Things fall apart: Requiems for a country and for the dreams of a continent

July 19, 1992|By Myron Beckenstein

OH CANADA! OH QUEBEC!: REQUIEM FOR A DIVIDED COUNTRY.

Mordecai Richler.

Knopf.

277 pages. $23. Americans just can't seem to get worked up about Canada. The Soviet Union begins falling apart, and we are swept into the drama. We worry about distant Yugoslavia. But Canada? Most Americans probably don't even realize our taken-for-granted neighbor is well into a major crisis and stands a better than even chance of breaking up.

Perhaps part of the reason is that we don't really understand what is happening there and why. Enter "Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!: Requiem for a Divided Country."

Novelist Mordecai Richler ("The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," "Solomon Gursky Was Here") is in a fine position to explain. He is a Canadian, plus he is from Quebec, plus he is a member of the province's English-speaking minority. That means is acquainted with the problem from almost every conceivable angle.

The problem is Quebec's challenge for the rest of Canada to make it a super province, and its threat to leave the confederation if it isn't accommodated.

Mr. Richler's sometimes rambling, but always readable, essay explains why he doesn't support his native province's cause. He offers history, economics, reminiscences, analysis, facts, opinions, humor, sarcasm. One of his enthusiasms is quoting people and then plucking apart their statements. He feels free to quote Francophones in French, and usually offers a translation.

Unlike most English-speaking Canadians, Mr. Richler knows ,X what life actually was like for Quebecers because he was there. Not only doesn't he buy the poor-downtrodden argument, but he doesn't buy the squelched glory one, either. ("I was brought up in a Quebec that was reactionary, church-ridden and notoriously corrupt.") But this doesn't mean he is anti-Quebec. He lives there and likes living there.

One vantage point from which he views Quebec is as a Jew. He paints the Francophone leadership as anti-Semitic, both historically and, to a lesser extent, recently. The fear is that without an over-government in Ottawa to keep an eye on things, a self-centered Quebec would be less noble in treating its minorities.

This isn't entirely a hypothetical point. Quebec is notorious for its language laws, which ban outdoor signs in any language but French and minutely regulate indoor signs. Mr. Richler comes back to this time and again, skewering both the laws and those who scour the province for deviant letter combinations.

Much of the trouble, he feels, is caused by politicians. He has a good word for Premier Robert Bourassa, but it is smothered by a far greater number of not-so-good words. ("Our cause now rests in the calculating hands of Premier Bourassa, a politician with no sentimental attachment to Canada . . . sadly without a moral anchor that could steady him against unfavorable winds.")

Nor does he think highly of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney ("There were only two ways of looking at our prime minister. Either he had been a bare-faced liar to begin with or he grew in office") or his sometime foe, sometime sidekick, Joe Clark. But he does like former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his now-overlooked vision of Canada.

Mr. Richler is worried about the effects of separation on all his constituencies, including Quebec. Not only would Quebec suffer economically and through political and cultural inbreeding, he says, but it would be cutting off its nose by throwing away the Ottawa government that has been "shielding its culture from the rest of an English-speaking continent."

He bemoans "an exasperating Francophone failure to grasp that the era in question [of second-class treatment by the Anglophones] skidded to an abrupt end thirty years ago: instead, locked into a time warp, Francophones are still doggedly fighting against injustices that no longer exist.

"Something else.

"Anglophone nostalgia for an earlier Montreal is not necessarily based on a longing for economic dominance, but rather for a time when English, as well as French, thrived there and the two cultures enriched rather than excoriated one another."

The Canadian edition of this book aroused a frenzy within the Quebec establishment, which didn't want to hear his message. But the average Canadian, and the average American, will come away from the book with a better picture of what has happened and what is happening.

Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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