Wednesday, June 27, 2007

jake hersh, the self-hating canadian

Only I, in choosing which Mordecai Richler to read for my comprehensive exams, would manage to pick the one that happens to be 500 pages long. However, I don't regret it -- it was an incredibly fast and good read, and it reminded me of all the things I used to love about Richler's writing. Funny, bawdy, and poignant, St. Urbain's Horseman is required reading for anyone who love The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (and Duddy, his father, and all the gang from St. Urbain St. make appearances in the novel from time to time). When I first started reading Canadian Literature, I used to feel really ripped off when it wasn't actually set in Canada, but this book, set largely among the expat community in London, reminded me that in setting a book elsewhere we can often get a better look at who we are.

Incidentally, who's the idiot at McClelland and Stewart who decided that all Richler covers should be set in Comic Sans? It looks so painfully amateur compared to the usually very classy Emblem Edition covers of other Canadian classics.

St. Urbain's Horseman
by Mordecai Richler

"Everybody leaves this cold country. Joey; now you," and she told him a story that Baruch had brought back from his travels, a tale told to him by a Spanish sailor. "You know how this country got its name? It was written on a map by the Conquistadors in Peru. On their map of the Americas, one of them wrote on the uncharted space over the Great Lakes, 'Acqui esta nada.' It was shortened to acqui nada. Or Canada."


At ease in Canada. The homeland he shed with such soaring enthusiasm twelve years earlier. Thousands of miles of wheat, indifference, and self-apology, it had seemed. And no more.

Jake recalled standing with Luke at the ship's rail, afloat on champagne, euphoric, as Quebec City receded and they headed into the St. Lawrence and the sea.

"I say! I say! I say!" Jake had demanded, "what's beginning to happen in Toronto?"

"Exciting things."

"And Montreal?"

"It's changing."

Tomorrow country then, tomorrow country now. And yet -- and yet -- he felt increasingly claimed by it, especially in the autumn, the Laurentian season, and the last time he had sailed the tranquil St. Lawrence into swells and the sea, it was with a sense of loss, even deprivation, and melancholy, that he had watched the clifftop towns drift past. Each one unknown to him.

Circles completed, he thought.


He assumed, based on his education and sour experience, that nothing Canadian was quite good enough.

In St. Urbain's Horseman, Mordecai Richler does a wonderful job of writing about the expatriot experience. Jake Hersh is a filmmaker who, with moderate success in CBC teledramas behind him, begins to set his sights farther. For Jake, nothing Canadian can really be any good -- he's tired of being a big fish in a small pond, and he believes that Canada will never be anything more than a small pond. Having been barred entry to the United States, Jake, following the example of his best friend and sometimes rival Luke, decides that England is the place for him to be. So Jake goes to London and finds some success both financial and professional -- but he also befriends a loser with a chip on his shoulder and ends up embroiled in a sex scandal. For Jake, going to London helps him realize the positives of being Canadian, and indeed his experience as an expat is what solidifies his own individual Canadian identity.

St. Urbain's Horseman also follows a similar trajectory to The Second Scroll by A.M. Klein, in that it tackles the issue of Zionism and involves a quest for a relative. In Jake's case, he is searching for his cousin, Joey Hersh. Everyone in the Hersh family seems to have a different perception of who Joey is or was: some see him as a snake who abandoned his mother and siblings, others see him as a hero for his war service; some see him as a criminal and a gambler, other see him as a risk-taker and a brave man. Jake believe strongly in his cousin, and believes that his cousin is in South America hunting Josef Mengele. (The novel takes place in the 1960s primarily, though much of the action is in flashback. The novel ends in 1967.) Like Klein's Canadian Journalist, Jake is a Canadian Filmmaker who likewise travels all over to find his cousin; like Klein's character, Jake is continually just missing his cousin. Indeed, Joey is frequently close enough to touch -- Jake finds that Joey has been living in London, telling people he is visiting Jake, and charging things to Jake's account at Herrod's -- all the time never making direct contact with his cousin. Like The Second Scroll, the quest for family is wrapped up in the quest for Zion, and like The Second Scroll the sought-after figure is killed with symbolic timing. In the case of St. Urbain's Horseman, the news of Joey's death comes with Israel's victory in the Arab-Israeli War.

To contrast with Klein's novel, however, Jake's relationship to the state of Israel is much more conflicted than Klein's narrator. Likewise, Jake's relationship to his own Jewish heritage is conflicted -- almost as conflicted as his relationship to Canada. Jake really doesn't know who he is. He identifies himself, loudly and proudly, as a Jew and as a Canadian. But he doesn't like or respect Canada, and though he misses it, he can't ever really return. Likewise, Jake is proud of his Jewish heritage on the one hand, and he is disgusted by anti-Semitism and finds heroes in those Jews who stood up against the Germans (and in his cousin, who he believes is doing good in the world by seeking out Mengele for destruction). But he is conflicted about traditions -- he has married a shiksa and had children by her, he doesn't keep kosher, he resents his mother's imposition when she visits to "help," and he doesn't believe in the mourning period he is expected to observe after the death of his father. When it comes to Israel, Jake feels a near-constant guilt at his feelings of worry for the Arab children dying as a result of Israeli actions, and feels empathy towards the Palestinians who feel invaded. For Jake, there can be no outlet for these feelings, because they are fundamentally anti-social within his community. (Indeed, the idea of Jewish community is one that conflicts Jake as well, as he doesn't feel the sense of community for the St. Urbain St. people that he feels like he is supposed to.)

Of note, in this novel, is the role of women here. Richler has often been wrapped on the knuckles for his depictions of women, but it seems to me that in St. Urbain's Horseman, the female characters are of an inimitable strength. For example, Nancy, Jake's wife, at first seems to be a long-suffering woman, dealing silently with her husband's sexual scandal. But as soon as the trial is over, she questions him herself, and she is the only character to challenge his assertion that he is a filmmaker. She points out to him that he has only ever made one film, and she challenges him to get back to filmmaking. It is only through her insistence that he picks up Luke's play and gets his career and life back on track after the trial ends. Richler give Nancy the leading role in the family -- she is the one keeping things together emotionally and financially when Jake would rather roll over and forget about real life. Nancy commands the family, even though she is hated by Jake's mother and resented by his father. The family could not stay together without her.

One thing I do wonder about and am not quite sure what to make of is the use of repetition in this book. In many ways, this is a book about memory. The trial is all about people's remembering and misremembering, as is the legacy of Joey. Richler repeats events in the book, slightly differently each time, with the effect of deja vu for the reader. I think it's a commentary on the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of time -- but I'm not really sure what else to do with this weird and unexpected use of repetition. It's funny how it is invoked in the text, because it is so sporadically used that it made me wonder if I was repeating pages, or if I had read the book before -- it was only once this had happened four or five times that I realized it was a deliberate device and not the result of my absent-minded skipping ahead in the text before reading it. Beyond a critique of memory and time, I'm not 100% sure what to do with this motif.

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