Friday, May 13, 2011

Mordecai Richler: The Incomparable Atuk

I'd be hard pressed to name a Canadian author I look forward to reading more than Mordecai Richler. I guess it wouldn't be difficult to just read them all through one after the other, but I want to pace myself with him, just so I know there's more left to read.

The Incomparable Atuk is, like most Richler loves, a satirical comedy, mostly humorous but with ample doses of cynicism thrown in for good measure.

Summarizing The Incomparable Atuk is not as easy task. To say it's about an Inuk who finds himself the toast of the town in Toronto as the poet du jour is to skim over all the intricate plot details, ignore all those other eccentric characters, and miss those poisonous satirical barbs.

And yet it took me almost up to the halfway point to appreciate all the other stuff. Too many characters to keep track of, confused at what was going on, and what was Richler's beef anyway? Canadian celebrity? Canadian identity?

No, I don't think The Incomparable Atuk is as streamlined as Barney's Version, but certainly the seeds for that magnum opus were there. Here's one of my favourite moments when Atuk is speaking to his father who insists on being called "Old One" since being featured in a National Film Board short,
'Speak no more. Atuk, my son, I remember when your eyes were deep and true as the blue spring sea. I recall when your soul was pure and white as the noon iceberg. This is no more. Today--'

'For Christ's sake, will you cut out that crazy talk. You sound like you were auditioning for Disney again or something.'
And the proof that it's a brilliant piece of satire? Despite some of the dated language, most of the themes are still applicable to Canadian society today. At the end of my version, notes from Peter Gzowski reveal who many of the characters were supposedly based on. I knew none of the them (as the book was first published in '63), and yet I could still find similarities with modern day Canadians. Here's a scene involving a female newspaper columnist named Jean-Paul McEwen. She's stumped for an idea:
She could do a column on how glad she is to be a Canadian and out of the U.S. style rat-race. Naw. Old hat. McEwen felt wretched because she was not a woman to waste time. A quarrel with her mother ended up as a thought-piece on parenthood and the letters she got about the column made for a humorous minutorial on Letters I Get. Everywhere Jean-Paul McEwen went she took her tape recorder. You never knew who might say something useful or where you might come up with a honey of an idea. Even McEwen's vacations were not a costly waste. The funny things that happened to her were worth at least three columns.
If only she whined about the decreasing quality of shopping in Toronto or men who wear sandals instead of flip flops, she'd be Leah McLaren.

We really need another Richler. (Megan, write a book already.)

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