Pico Iyer Journeys

Imagining Canada

Yet an even stronger answer, I thought, came in the vision of art as a preserver and generator of images that stands above all racial and ideological differences, joining us together by commanding our collective gaze. Gods can be divisive; images or pictures of gods need not be: anyone, whether Jewish or Moslem or Hindu, can be moved and uplifted by a Madonna. And where the administrator tries, inevitably, to abstract humanity, and turn a whole group into a single category, the imaginative writer, the novelist, does the opposite, seeing how a single being can contain a hundred different cultures, and trying always not to simplify but to complexify, to voyage deeper into ambiguity. The artist is not concerned with categories of black and white (one hopes) unless she’s writing a non-fictional argument; her concern is with Sonam or Desiree—or that uncategorizable being called Hana. Indeed, the one sovereign presence in The English Patient that watches over the characters in the ruins of their crumbling world, and that they sometimes watch in turn, is the Renaissance art surrounding the Tuscan villa. “There is no order,” the novelist writes, ” but for the great maps of art.”


As I was thinking all this, books kept streaming into my living-room, and even though I’m no formal student of Canada or its literature, I kept on finding that the most radiant and unprecedented novels that came my way came from the often forgotten country up north; it

became clear to me why my aforementioned editor in New York, himself a global soul who had been born into a diplomatic family in India, educated in England and come to America to run one of its most venerable publishing houses, had declared, years ago, that Toronto was “the new literary capital of the northern hemisphere.” Many of these books did not explicitly discuss mongrelism or a next century community, but inevitably these issues passed through their backgrounds insofar as their settings were Canadian. I got to visit Zanzibar, as I’d never done on the page or in person, through the Canadian novelist, M.G. Vassanji; I got to see how the floating new order of College Street was still haunted by the ghosts of a changeless village in the old country in Nino Ricci’s beautiful trilogy. And in the immortal works of Rohinton Mistry, I saw my parents’ own hometown, Bombay, somehow elevated to the highest reaches of English literature, and accorded a dignity we might expect to find in Hardy or Hugo.

It’s easy to say that Canadian literature has enjoyed an astonishing resurgence in part because Canadian literature now so often comes from, and deals with, Sri Lanka and Bombay and Eastern Europe; but what gives it especial potency is that these new voices are still surrounded by the distinguished voices of an older Canada. The first thing that struck me about Michael Ondaatje’s anthology of Canadian literature, From Ink Lake, was that its voices came from Malta, South Africa, the West Indies; the second thing that struck me was that one of the most memorable stories, “The Man from Mars,” came from the classically Canadian Margaret Atwood, and was about how a new Canadian might look to a young female student who can’t begin to place the immigrant around her. Was he Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese? And if from the last, from the North or South?

Atwood’s writing is essential in this context if only because it does have a center, and it tells us of the structures and traditions against which the new Canadian has to define herself; though she’s a radical and a futurist in her own way, Atwood seems, more and more, a voice of an indigenous Canada (as I might subversively call it), registering how the new Canada can seem threatening or even malign to someone who recalls the old. In her most recent novel, the Booker Prize-winning Blind Assassin, Atwood uses a protagonist who’s known Toronto since the ’20s to express a certain wryness about the fact that the words to “O Canada” seem to be permanently in flux, and people affirm “their collective pride,” as she puts it, “in something we can’t pronounce.” Suddenly the world of her youth — the Canada of white spaces and trackless wilderness that Atwood described in her 1972 survey of Canadian writing, Survival — is splintering into all the colors of the rainbow, and “Toronto the Grey,” as she sometimes calls it, is rich with “oranges and lemons bright as a sunrise, and mounds of sugar and mountains of yellow butter.” Toronto’s “no longer a Protestant city,” her feisty narrator pronounces, “it’s a medieval one,” and when she says that, I find myself thinking of a souq, a caravansary again, like the “meeting place” that the word “Toronto” means in Iroquois. A city, Aristotle tells us, is “a unity of unalikes.”

Paris and London and New York have all been havens for exile writers, too, of course—though America, remember, has no Minister of Culture and no Harbourfront Writers’ Festival—and many places have allowed migrants to write in ways they could never have written at home: Shyam Selvadurai probably could not have written of gay life in Sri Lanka so long as he stayed in Sri Lanka, and Rohinton Mistry might not have been able to evoke so vividly the Bombay of the ’70s and his youth had he been surrounded by the MTV-happy, fast-changing Bombay of the ’90s. But beyond such universal truths of displacement, Canada presents its newcomers with a particular opportunity: they arrive here from all four corners of the world, and, looking around them, see that they are surrounded by people from the other three corners (sometimes even by the ones they’ve come here to avoid). Almost inevitably they find themselves thinking about what it means to live in a community of strangers.

Only a few weeks ago, I picked up, on a whim, Catherine Bush’s marvelous and strange novel, The Rules of Engagement, and there it was again: her protagonist, researching war in London, had taken pains to leave her native Toronto behind, and yet Toronto had left her with an interest in exile, dislocation, reinvention. At one point, after she returns, refugees from very different worlds agree to meet in a Toronto haunt called The Transit Lounge (not unlike, I thought, Anne Michaels’s use of the similar term in the context of Toronto, “The Way Station”). Earlier in the action, two characters had staged a Victorian duel in the middle of post-modern Toronto and the whole plot turns on the fact that one of the most forged and coveted contraband items in the world today is a Canadian passport. When Bush writes of people living in houseboats on the canals of London, floating between settled places, it’s hard not to think she’s writing metaphorically, of a different way of defining home.

This familiarity with the realities of modern warfare and the lives of desperate refugees—surprising to me in the young protagonist of what could be seen as a coming-of-age novel—is crucial because, when one talks of “global souls” living in several places all at once, one has to recall that the process is taking place on two levels simultaneously, and the distance between them seems greater than it has ever been before. On the one hand, there are all the multinational businessmen and computer wizards and tribal backpackers—even, perhaps, a few international writers—who move between continents in an afternoon, six miles above the earth, and make their homes in the spaces between; at the same time, however, there is a much larger population on the ground forced out of its homes in the old, ancestral ways, because of famine or poverty or war. The number of refugees in the world has gone up ten-fold since I was in high-school, and if you count unofficial refugees, its total comes to perhaps 100 million, or twice as many people as live in Canada and Australia put together. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, set up in 1951 to deal with the chaos at the end of World War II—the world of The English Patient, in effect—has had its mandate renewed again and again, to the point where the temporary agency recently celebrated its 50th birthday. Refugees, a U.N. official told Time a few years ago, “are one of the growth industries of the ’90s.”

In some ways, this seems to be the most urgent issue of globalism, the spaces between us increasing even as our ads tell us the world is growing smaller, and again it is an issue that Canada has had to think about at the most achingly human level. Refugees, asylum, immigrant quotas are part of the texture of daily life and daily conversation here. And precisely because Canada is not defining the economic and political terms of the global order, as its American neighbor sometimes seems to be doing, it’s in a perfect position to ask uncomfortable questions about what globalism costs, and how much the quality of life may be being superceded by the quantity. Long before demonstrators were taking to the streets of Seattle, I was finding young Canadians asking how the word “global” could be attached to something other than “markets” and “networks”; how, in fact, we might begin to fashion a “global conscience.”


Almost everything I’ve said so far, as you will have noticed, comes down to a single point: the space between. Most of the creative energy in our lives, as individuals and as communities, seems to me to come from the gap between categories, the life between the cracks. As Salman Rushdie suggests in his last novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the person who lives outside the circle is the one best able to see the larger picture. In certain ways this sense of imaginative space seems particularly made for a Canada that has always occupied a relatively neutral space in reality and in imagination: a version of Europe that doesn’t think everything has to be the way it was yesterday, and a part of North America that doesn’t expect everything to be different by tomorrow. The refugee or immigrant, it almost goes without saying, lives in that very space, too, the space between the home he’s left and the new life he’s hoping to create.

It’s customary to talk of Canada as the country defined by its lack of definition, the land of “unmanifest destiny”, as you could call it, whose anxious idealists are always worrying about how they fit into the larger scheme of things. But more and more this point of unfinishedness is where transformation takes place as the world begins to prize speed more than weight and fluidity more than stability. Canada has long been a byword for open space, and the more the world moves towards a kind of “deracination state,” or state of global floatingness, the more Canada’s very freedom from fixity, and its openness to experimentation, may make it the envy of its more encumbered neighbors to the east and south.

This is, of course, an idea familiar to everyone since McLuhan first asserted that Canada’s “multiple borderlines” and “low-profile identity” would make it ideally suited to the new centrifugal, mobile world that has indeed, as he predicted, come to pass. It is what lies behind Pierre Pettigrew’s economic and political ideas, delivered with a freshness and imagination unusual for a politician, in The New Politics of Confidence, and it is what animates B.W. Powe’s soaring alchemical vision in A Canada of Light (whose original title, from Saul Bellow, A Tremendous Canada of Light, might have been too soaring for those who think of the country as “America with an asterisk”). Even Hugh Kenner wrote of “between-ness” in his “Case of the Missing Face” and McLuhan characteristically turned the idea into a soundbyte: “The interface is where the action is.” Yet what gives me most hope, in a way, and what these Canadians have been too shy to assert at times, is that the very fact that Canadians so often criticize Canada for being too racist or too stuffy or too something is a source of hope: the country is holding itself to high standards, and asking questions of itself with a searchingness I don’t see in Liverpool or Atlanta. Things don’t have to be the way they always have been, I hear Canadians saying, even if they’re not going to be remade by tomorrow. The very motto of the Order of Canada says, in Latin, “They desire a better country.”

“Canada is worth defending not just as a country but as an idea of a country,” Myrna Kostash writes ringingly at the end of her Next Canada, and Canada for her is as much a moral as a cultural notion. Jacques Attali, in his Dictionary of the 21st Century, defines Canada as the place that could be a “democratic country without borders where everyone will be simultaneously a member of several communities that were formerly mutually exclusive.” But the thought I like best here is Emerson’s: everywhere man wants to be settled, he tells us, but only insofar as he is unsettled is there any hope for him.


We live, I think, at a curious moment in the planet’s history, when the strongest power on the globe is also one of the youngest, and technology daily deletes memory and history. Yesterday, I suspect, has never seemed so distant. The future is as intoxicating as it always is, full of new toys that promise to help us live in ways that were inconceivable just a decade ago; and yet our sense of possibility, I think, is only as strong as our appreciation of what does not and should not change. And our enjoyment of technology can only be as powerful as our understanding of what technology cannot do or help. Progress is best appreciated by those who see that it involves going backwards, towards the essential and the deep, as much as going forwards.

That is one reason, as you can tell, why Canada inspires me: I’d rather entrust the future to writers of fiction than to software writers, in part because the former have a strong sense of where we’ve been as well as of where we’re going; and I’d rather the Other be explored and celebrated by novelists than by many-headed committees, in part because writers have a sense of contingency and idiosyncrasy.

“We are communal histories, communal books,” the English patient says, going about his careful reversal of Kim, and the idea becomes

liberating in part because he, and the people around him, are all unassimilated mavericks in their way, odd men out. The luminous vision of Fugitive Pieces cannot be translated into public policy, but it gives each of us, in our private moments, a sense of how to think of our lives differently and how to remake them in that light. Politics is still too often local while fiction travels the world.

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