Pico Iyer Journeys

Imagining Canada

Yet for all of that, I came away with a sense of possibility I hadn’t felt as I’d traveled to other of the globe’s defining multicultures, whether in Singapore or Cape Town or Melbourne, on the one hand, or in Paris and London and Bombay, on the other. On paper, at least the logic was clear: Toronto was the most multicultural city in the world, according to the U.N.’s official statistics and it was also, statistically, the safest big city in North America and, by general consensus, the best organized. Put the two facts together, and you could believe that a multiculture could go beyond the nation-states we knew and give new meaning to that outdated term, the “Commonwealth.” Add further my sense that Toronto had the most exciting literary culture in the English-speaking world, and you could believe that it not only offered an example of how a country could be even greater than the sum of its parts, but presented visions of what that post-national future might look like.

It may seem, at this point, that what I was seeing was, as much as anything, a Canada of the imagination, a place that exists largely in the minds of people observing it from afar. As McLuhan himself said years ago, Canada is “a receptive ground for other people’s fantasies.” A Canadian might say that all I was responding to was the place that exists on paper, which has come out number one in the U.N.’s Human Development Index for five consecutive years. This was the land that looked ideal in theory partly because, for all its anxieties about its First Nations past and its Quebecois present, it was not hemmed in by the weight of its past, as the Old World could be, nor burdened by the promise of an unlimited future, as its neighbor in the New World often is. Canada has never had to harden its identity to fend off neighboring enemies, as Britain or France or Germany—or even Japan—has had to do; and yet at the same time it has never had to throw over its whole identity as the other developed geographic giants, the U.S., the former Soviet Union and China have done. In the mind’s eye, at least, it sits outside most fixed definitions and offers openness without chaos, the ideal foundation for what pundits at the London School of Economics call the “third way” and Buddhists might more spaciously call the “Middle Way.”

This is, of course, a notion that works most persuasively on paper, and those who live in the midst of its competing surfaces are unlikely to embrace it so whole-heartedly. Yet images do have a certain power, as anyone who has risked her life and gone across the world in search of the “American Dream” can tell you. Canada is not imprisoned in its image as its bigger or older neighbors may be, and there is no “Canadian Dream” in pop-cultural circulation; but it does have an image, and it is the one celebrated in The English Patient. It is the place set back a little from the dramas and urgencies of the world’s conflicts, and for that very reason, best able to throw a kind of light on them. It is an in-between place in which those from broken worlds can step outside the ruins for a while and think about how to make a future in peace. A sanctuary, if you like, in which people from Britain and France, centuries-old enemies, can live side by side (after a fashion), and a demilitarized zone where India and Pakistan can come and play the cricket games that would set off riots if played in India or Pakistan.

Canadians themselves, like people anywhere, are often embarrassed about the compliments they receive from outsiders, especially because they’re used to defining themselves with a qualification—part of the mystique of Canada is that it is the place that asserts itself in italics while the United States presents itself in bold capitals. And when they hear people talk as I am doing now, they will point out that the “next century” possibilities that I’m extolling disappear as soon as you’re an hour out of Vancouver or Toronto, in rural communities that remain very much mired in the last century. Tennyson and Queen Elizabeth are at least as sovereign here as Rohinton Mistry or the Tragically Hip.

And yet the imaginative identity that Canada projects around the world still remains powerful and in its way unanswerable: Dixon, Ontario, Catherine Bush tells us, is one of the best known places in East Africa because it is the safe place of which many Somalis dream. Canada, like any country, lives in two places at once—its existence in the world and its existence in the mind—and in this latter it enjoys blessings it would squander at its cost. It is the country, to the world, whose prime minister helped instigate the U.N. Peacekeeping Force, and it is the country whose law professor helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the country that Negro spirituals in the 19th century code-named “Heaven,” the last stop on the Underground Railroad where American slaves could step out into a real “land of the free,” and it is the place where prisoners at Auschwitz imagined the personal effects that had been stripped from them would be kept. In the movies, it is Canadians who, for no apparent motive other than a sense of fairness, agitate for the release of Hurricane Carter; in realest life, as Michael Ignatieff reminded us in his Massey lecture of six months ago, it is a Canadian who sat as chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in the Hague. Canadians who hear all this may think of all the problems that remain and of all the ways in which their country doesn’t live up to its image as it could and should; but a global traveler like Salman Rushdie comes here and sees “North America’s Scandinavia.” It is the particular burden of Canada, of course, that, for decades, and for many people around the world, it has been described as the counter-America, the alternative New World that really is a kinder, gentler place where the thousand points of light can more easily be joined up. Even The Dictionary of Canadian Quotations, as Neil Bissoondath points out, devotes fewer than nine columns to the entry for “Canada” and more than 17 to the entry on “Canada and the United States.” This is doubly ironic given that so many Americans, when on the road, try to pass themselves off as Canadians so they’ll receive a warmer welcome. And trebly ironic—or should I say “triply”?—given that many more Canadians, proportionally, travel the world than Americans, in part because they were not brought up thinking they were in the center of the universe.

But at a deeper level, to someone like me, who’s lived happily and gratefully in the U.S. for 35 years, Canada offers a particular kind of liberation precisely because it understands the nature of limitation. In the U.S., I always feel, newcomers are told to shed their pasts on arrival and commit themselves to the grand collective task of perpetual re-invention; in Canada, there seems to be a sense that a hundred pasts can be entertained at once, and in the very way in which they rub against one another, and blend and blur and merge, something new will arise. There is, to me, a tonic sense here that the future can only be as strong as its understanding of the past.

And when I think of this, I keep going back in my mind to those post-national souls converging in the ghostly space of the nunneryturned-

hospital in the near-ruins of 1945. It’s surely no coincidence that the sun at their center is a nurse who regularly risks her life to

tend to the broken beings all around, hoping to cure her own wounds by administering to those of others. The one she holds at night is a sapper, who risks his life every day to defuse bombs on behalf of a country not his own. The man in the bed is a famous map-maker known for his discovery of a new oasis that had long been lost. And even the fourth among them, a thief who serves to remind us that no community is purely heroic or law-abiding, devotes his nights to a kind of ad hoc redistribution of income and, in his sardonic way, speaks at one point of a “brave new world.” All of them, it’s hard not to notice, are healers and explorers, spiritual Canadians.


I took all these thoughts with me back to California, visited Canada a few more times in the months that followed and thought about what Canada might represent as the new millennium approached. And just then another book arrived on my doorstep—or, more accurately, was pushed into my hands by my editor in New York, as the book he was proudest of publishing among the hundreds he was bringing out that year. It was a novel again, and it was set in a world not so different from that of The English Patient; yet it brought that book’s vision closer to the present, in time and space, as if to nudge it forwards. Its action began, to be sure, during World War II, in Europe, but then it moved back to Toronto, which came to seem, once more, a haven of sorts, a place in which haunted souls could put their shattered lives in order and make a kind of sense, or even art, of all that they had lost. And then it moved back again to Europe, and then again to Toronto, back and forth between the present and the past, the world that had made its characters and the world they hoped to make.

Fugitive Pieces deals insistently and unflinchingly with the Holocaust, and yet it deals with it in a New World way, seeing how people who had been almost broken by it could nonetheless move into a cleansed new world in which their identities could become something else and more. As its title suggests, it is, like The English Patient again, about putting together the pieces, but it tries to see how they can be pieced together into a kind of stained-glass whole; a vase that is glued together out of fragments, as Derek Walcott says, is a vase glued together out of love. And the characters in Anne Michaels’s novel—no coincidence, I think—are translators, archaeologists, private historians; and, more than that, people who can see that “translation is a kind of transubstantiation” and who find in English the chance of making new lives for themselves in an “alphabet without memory.” The past for them is “desperate energy, live, an electric field”—a nice anticipation of Kerri Sakamoto’s eerie novel about new Canadians; the past is full of a wonder and wisdom, as well as a heartbreak, it would be foolish to surrender. And yet, as one of Michaels’s migrants says, “in a foreign landscape, a man discovers the old songs.”

Toronto is not the center of Michaels’s novel, or its interests, and yet it is—again, no coincidence, I think—its setting, the place where its people get better, and Michaels presents an often incandescent vision of a city that, like Athens, is “an active port,” and “a market, a

caravansary” in which people come together to exchange their different songs and stories and pasts. A meeting-place in the desert, in its way; a city, as she puts it, “of forsaken worlds.” For her grateful immigrants fleeing Nazi Europe and first arriving in Canada, it seems like a luxury hotel, an oasis of ease and abundance; and a hotel, I think, is not such a terrible way of thinking about society, all its inhabitants in their own separate, comfortable, well-serviced spaces, yet with common areas downstairs for dining, dancing and attending to civic responsibilities. A network of individual privacies in a way, all with their own “DO NOT DISTURB” signs, and yet governed by a common set of rules and graced with a common set of spaces for recreation, convenience and the different contributions every guest can make.

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