Treslove has a preconceived notion of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural place where anti-Semitism would surely be a thing of the fairly distant past.

But apparently such is not the case, and the book suggests that there may be an ugly reality lying beneath the sunny face Canada shows to the world. In particular, consider the word “now”:

…Canada’s now annual Israeli Apartheid Week events….

This use of “now” seems to indicate that Israeli Apartheid Week has recently become an annual event in Canada, and that this points towards growing anti-Semitism.  And so, while one would tend to think of anti-Semitism as a prejudice that would recede over time, the book suggests that the opposite – at least in Canada – is the case.  There is even a kind of weariness about the phrase “now annual,” as if this sort of thing is somehow to be expected.

Is the story about Canada true? On its website, the Anti-Defamation League maintains a list of anti-Semitic incidents organized by country, as described in the novel; the list for 2009 seems to be the source for much of Jacobson’s material here (look, particularly, at the ADL’s entries for Venezuela, Argentina and France and compare them to the information on those countries in The Finkler Question – the similarities are clear).

The ADL has an entry for Canada in 2009, but it contains nothing that resembles the threat of head-sawing. Here, however, is a report on an incident at the University of Toronto, also from 2009, that is clearly behind what Jacobson describes. And so, while we, as Canadians, surely don’t want to be thought of as a country where Jews are threatened with beheading, such a thing apparently did occur.

And the novel isn’t about to let us forget it: more references to the sawing off of heads, and to Toronto as a site of anti-Semitism, arise as Treslove begins to manufacture an identity and motivation for the woman who mugged him:

He had no choice but to name her Judith. Something to do with the Canadian security man threatening to saw the Jewish student’s head off. It was Judith who beheaded Holofernes.  (83)

Carrying on:

Or perhaps the mugging was just a taster of what she really had in store in him. A knife in his heart, maybe. A pistol at his head. A saw at his throat.  (84)

(Is the phrase “in store in him” idiomatic in England? I would have expected “in store for him.”) 

And one more:

And he saw himself kicked out of the way by passers-by, like a Jew’s dog on the streets of Caracas, or Buenos Aires, or Fontenay-sous-Bois, or Toronto.  (85)

As you can see from the page numbers, the references to Canada form a little cluster in the section of the novel that deals with Treslove discovering that anti-Semitic attacks continue in the contemporary world. One of the central ideas of the novel (voiced by several characters at different points) is that anti-Semitism is unavoidable, and that while it may recede from time to time, it will always recur – so Canada isn’t being picked out as unusual in still having anti-Semitisim. Rather, we are seen as a country where one would least expect to find anti-Semitism – a compliment in terms of the way we’re viewed by the world, but one which, the novel suggests, we don’t live up to as well as we might hope.

A Destination for Furniture

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

From “4: The Part About the Crimes”:

Two weeks later, in May 1994, Monica Duran Reyes was kidnapped on her way out of the Diego Rivera School in Colonia Lomas del Toro. She was twelve years old and she was a little scatterbrained but a good student. It was her first year of secondary school. Both her mother and father worked at Maderas de Mexico, a maquiladora that built colonial- and rustic-style furniture that was exported to the United States and Canada. (412)

It perhaps sounds awful to say this, but it’s really in Part 4 that 2666 gets going; this is the longest section of the novel (almost 300 pages on its own) and it is mainly a catalogue of the grisly murders of women.

And yet Bolano constructs his narrative so artfully that it comes to seem much more than a mere catalogue. The fact that the girl is a little scatterbrained, the mention of where her mother and father work – he uses this technique throughout the section to humanize the victims, just as Homer does in the Iliad, when he mentions some little detail about the life or home of a warrior just as he is killed, to add context and pathos and remind us that every death removes a unique personality and set of experiences from the world.

Here’s one somewhat lengthy but characteristic example from the Loeb translation by Murray, revised by Wyatt:

For the son of Telamon darted through the throng and struck him from close at hand through the helmet with cheekpieces of bronze; and the helmet with horsehair crest was split about the spearpoint, struck by the great spear and the stout hand; and the brain all mingled with blood spurted out from the wound along the socket of the spear. There then his strength was loosed, and from his hands he let fall the foot of great-hearted Patroclus to lie on the ground, and close by he himself fell forward on the corpse, far from deep-soiled Larisa; nor did he pay back to his dear parents the recompense of his upbringing, and brief was the span of his life, since he was laid low by the spear of great-hearted Aias. (XVII.293-303)

(On the off-chance that anyone knows Greek, you can read the original, courtesy of the Perseus Project.)

The idea that the warrior did not live long enough to “pay back to his dear parents the recompense of his upbringing” addresses a sense of loss that is so universal it could be transferred to the paragraph from Bolano without markedly altering its tone.

In the fourth part of 2666, then, Bolano is consciously imitating and updating the “catalogue” aspect of ancient epic, making this part of his novel a catalogue of the ways women can be violated and murdered in the same way Homer’s battle books are catalogues of the ways men can kill other men with swords and spears. It’s probably an illusion, but in reading the Iliad one sometimes feels that no two warriors die in exactly the same way; likewise, in 2666, every death is unique, and uniquely horrifying:

When she was found, two days later, her body showed unmistakeable signs of strangulation, with a fracture of the hyoid bone. She had been anally and vaginally raped. There was tumefaction of the wrists, as if they had been bound. Both ankles presented lacerations, by which it was deduced that her feet had also been tied. (392)

When the body reached the medical examiner, he discovered, in astonishment, that under the hot pants the woman still had on white underpants with little bows on the sides. He also noted that she had been anally and vaginally raped, and that the cause of death was massive craniocerebral trauma, although she had been stabbed twice too, once in the chest and once in the back, wounds that had caused her to lose blood but weren’t necessarily fatal. Her face, as the truck drivers had observed, was unrecognizable. (400)

Four days later, the mutilated corpse of Beatriz Concepción Roldán appeared by the side of the Santa Teresa-Cananea highway. The casue of death was a gash that sliced her open from navel to chest, presumably inflicted with a big machete or knife. (494)

Compare these with the following examples, all taken from Book 20 of the Iliad, when Achilles returns to battle and goes on what would nowadays be called a killing spree (“aristeia” to the scholars). Links to the relevant Greek passage on the Perseus Project appear after the line numbers for those who want to seek them out:

… and over him [Iphition] Demeleon, Antenor’s son, a mighty warder off of battle, did Achilles strike in the temple through the helmet with cheek pieces of bronze. And the bronze helmet stopped not the spear, but through it sped the spear point and broke apart the bone; and all his brain was scattered about within…. (XX.395-400; Greek)

… he [Tros] sought to clasp Achilles’ knees with his hands, eager to beg him; but he struck him on the liver with his sword, and the liver slipped out, and the dark blood welling out from it filled his chest; and darkness enfolded his eyes as his breath failed. (XX.468-472; Greek)

Then, at the point where the sinews of the elbow join, there he pierced Deucalion through the arm with spear point of bronze; and he awaited his coming with arm weighed down, looking upon death before him; but Achilles, striking him with the sword on his neck, hurled afar his head and with it his helmet; and the marrow spurted out from the spine, and the corpse lay stretched on the ground. (XX.478-83; Greek)

That’s probably enough of that, but you get the idea: Homer pays minute attention to the way specific parts of the body interact with weapons, such as the sinews of the elbow with the spear point in the last example. Bolano pays just this kind of attention to the details of the victims in the fourth part of 2666, and that attention, which is simultaneously both tender and gruesome, is part of what lends this section of the novel its overwhelming power.

But to return to Canada: our nation features here as a distant, safe country where people have the luxury of relaxing on colonial-style furniture, never giving a thought to the horrifying details of life in the distant place where it is made.

I’m no furniture expert, but here’s a definition of Colonial Style and an illustrated guide to recognizing it. (There’s even an app!) Genuine Colonial furniture was made from 1700-1780; the furniture being made in Mexico is an imitation of this style, for contemporary Canadians who want to sit around their living rooms on chairs with flared arms and cushioned upholstery and rest their tea cups on refined, elegant tables with animal-paw feet.

There seems to be an irony buried here: Canada, a former colony, has a taste for Colonial-style furniture. No doubt this is the tail end of colonialism: the experience of being colonized leads to a unique insecurity in which those who were colonized live out a fantasy in which they take on the style and behaviour of those who colonized them. Rather pathetic.

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