Pico Iyer Journeys

Imagining Canada

The main characters in Michaels’s novel are all shaky survivors scarred with watchfulness for life; yet there is one Canadian among them, Naomi, who, with her blunt crayon, as the narrative puts it, can rub away what’s writ in blood. She becomes an audience for the secrets of those from the Old World, and to that extent an agent for their healing. “The only thing you can do for the dead,” she knows, “is to sing to them.”

As I put the novel down, I was moved almost beyond words by its message of hope and redemption, as I had been a few years before by The English Patient. But more than that, and as with The English Patient again, I was stirred and inspired by its procedure, a language singing and poetic and specific, and a structure utterly different from the linear narratives I’d met in the Fielding or Dickens books we read at school; here, as in Ondaatje’s novel, was a quite literal, literary version of the “collage country” that Canada was said to aspire towards. It seemed to me that both books, in their flights of imagination, were undertaking a revolution of form as well as of content; and as in none of the traditional works of Thackeray or Jane Austen that I’d read, both of them ushered us into a world where there was no prevailing sense of status quo, and not even any central character. No perspective was more dominant than any other in these books, and there was no sense of a fixed hierarchy around which the characters had to arrange themselves. Indeed, theirs was a world of fragments, pieces, made out of the rubble of the old, and I came away with an exhilarating sense of open space and new horizons in which anything, so it seemed, was possible.


All this was especially moving to me, I think, because for many years—for all my life, really—I’ve been traveling the world looking at how different countries and people try to make sense of the multicultures we’re all becoming. One of the unusual and potent things about the present moment, to me, is that the very issue that so many cultures and cities are facing is exactly the same one that more and more individuals such as me are confronting: how to fashion a sense of self or home when all the traditional co-ordinates are gone? And how to make a peace among the disparate, often competing cultures inside of us? How, in short, to begin to create a sense of direction—and foundation—when the world is spinning around us at the speed of light? In recent years cyberspace has made of this disorientation and virtual borderlessness a new dimension, and given it a concrete face, as it were; but for those of us who live with—and within—the displacements, the new questions sting and probe at a level far deeper than any computer-screen could suggest. And when, to take the example closest to hand, I ask myself how I might put together the California and England and India where I grew up, and the Cuba and Japan and Thailand and Tibet where I’ve spent most of my adult life, I feel a kind of satisfaction to see Canada and Toronto (and, in fact, the characters in The English Patient) asking, and trying to answer, the same question. For all of us, at both the individual and collective levels, the challenge is to create out of our different parts and pasts a choir that will rise higher than any of the ragged and incomplete voices that make it up.

Clearly, this is a pressing issue for all those international beings I call “global souls,” growing up in the spaces between cultures and not sure of where their affiliation lies. But it also presses in on those people of more settled background who just find themselves living a new global lifestyle, flying from the tropics to a snowstorm, perhaps, simply to sign a contract or visit a parent. And it even affects the person who never moves at all, but who finds the world moving around her in ever more disconcerting ways. The young woman in Vancouver, perhaps, who, as she goes out of her grandmother’s house to buy a carton of milk from the corner market, finds herself surrounded by languages she can’t follow and customs she can’t understand, all brought to her by people who, in her grandmother’s youth, would have been on the far sides of the earth. Never before, I dare to suggest, have so many people been so surrounded by so much that is deeply alien to them. The Other, in some respects, is everywhere.

For twenty years or more, therefore, I’ve been traveling, for work and fun, but also to see what kinds of answers were being proposed to these next-century questions. I’ve spent a lot of time in Hong Kong, for example, which has the air often of a whole city turned into people from somewhere else. Almost everyone in the makeshift citystate is an exile, an expat or a refugee; the only government there, traditionally, has been the marketplace; and the only language that everyone speaks is the dollar. Hong Kong looks to me often like a kind of website writ large, which answers all the daily needs of those who pass through it, without offering them the more sustaining values or customs that anchor them deep down. Likewise, I’ve found myself returning frequently to Atlanta, which on paper at least is one of the great players on the global stage, the home to CNN and Coca- Cola and Holiday Inn and U.P.S. Yet underneath the balance-sheets, that vast suburban sprawl seems as locked inside the black-andwhite divisions of its distant past as if the Civil War had never ended, and when you visit its gleaming tower-blocks and convention centers reaching up into the 22nd century, you see all around them houses as orphaned and endangered as in any of the saddest nations of the world, almost half the city’s children growing up in poverty.

As I try to think about what it is that really grounds and steadies us—and joins us at some level deeper than our circumstances—I’ve retreated several times a year, for ten years now, to a Benedictine hermitage in California, and I’ve also thought about language as perhaps the only portable home a global mongrel has, though my own language, in my lifetime, has, like the cities around it, gone from the clear distinctions of Henry James’s world to the polymorphous mish-mashes of Salman Rushdie’s. I’ve gone six times in the past 20 years to the Olympic Games, to see how the mingling of cultures plays out on that intensified and miniaturized stage, and to what extent the Olympic ViIlage can serve as a kind of Platonic model of the global village. Yet the Olympics, famously, insists on national divisions at precisely the time when those are coming to seem most beside the point, and enshrines the cult of the flag when the logo is coming to seem more central

I even, on this modern quest, spent a week once living around Los Angeles Airport (at the behest of a Torontonian, as it happens), and tried to see how a great cathedral of transience, playing out the ageless human rites of parting and meeting and interacting with the foreign against a generic backdrop of shopping-malls, food courts and parking structures, might resemble a model, if hardly an inspiring one, of the city of the future. Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, after all, is larger than all Manhattan.

In some ways, though, the issue lived with me most even when I didn’t seek it out, and just went back and forth between my mother’s house in California and my girl-friend’s apartment in Japan. For Los Angeles, as many of you know, is the kind of place that can make one most optimistic about Canada, a vast undifferentiated space that looks like a horizontal Babel even to the semi-native, a place in which no one’s taken the time and trouble to think about how to stop its parts from flying off in all directions. All the countries of the world are there, but when a brilliant theatrical director tries to organize a “Festival of Los Angeles,” he’s defeated. And while an immigrant is warmly welcomed to its open spaces, she can easily feel herself welcomed to a vacuum in which no one knows where (or who) he’ll be tomorrow, and all the smiles in the world don’t make one feel any more American deep down. In Japan, by easy contrast, I’m in the middle of a classically exclusionary culture which tries to hang on to its traditions, and preserve its sense of self in the accelerating world, by drawing firm boundaries around itself and strip searching people who look like me. Even the foreigner who lives there for fifty years and speaks flawless Japanese will always and only be called a gaijin, or “outsider person.”

In this context, it’s hard not to be stirred by the Canadian option, and its refusal to believe, as U2 sing on their last album, that “hope and history don’t rhyme.” At the Olympics in Atlanta, in fact, I’d noticed how the Canadian 4 X 100′ male sprinting team was formidable, in part, of course, because none of its members had been born in Canada (they all came from the West Indies, and were up against the West Indians who made up the teams of Britain, France and, naturally enough, Trinidad). Those who live in Canada will remind me that the country embraced Ben Johnson as a Canadian when he won his gold medal in Seoul, and then wrote him off as a Jamaican as soon as he was stripped of it. But the fact remains that Canada does occupy a kind of middle ground between the antiseptic tyranny of Singapore, say—Disneyland as city-state— and the unregulated swarm of Los Angeles. And every time a Serbian from Edmonton, perhaps, meets and marries an Indian from Montreal—and such liaisons, though not frequent, are growing more common by the day—the little girl who arises out of their union will be even harder to characterize as anything but Canadian. Ideally, she may even think of Croatians and Pakistanis as her neighbors.

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