Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Kiss from Montreal

I'm currently reading River City by John Farrow (real name Trevor Ferguson).

It's a big pretentious messy historical fiction/crime novel about Montreal, the river city of the title, that has -- so far-- included Jacques Cartier, the Maurice Richard riots, Samuel de Champlain, stories of the "Open City," Pierre Elliot Trudeau, politics, the bold theft of a priceless artifact, Hurons, crazy priests, kidnapping, hockey, the Sun Life Building, corruption, Mohawks, French-Canadian nationalists, de Maisonneauve, murder, the founding of Montreal and even Farrow's own detective from two previous novels, Cinq-Mars, appearing as a young kid. It jumps all over the place, from the beginning of time to about 1955 (so far), and its universe is still expanding, even as other stories and characters and subplots play out and then disappear. Suffice it to say it's a heady trip.

And, as I said, it's big, pretentious and messy. It's a whopper -- it's close to 1000 pages, and it's bold and audacious. And I'm loving every minute of it. Which may be why I'm going on about a book I haven't even finished.

Oh, I'm sure there are those who will quibble (or be out right pissed off) with Farrow's interpretation of some sacred incident or beloved figure in our shared but fractious history (I know I squirmed a few times), but hey, we're Montrealers. That's what we do -- we argue and debate and discuss politics and history and hockey and art and life with heat and passion. Preferably over great food and drink.

I'm not even sure if anyone who hasn't truly loved Montreal will really "get" this book (it's not even available in the States -- my kids sent it to me for my birthday). But for anyone who's ever wandered too far from home, but still burns with memories of standing amidst the swirl of Ste. Catherine Street and breathing in the heady perfume of a city that's truly alive, walked into a taverne and held up two fingers to some waiter known simply as "Chief" or stood on the lookout on Mont Royal and gazed out with awe and affection upon the St. Lawrence and the River City and a forest of church steeples rising up from an endless sea of tenements toward heaven, this is like a French kiss from home, all unexpected passion and love and sloppiness; a warm, lingering kiss that hits you hard in all the right places.

Labels: , , , , ,


Blogger Guillaume said...

Boy, your blog post made me homesick big time! I need to read this one. I don't think I will find it here in the UK. Last book I read from home was "Arvida", which is obviously not about the same place, and I have no merit because the writer is from my family (still, it is a great read and maybe even a great book, although I am biased). When one reads about Montreal in books or sees in movies, it is often through foreign eyes and it lacks authenticity.

2:42 PM, December 05, 2012  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Yep, there's no doubt Montreal's a tough city to get a handle on. Other cities may have as much or even more diversity, but there isn't quite the feel of -- I'm not quite sure of the word, wholeness, togetherness, shared citizenship -- that Montreal, at its best, does. As do all the best cities.
It's that thing that makes it special, the same way Paris or London or New York or New Orleans or San Francisco is a special and distinct city; a city that revels in its own unique identity and stands apart from other cities. Something that connects some Outremont fat cat with some East End factory worker with some Pakistani UdeM student with some Haitian short order cook with some Greek cab driver with some Hassidic butcher with some Westmount antiques dealer with some West End thug.
It's a sense of city, I guess, of belonging to something bigger than one neighbourhood or another, something distinct and unique.
Los Angeles, for example, never feels like a whole city to me -- it's too big, too sprawling, too focused on its individual parts.
But there's a weird sort of glue that bonds Montrealers -- something that isn't always grasped by outsiders. Trevanian did pretty well with THE MAIN for an outsider, and a few have touched down lightly on one aspect or another of the city, but even Montreal writers rarely try to tackle it all.
That's partly what makes RIVER CITY so compelling (so far). Farrow does seem to be trying to tell lots of different peoples' stories in it, not just his own. Heroes are taken off their pedestals, villains are redeemed, and history, albeit a fictionalized and dramatised one, is given a fresh airing. There's treachery and cannibalism and zealots and out-and-out whack jobs, coureurs des bois and legbreakers and cops.
Fun stuff. I'm sure there'll be eyebrows raised over some of his historical depictions, but hey, that's Montreal for you. We have to argue about something when there's no hockey.

9:45 AM, December 07, 2012  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I think Montreal gives that feeling of being quite small, for a "big" city, almost like a small town or a village. It is how I felt about it when I started living there, back in 1996. It is much smaller than say London, New York or even Paris, which probably contributes to it, nevertheless it has this distinctive feel of being familiar, homely, personal. People are much warmer, less self-centered than in other big cities, there is this feeling of being part of a larger group, not an anonymous dweller of an area of concrete, glass and metal. often feel more at home in Montreal than in Chicoutimi (partially because the mayor of Chicoutimi is a Catholic fundamentalist who is turning the place into a Northern Bible Belt, but I digress).

And if you like the mix of pseudo history, modern fables and true stories, you might like Arvida.

2:52 PM, December 10, 2012  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

A Northern Bible Belt? Yikes!

Unfortunately, even as Montreal becomes more tolerant and welcoming and multicultural (for the most part), the rest of the province seems to be becoming increasingly xenophobic and intolerant. It's one thing to promote and protect the French language (I do believe that's necessary and just) -- it's quite another to ostracize and chase away and make feel unwelcome "les autres." I still remember the shock on hearing my first's wife's rural cousin -- who lives in a dinky little town in the Quebec sticks with (of course) a Catholic church big enough to hold the Olympic Games --warning my wife about the blacks and the Jews. As though there was an invading army of brothers and Hassidic rabbis about to sail up the Gatineau River and take all their cows.

And of course it's not a uniquely Quebecois problem -- not at all. All across the globe, the vitality and tolerance of some of our best cities are being challenged by the brain-numbing complacency and racial, religious and cultural fundamentalists of city-hating suburb and ex-urbs.

I just looked up ARVIDA --it's so like home that a book by someone named Sam Archibald is in French only. I just wish my French was good enough to do it justice (I was the victim of previous generation's mindset). From what I've read, it's quite a book, indulging in the same sort of storytelling and myth-making and tweaking as Farrow. And he introduces one hell of a conspiracy into it that somehow connects everyone from Jacques Cartier to Radisson to Trudeau to the Oka crisis and the Richard Riots.

I hope ARVIDA gets translated. Tell them I'll buy a copy!

3:43 PM, December 10, 2012  
Blogger Guillaume said...

The mayor of Saguenay is of course a racist bigot, and he proved it last elections when he talked about Djemilah Benhabib (a most admirable woman), but he is also intolerant towards home brewed Blueberries like myself who happen to be atheists and against prayers in city council assemblies. In fact, it has little to do with the ethnicity, he was also a dick towards GĂ©rard Bouchard (not that I agree with Bouchard all the time, but he is a respectable academic).

I might see Sam at Christmas, I will ask him. Archibald is my mum's name, dad couldn't pronounce it when he first heard it. I considered taking it if I ever publish fiction, but now I am not sure.

Oh and I am mentioned on page 306 (no kidding).

3:11 PM, December 11, 2012  
Blogger Kent Morgan said...

I've had an ARC or should I say ARCs as it is in two sections for sometime and just yesterday I added it to a list of books I plan to read this year. Someone on the Net had mentioned how at the start of 2012 she had cleared off a shelf and then filled it with books she wanted to get around to reading that year. I thought it would be something I might try. So far the list has The Hockey Sweater which I have never read, The Mysteries by Robert McGill, Roy MacGregor's latest book about Tom Thomson titled Northern Light and W.P. Kinsella's Butterfly Winter. I've also got Canada by Richard Ford on the list so our country is well-represented. I'm also going to order the translated version of Francois Barcelo's novel I Hate Hockey that is set in Montreal. Next I have to find a shelf.

12:31 PM, January 04, 2013  

Post a Comment

<< Home