The Walrus Reads
Eight essential spring books
Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto by Rudyard Griffiths
Douglas & McIntyre (2009), 232 pp.
On Tuesday, January 20, minutes after being sworn into office on the very Bible with which Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated to his first term in 1861, President Barack Obama turned to address expectant millions, the dome of the Capitol Building behind him, the austere spire of the Washington Monument and the brooding Lincoln Memorial ahead. The Mall in Washington, DC, is saturated with the symbolism of American history, as was President Obama’s solemn speech. “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath,” he intoned. “The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on, not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.”
There is much in President Obama’s very American rhetoric that might well grate against Canadian sensibilities, in particular the sense of universal religious mission in passages like “This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” But compare his sweeping evocation of what it means to be an American citizen with the manoeuvring that has characterized Canadian politics in the recent past, most of which has unfolded with virtually no reference to Canada as a nation, nor of Canadians as citizens of a single nation with a powerful history. That absence, according to Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder of the Dominion Institute, is symptomatic of an impoverished notion of citizenship and history that endangers Canada’s capacity to address the looming global crises of the twenty-first century. “I would argue that the failure of our political leaders and opinion makers to rally the country to the defence of a common nationhood, in name and fact, fits into a larger pattern of collective acquiescence,” Griffiths writes. “Beyond politics, in the areas of culture, the economy and our social priorities, the country’s elites and institutions are failing to assert the symbols, shared objectives and values that defined our common identity for our forebears.”
In recent years, Canada has often been presented as the prototype of the “post-national” state, its people not so much of a single nation with its peculiar civic traditions, but rather “citizens of the world” connected by their common humanity. The idea of being a citizen of the world may well appeal to our sense of living in a globalized, multicultural society, and also to our anxiety about the darker side of nationalism, but, says Griffiths, it comes at a heavy price: studies suggest that Canadians’ knowledge of their own history has been steadily diminishing, as has their participation in important civic activities like voting and volunteering. Griffiths describes three potential twenty-first-century crises whose solution, in his view, will require strong federal institutions backed by an engaged citizenry: an aging population, which will further stress the health care system and deplete the workforce; mass immigration, which is needed to compensate for the aging population and the low birth rate, but which also demands support from the public sector; and climate change, which, if not slowed, could radically alter the way we live over the course of the next hundred years.
But then, what is Canada’s singular national identity, and what should it mean to be a Canadian citizen? Griffiths argues that Canada has undergone two defining periods of nation building, first beginning in the 1840s in the reform movement spearheaded by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, and then again in the late 1940s, led by Louis St. Laurent, C.D. Howe, and Lester B. Pearson. “Those who would have us believe that Canada has always been a contingent association of different regions, linguistic groups and ethnic communities,” Griffiths concludes, “ignore or have forgotten our evolution as a civic nation. History shows that ours is a political community built on shared democratic values and institutions rather than on ethnicity, region or language.” But he also believes Canada needs a third period of nation building, this one focused on the nature of citizenship—and he offers practical suggestions. For instance, he proposes longer residency requirements prior to citizenship, and an enriched citizenship exam so new immigrants will lay down deeper roots and have a broader knowledge of Canada’s civic traditions; and mandatory voting and civic service, whether in the military, social service, or education, as a way of instilling responsibility and increasing participation in public life for all Canadians.
Who We Are is a bold and sometimes provocative book: while rejecting crude nationalism, Griffiths insists that multicultural Canada in a complicated, often volatile world is best served by a more robust idea of citizenship and a stronger allegiance to its traditions and institutions. While the book is not convincing throughout—the political machinations in Upper and Lower Canada are hardly a mythic parallel to the American Revolution, and the idea of “loyalty” that Griffiths sees as crucial to the Canadian version of democracy seems weak compared with the vision of liberty that fuelled the Declaration of Independence—it is nonetheless the starting point of a conversation that we can only ignore at our peril.
Grass, Sky, Song by Trevor Herriot
HarperCollins Canada (2009), 288 pp.
Trevor Herriot describes himself as an “urban refugee,” and while that may technically be true (he lives and works in Regina, and escapes when he can to a cabin outside the city), the author and broadcaster’s spiritual home is out on the grassland prairie of Saskatchewan’s northern plains. The human and natural history of that landscape, now all but entirely given over to agriculture, are the subjects of his previous two books. In Grass, Sky, Song, he focuses on the small number of grassland birds native to the region—Sprague’s pipit, the burrowing owl, the greater sage grouse—whose numbers are now in steep decline.
Informed by a deeply religious sensibility, Herriot’s account of the disfigured prairie is coloured by his abiding nostalgia for the pre-settler past, a time when wildfire and roaming herds of buffalo choreographed a “dancing mosaic of life” on the plains. Yet his openness to the transcendental (which he characterizes as “a hunger for ways of knowing that are worthy of this land” prevents him from solemnizing for too long over a fallen world.
Grass, Sky, Song is a moving testimony to a landscape in flux, and also a profound meditation on “wildness,” by the pre-eminent prairie naturalist of his generation. “Prairie people,” observes Herriot, “are accustomed to lost causes,” but one hopes the world he describes so vividly isn’t past saving.
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
Hamish Hamilton (2009), 224 pp.
When Kim Echlin is good, she is very, very good, but when she is bad, she is florid. Her sometimes leaden prose—the reliance on rhetorical questions, the weakness for such purple phrases as “I received your touch, you received my relief as if we were giving agonized birth to each other”—threatens to sink this novel, yet it’s worth persevering; what remains is a poignant love story and a memorable journey through a nation’s troubled past.
The Disappeared unfolds mainly in small, confined spaces: bars and bedrooms and the backs of rickshaws. In its opening pages, Anne Greves, a teenage Montrealer, and Serey, a Cambodian math tutor five years her senior, meet at a smoky Buddy Guy concert on Halloween. He likes her hair, she likes that he fronts a rock band, and they quickly begin a fervent, consuming romance. In his kitchen on a Sunday, he shows her a yellowed telegram from his father in Phnom Penh dated four years earlier, the day before Pol Pot seized the capital. There has been no communication since, and when, weeks later, he learns that Cambodia’s borders have reopened, Serey promptly boards a plane and vanishes home.
Eleven years pass without a word. Then, watching news footage of the Vietnamese withdrawal, Anne believes she spots Serey’s face in a Cambodian crowd and she does not hesitate; she packs her belongings, quits her job, buys a visa, and touches down in the middle of the Phnom Penh market, hoping to see that face again. Of course, the man she finds is a ghost of the one she knew, and while their affair recaptures its former intensity a chasm of secrets and silence opens between them, with Anne desperate to ensure he doesn’t disappear once more.
Of all the tensions Echlin successfully negotiates in her novel—loss and recovery, betrayal and forgiveness, Eastern atrocity and Western indifference—the intersection of memory and language is the most nuanced. Although three decades have since intervened, Anne remains haunted by her past, driven to recount what occurred in a country still raw from a revolution that deemed the past irrelevant and reset the clock to year zero. As a student of Latin and a collector of Khmer folk wisdom, Anne is steeped in the phrases of the past. “For thirty years,” she says, “I have clung to words that might lend me a measure of comfort.” Pol Pot’s soldiers, by contrast, took a gun to anyone with ties to tradition—teachers, artists, monks—and filled the void with violent slogans about the urgency of the present: “Live or die for the greatness of the revolution. Expel all enemies.” Most heartbreaking are the survivors caught in the middle, those who were silenced and have “discovered again the passion of speech,” who describe for a stranger their incomprehensible tragedy and insist at the end, “I only want you to know.”
Echlin is most effective as a steward of those stories—there, she trades her more embellished musings for prose that is direct and devastating. She finds small acts of grace and dignity amid the suffering, and in this novel, it is these quiet gestures that speak the loudest.
Six Months in Sudan: A Young Doctor in a War-Torn Village by Dr. James Maskalyk
Doubleday Canada (2009), 352 pp.
Despite a series of trips spent ministering to the sick in some of the most desperate corners of the earth, Toronto physician James Maskalyk is the last person who would relish being likened to a saint. As he explains in his commanding new memoir about the half-year he worked for the international aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, altruism is only part of what drives him. There’s also his congenital restlessness; he keeps his belongings to a backpack-sized minimum, maintains a hazy attachment to a girlfriend, and works in an emergency room to avoid the commitment of a full-time practice. Mostly, though, he’s haunted by an experience from medical school, when he had to tell a patient that she had a fatal brain tumour. “For the first time,” he writes, “[I] understood that though I was living, I was also dying.”
So, in an effort to stare down his mortality, Maskalyk decides to sidle up to death, to live in what he considers “the real world” of urgent need, disease, and suffering. And in Abyei, a charmless outpost in central Sudan, he finds more than enough of the real world—from his multinational tribe of exhausted colleagues to the post-colonial antipathy and global oil greed that have held the nation in a near-constant state of conflict for decades. While the town is removed from the worst horrors of the genocide to the west in Darfur, war is never far away; alongside patients suffering from malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and measles, there are those wounded by grenades, bullets, and rapes. Yet, somehow, Maskalyk manages to remain optimistic: “Hope,” he writes, “not only meets despair in equal measure, it drowns it.”
Like James Orbinski, one of the founders of MSF Canada and the author of his own acclaimed memoir, An Imperfect Offering (2008), Maskalyk finds his purpose in bearing witness to lives—and deaths—that might otherwise be overlooked. Six Months in Sudan began as (what else?) a blog, and Maskalyk’s initial posts set off a small controversy; some critics suggested that blogging about such missions commodifies humanitarianism. But his empathy is palpable. A reticent man by nature, made even more so by the desolation of Abyei, he seems most himself among his patients and the local medical staff, particularly Mohamed, a warm-hearted young doctor from Khartoum, and Aweil, a resilient orphan, whom Maskalyk briefly—and rashly—considers adopting.
As he details daily life on the drab compound— the inescapable heat and dust, the terrible food served by their hostile Sudanese cook, the petty bullying of the local militia—and the wrenching demands of the hospital, the book is vivid, and at times even funny. Surprisingly, it’s when Maskalyk returns to Canada that he, and, to a degree, his writing, becomes self-conscious. It’s as if having travelled to “the real world” of Sudan, he can no longer be at home in his own. Of his fellow aid workers he writes, “We talk about how difficult it is to assimilate, to assume routine, to sample familiar pleasures… The rift, of course, is not in the world: it is within us.”
Buying Cigarettes for the Dog by Stuart Ross
Freehand Books (2009), 200 pp.
Stuart Ross’s first book of short stories since 1997 is a daring collection. These twenty-three bizarre vignettes leap from the straightforward to the experimental and back again. His fiction is often bold, sometimes infuriating, and always rewarding.
Ross is a documentarian of the absurd. “Me and the Pope” imagines the pontiff as an annoying house guest eager to rob a convenience store; in “Shooting the Poodle,” a man needs a bodyguard to protect him from his dog. There are sobering moments as well: “Elliott Goes to School” concerns a young man who takes sixty-three children hostage, while “Three Arms Less” explores the fallacy of war without coming off as preachy. An underlying anger courses through these stories; one senses Ross wants to shake the world by its collar and make it aware of its idiocy.
Economically written, the book is full of delightful flourishes: thin white legs become “ostriches pecking for food,” and fleas on a dog in Guatemala “re-enacted various Latin American revolutions.” Nonetheless, in some stories form trumps function, while others have quirky set-ups—“Cow Story” is about a bovine invasion, “Bouncing” centres on a man who cannot stop tumbling head over heels—that ultimately fail to pay off.
Through poetry boot camps, small-press book fairs, self-published chapbooks, and literary zines, Ross has fashioned a unique career in Canadian letters. He’s a tireless, and some would say shameless, self-promoter, and he bolsters his reputation with this book. Like the man himself, Buying Cigarettes for the Dog demands attention.
The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
McClelland & Stewart (2009), 340 pp.
Thirteen years after the acclaimed Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels returns to the world of fiction with The Winter Vault, an evocative story of loss and redemption. Her first novel won accolades worldwide, and The Winter Vault will be measured against it, especially after such a long wait. I’m reluctant to review it on these terms, however; it is a thing of beauty unto itself, with pleasures and merits of its own.
The Winter Vault tells the story of Avery, a young engineer in the ’60s, part of a team responsible for relocating and thus preserving the sacred temples at Abu Simbel prior to the damming of the Nile River. While in Egypt, Avery’s young wife, Jean, pregnant with their first child, suffers a stillbirth. It is a personal tragedy of epic proportions, but one she nonetheless struggles to contextualize within the greater public loss—of villages, cultures, history—caused by the dam. The Winter Vault is characterized by Michaels’ signature prose, lyric and sensual, but she skilfully pulls back in the face of the lost baby, replacing her layered imagery with a few swift strokes. The result is effectively unsettling—we are left wondering what the inner landscape of such a troubling experience might look like—and when the book returns to this crucial event in the final, brief chapter, the effect is heart wrenching.
The second part of the novel focuses on Jean’s new friendship with Lucjan, a Polish immigrant she meets serendipitously during a hiatus from Avery. Their intimacy primarily takes the form of conversation. There are long, meandering pages during which Lucjan tells Jean about his childhood after the war, about his own understanding of what it is to suffer. The characters in The Winter Vault live in a world of intense emotion and ethical grappling, “an engagement of mind…almost shattering in its pleasure.” Freed from the shackles of groceries and telephone bills, their essences appear distilled or concentrated on the page. Luckily this paring down, under Michaels’ sure hand, makes them not less human but more so. Her gift for subtlety reverberates throughout the rest of the book as well. The temple, for example—broken into blocks, moved piece by piece, creating a perfect replica, with something nonetheless lost in the process—there’s a metaphor here, but one is hard pressed to say exactly what. The temple could be Jean and Avery’s relationship, the perfect past compared with the invisibly fractured future; it could likewise be the universal loss compared with the individual (the smaller displacement of Jean’s mother’s garden, in jars on the floor of her apartment). The temple is in fact both of these things, and neither. The irreducibility of the world to human terms, Michaels seems to imply, is at the core of its inherent value.
Like Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault deserves to be savoured on the tongue, like the date trees on the banks of the Nile at summer’s end, the “sweetness reaching its deepest concentration.”
The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece by Eric Siblin
House of Anansi (2009), 320 pp.
On an autumn night in 2000, Eric Siblin sat in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory as Laurence Lesser bowed his way through Bach’s Cello Suites. It was music that Siblin, the Montreal Gazette’s pop music critic for a stretch in the ’90s, had never heard before, and it immediately began transforming his life. By the time his journey into the Suites’ complicated history was complete, he had discovered the Byzantine lineage of their manuscripts, sung bass in an amateur Bach choir, travelled the musical capitals of Europe, and traced the career of Pablo Casals, the legendary cellist whose childhood discovery of the Suites, and lifelong dedication to playing them, is largely responsible for their canonical status.
All of this is recorded in Siblin’s new book, a delightful whirlwind tour through two different ages of musical history that recreates Bach’s awkward eighteenth century as richly it does Casals’ troubled twentieth. Siblin’s research is remarkably comprehensive—he has a particularly keen eye for the telling domestic detail—and his prose is amiable, at times charming (at one point, he offers his thoughts on the extent of “Bach’s street cred”). Beyond the details, the book’s greatest triumph is its structure, which borrows from the music: six sections, one for each suite, offer six chapters each, one for each movement, with the stories of Bach, Casals, and Siblin’s personal search rotating throughout, creating a thematic counterpoint that cleverly suggests the timelessness of the music it explores. As Siblin inevitably concludes, “Every age reimagines Bach on its own terms.” We’re lucky that we have a writer this skilful and creative to do the work.
Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Todorovic
Random House Canada (2009), 252 pp.
Dragan Todorovic’s debut novel is a compelling chronicle of rebellion, wreckage, and refuge, set amid the disintegration of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The book centres on three Serbs, Boris, Johnny, and Sara, who long to escape the destructive politics and warfare threatening to engulf their youth. Todorovic introduces us to Boris in 1999, on his return to Europe from Canada, where he has fled as a refugee. As he makes his way toward Belgrade, he flashes back to his coming of age as an iconoclastic artist in constant conflict with his father, the General, a global symbol of Serbian aggression. His partner in rebellion is his best friend, Johnny, first shown performing a Hendrix-at-Woodstock-style guitar solo at a protest concert. As the face of youthful resistance to the war, Johnny becomes a target for the authorities, who draft him and force him to serve in a secret military action. After intervening in the gang rape of a young Croatian girl by Serbian mercenaries, he flees to Amsterdam, abandoning his hope for a life with his girlfriend, Sara, a journalist, who instead marries Boris and escapes to Toronto. The lives of the three intersect again only years later, when a personal tragedy leads them to confront the choices thrust upon them by chaos.
Drawing on his own experiences as a refugee, Todorovic peppers this material with occasionally melodramatic, but often trenchant and always sincere insight into war and immigrant life. “There is no narrative of exile,” Boris reflects at one point. “It is a chopped-up existence.” The great success of Diary of Interrupted Days is to prove otherwise, rendering fragmented lives and complex conflict into an absorbing tale.