"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Alistair MacLoed Is Dead: Far from No Great Mischief

The news this weekend is that Alistair MacLeod, short story writer and novelist, is dead at 77.    As it happened, we had a very stimulating discussion of his novel No Great Mischief on Wednesday at the Atwater Library.  Most of the participants found much of interest in the book, although our resident dentist said the episode where one of the characters ties a rope around a tooth in order to pull it far from realistic.

The book, which MacLeod worked on for 13 years before finally agreeing to have it typed up and prepared for publication by MacLelland  and Stewart in 1999, is told by a Cape Breton man (one of three Alexander MacDonalds in the novel, now living a nice upper middle class life in Windsor, ON, as he tries ot help his alcoholic older brother.  The pace is slow, as it often is when stories are told aloud. There is repetition of key phrases and repetition of key events, just as there is in stories told aloud.  The voice is easy, as if the man narrating the events was sure from the beginning how it would end.

Along the way we are told a lot about the Highland Scots who settled in Cape Breton in the late 18th century, and how their progeny continue today to eke out an existence on the rough landscape.  It is a moving story, and one which I found absorbing.

As we spoke about the book last week, I wondered just how much of my appreciation of the book is colored by the fact that my mother was a McDonald, from the Protestant part of that clan. Certainly the people who seemed most taken by the book had a link with Scotland one way or another.  But MacLeod goes to great lengths to make the connection between the clannishness of the Highland Scots and the ties that bind peole in other communities: French Canadians, Zulus, the Masai, Mexican Mennonites.

Indeed, the link between the Scots and the French in North America is one of the major themes in the book, and led to an almost surreal book launch when the French translation came out a couple of years after English original. The event was sponsored by the Quebec nationalist Société St-Jean Baptiste at its headquarters in an elegant old house once owned by the Patriot Ludger Duvernay.  I suppose I was invited because I'd written a fictionalized biography of another of the Patriots (and here we're talking about the Rebellions in both Lower and Upper Canada in 1837-38) Robert Nelson.   When guests arrived we were greeted by two men in kilts playing bagpipes outside.  Inside we were greated to Scottish dancing, a short talk by MacLeod (in English, since he spoke no French), a reading of the French translation and the presentation of a scholarly work about the many French Quebeckers who have Scottish ancestors.

The leaders of the SJB society at the time were following very carefully the secession movement in Scotland, and had read MacLeod's book in English on their way to attend the first session of the Scottish assembly.  Obviously they found  a great many resonances with the Quebec situation.  As for me, I was delighted by the connections they made, as well as the pipers.

Will pipers play Amazing Grace or Over the Sea to Skye at MacLeod's funeral which will be held this Saturday at St. Margaret of Scotland Church at Broad Cove, Cape Breton?  Possibly. A more interesting question is: how religious will the service be?  One of the things that is strangely missing from No Great Mischief  is organized religion.  MacLeod avoids any reference to the Catholic-Protestant cleavage in Scottish culture in his books, because, I'd like to think, that conflict is irrelevant when considering the relations of people to nature and to the hard scrabble life so many live.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Gentlemen of the Road: Another Buddy Book from Michael Chabon

Another Michael Chabon discussion coming up Thursday night: this time it is his Gentlemen of the Road, a swashbuckling adventure set in 10th century Central Asia.  Originally Chabon was going to call the novel--first published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine--Jews with Swords.   It takes place in the Kingdom of the Khazars, which was a Jewish state for a few hundred years when Islam was expanding and Russian Orthodoxy was too.

The two heroes are a melancholy medecine man from what would become Germany and  a giant African descendant of the Queen of Sheba.  They are bickering brothers in arms who usually champion good folk, albeit reluctantly.  When the novel opens they pretend to fight to the death, and plan on profitting from wagers made on who will killl whom.  They end up escorting the heir to the throne across  desolate, violent countryside.  Their adventures are told in Chabon's signature long, florid sentences which are only a few degrees removed from being parodies of 19th century lad lit.

This will  be the second  of my book discussion groups to consider the book.  Only one of the first group liked it: most of the  members thought it too bloody, too simplistic.  Tomorrow's discussion promises to be quite different since one of the members of the group argued to put in the reading list and thought it was terrific.

But one thing is certain: Chabon repeats himself.  I recently finished his Telegraph Avenue (also full of baroque writing) which also is a story of unlikely buddies.  In the more recent  book the pair consists of a depressive Jewish semi-intellectual and a big, direct, more-intelligent-than-you-might think guy of African descent. 

There's much more to Telegraph Avenue than to Gentlemen of the Road.  For anyone looking for a good read, I'd recommend it highly.  The other novel is a conceit, a joke, whose major value  is that it might make you go learn a little about the history and  ethnic divisions of Central Asia as Vladimir Putin's Russia tries to wrests back its influence in the region.  Here's the link to the Wikipedia entry.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Sad Anniversary: Two Novels to Mark the 20 Years since the Rwandan Genocide

Some 800,000 people massacred in three months, most by machete-wielding neighbors: that was the horror which began 20 years ago today in Rwanda.  The conflict was ostensibly between ethnic groups, the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi.  But lines were blurred since many moderate Hutus were killed and anyone who has looked closely at the history of the African Great Lakes Region sees that the groups were often related and their differences were used by European powers to divide and conquer.

Gil Courtemanche's Sunday at the Pool in Kigali  tells the story of people caught up in the conflict in an extremely affecting way.  He first went to Rwanda at the beginning of the 1990s to work on a film about AIDS in the region, but decided he must write something about the genocide when it occured.  His first idea was a book of straight reporting, but he was persuaded that novel would convey the tragedy better, and probably reach more people.  The result--first published in French but a winner of several prizes in English translation--was made into a successful film, A Sunday in Kigali, but the novel is much better.  It is painful reading, but well worth the sorrow it might bring.

Like so many others, I was deeply troubled by what happened in Rwanda, and looked around for something I might do to help or understand.  What I discovered quickly was that Rwanda has a twin, Burundi, where the same sort of conflict had been going on for decades.  The year before the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide, a massacre which escaped the attention of the outside world also killed thousands.  After much reflection and quite a lot of library research, I ended up writing a novel about a Canadian politician who goes missing in 1997 in Burundi when on an international fact-finding mission to the  camps set up to shelter refugees.

The Violets of Usambara took eight years to write.  Published in 2008, I did a blog explaining the book's background and the trip I took to East Africa to research the novel.  The trip, funded by a generous grant from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec, was life-changing for me and, I think, was money well spent by the Quebec government's arts agency.  The novel, I'd like to think also, explores the motivations of people who want to make the world a better place.  They may fail but they are admirable in their attempts

The top photo is of the hotel in Bujumbura where I stayed: the pool was lovely and I couldn't help thinking of it when I read Courtemanche's book. The bottom is the view from my hotel room, with the hills to the East in the background.