- This Is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada
According to this literary 'psycho-geography' of Canada, Noah Richler's Canada is a country of dwindling communities, faltering company towns, and thin topsoil; a land ruled by patrician monopolies and indifferent authorities, which instil a 'sense of collective injury' fed by 'low-grade resentment'; a country that 'is constantly conspiring to wipe you out without trace' as if it were a 'testing country such as Job's tormentors might have conspired to set him in.' Canada is a nation founded on 'myths of disappointment': 'Stories that can be considered Canadian creation myths express a distrust of whatever is the prevailing power at the same time as they extol the virtues of the ordinary, modern, and racially sensitive Canadian who has been let down in some way.' This is Richler's country, what's yours, he asks provocatively in his title.
Given these glum conditions, one might expect a glum book – the effect of prolonged exposure to Frederick Philip Grove, perhaps – but instead his compilation of travels, interviews, and opinions is lively and entertaining. He keeps the reader on the move as he criss-crosses the country, weaving each chapter into a fabric of conversations reported (or reconstructed) verbatim, quotations from contemporary novels, and speculations about 'our national psyche.' He is fond of anecdotes and drawn to extremities: to the far north with its arctic mystique, to the interior of Newfoundland or the vastness of the prairies, to a 'forgotten Black hole of a district' in Vancouver's downtown East Side. A photo on the back flap shows him buried in winter gear, his eyelashes frosted with ice. In most places he presents himself as an inquisitive outsider, with the ironic effect that in 'his' Canada, Richler is an intruder, although a welcome one, as he is greeted with warmth, irony, and humour by a remarkable range of Canadian writers (he lists ninety-eight authors interviewed) who share their stories with him. The two focal points of his commentary are story and place, and how each inspires the other through an interweaving of fact and fiction. We define ourselves through narratives that arise from geographical, cultural, and ethnic locales, each with its own grounds for complaint. Richler is a [End Page 185] literary environmentalist – a classic Canadian approach – who studies how the ground gives rise to the complaint and then to its cure.
The discursiveness of each chapter is met by a fondness for order, as each is organized geographically and thematically: the role of story-telling, Aboriginal cultures, work in company towns, creation myths, urban landscapes, regional loyalties, Quebec politics, local habitations. These themes are further constrained by analytical schemes proposed tentatively rather than authoritatively. Thus Canada begins as nowhereat all (following the old joke that the name 'Canada' comes from the Spanish, acá nada), turns into nowhere-in-particular, and finally graduates to somewhere, or nowhere-with-an-address. Canadian discourse proceeds from 'the age of invention,' to 'the age of mapping' and finally to 'the age of argument.' Cultures are shaped by epic or novelistic narrative codes (hence the intractability of Middle Eastern politics). These schemes suggest historical advance through patterns of self-realization, and in this respect, Richler's commentary cautiously grows more hopeful. Canada emerges as a place with virtues and arguments of its own, with the novel serving as a magnanimous, humanizing genre, although also a bossy one. Canadian disappointments produce toughness, self-reliance matched by concern for community, generosity, a 'mix of humility and awe' (as close as Richler gets to religion), and the saving grace of irony. When a government official urged his Inuit audience to be efficient because 'time is money,' the interpreter's translation was 'a watch costs a lot.' 'We're all what we are by accident. We're Canadian by accident,' Gil Courtemanche tells Richler, who clearly thinks it was a happy accident.