'Barney's version': Richler's deep wit

December 28, 1997|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Barney's Version," by Mordecai Richler. Knopf. 384 pages. $25.

A murder mystery, a many-partnered romantic saga, a poignant lament of the ravages of age: all of this is rolled up neatly into Mordecai Richler's absorbing 10th novel, "Barney's Version." Keeping so many balls in the air and his signature irreverence in perfect pitch, Richler continues to earn his place as one of Canada's leading novelists. Down here south of the border, this novel should help bring his readership into line with his critical reputation. Readers looking for laughs or for literary delectation will find it the perfect introduction to Richler's work, that rich storehouse of both.

Richler's last novel, "Solomon Gursky Was Here" (1990), took a ++ panoramic view of five generations of a Montreal family, but its epic scale stunted the development of individual characters and subplots. The more satisfying "Barney's Version" finds Richler back in form. It delves deeply into one man's life and psyche, but still delivers the luxuriance of characters and color that has always marked Richler's fiction.

Barney Panofsky, writing his memoir as he nears 70, is beginning to find disconcerting holes in his memory. These lapses make more urgent the task of recording what he does remember: "In my present state of decline, I suffer long nights when I receive a veritable jumble of pictures out of my past, but lack the means to unscramble them." While mundane details like the word "colander" escape him, wrenching episodes of his life stubbornly return.

Haunting Barney, asking him to make sense of them, are scenes from bohemian revels in Paris bistros and garrets; scenes from friendships that end in betrayal; scenes from his own murder trial. More laughable, if no less painful, are scenes from the substandard television shows that made Barney's ignoble fortune. How substandard? His big cash cow of a series, 'McIver of the RCMP' (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), "is big on bonking scenes in canoes and igloos."

This inspired hybrid of "Northern Exposure" and "Baywatch" gives a sense of Richler's unfailingly sharp - if curmudgeonly - eye for absurdities of our late 20th century that we may not even have recognized as such.

The shameless and the pious (vegetarians, Quebec's separatist party) alike come in for skewering.

On one hand, Barney writes his memoir as a means of getting at, and getting out, truths about his life. On the other, he can't resist the opportunity to use this form, with its confessional element, to vindicate himself in the eyes of the world and especially his family. In the end, he pens an autobiography whose petty, personal falsifications become Richler's means of illuminating greater truths - some of them merciless, some redemptive -about human relations and self-understanding.

This is really saying something for a novel whose every page contains at least a decent chuckle. Without letting up on the comedy, "Barney's Version" achieves real emotional resonance. It etches an indelible portrait of memory itself as scourge, blessing and abiding mystery of our lives.

Laura Demanski is writing a doctoral dissertation on lat Victorian fiction. She previously worked for Simon & Schuster and the University of Chicago Press.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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