By Sergio Martinez –mtltimes.ca
Many years ago, when I had lived for about a year in this country and I was working for Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton, I had already had the occasion to read a few of Hurtig books, mostly historical and political essays on Canada. However I wanted to read some fiction too and that wasn’t Hurtig’s line of publications. So I asked someone for a good Canadian fiction author and she recommended Mordecai Richler: “You are going to love his books, they are very funny, but they also tell you a lot about the immigrant experience, I guess something that may touch you too since you are an immigrant.” And I was certainly touched by Richler’s stories which I had the opportunity to somehow revive in my own imagination a few years later when I decided to move to Montreal. Wandering around Saint Urbain St. and the area between Park Ave. and St. Laurent where now many Latino stores are located somehow updated to me the atmosphere created by Richler in his novels. Of course his was the Jewish immigrant experience of the 1920s to the end of the 20th century with its own peculiarities; however one can find in his works a sort of transcendent portrayal of the immigrant experience that may be applicable to anyone who has come to this land in search of a better life (most) or because they had to leave their own country for political reasons (my own case and that of many Latin Americans in the late 1970s and 1980s).
No question then that it is this kind of experiential proximity that made me happy to learn that this past March 12 the City of Montreal paid tribute to Mordecai Richler during a special ceremony at city hall. On the occasion his name was officially given to the municipal library located in the Mile End district on Park Ave., precisely the neighbourhood where Richler grew up and the one that he depicted so well in his books: “Out of Fairmount and Bancroft schools of the Talmud Torah, into the FFHS. Room 42. Class song, ‘Men of Harlech.’ Becoming the boys of Fletcher’s Field High Cadet Corps. ‘Here come the Fletcher’s Cadets, / smoking cigarettes,/ the cigarettes are lousy / and so are the Fletcher’s Cadets.” (“Joshua Then and Now”).
His ironic style sometime bordering on the sarcastic reflected his view of life and of his own community, some members of the Jewish community didn’t like him very much precisely for this. But like many great authors he resorted to irony and irreverence to point to the contradictions and irrationalities of our society. His was also a bold voice against the excesses of nationalism and separatism, which he considered detrimental to Montreal. This is what he wrote in 1985: “For all my complains about the PQ, a nationalist aberration now in sharp decline, I could not live anywhere else in Canada but Montreal. So far as one can generalize, the most gracious, cultivated, and innovative people in this country are French Canadians. Certainly they have given us the most exciting politicians of our time: Trudeau, Levesque. Without them, Canada would be an exceedingly boring and greatly diminished place. If I consider the PQ an abomination it’s only because should their policies prevail, everybody in Canada would be diminished. This is still a good neighbourhood, worth preserving. So long as it remains intact.” (“Home Sweet Home”, 1985, reproduced at the end of “Oh Canada! Oh Quebec—Requiem for a Divided Country,” 1992). Of course his concerns were revived when in 1995 Quebec held a new referendum which put the PQ just about half percentage point from achieving what Richler rejected so vehemently, although had he lived to these days he could have witnessed the PQ real “sharp decline” he anticipated.
Most likely it was his strong federalist stand what for many years prevented the City from staging the tribute that Richler deserved. Now finally any pettiness has been left behind and the author has been recognized by the city that inspired his work. On this occasion both, the Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Luc Ferrandez the mayor of the borough of Plateau Mont-Royal remarked the important role of Richler as a Montrealer: “All Montrealers are paying tribute today to Mordecai Richler, who passed away in 2001. He was an outstanding cultural ambassador, one of Canada’s great writers and polemicists and most of all a strong symbol of Montreal’s identity. He deserves the appropriate honours and we have decided to name the Mile End Library after him. This important and long-awaited gesture is the first in a series of events planned over the next few months to celebrate this great Montrealer who is now an Honorary Citizen as well,” said Mayor Coderre.
“By deciding to name the Mile End Library in honour of Mordecai Richler, Plateau-Mont-Royal residents have chosen to remember the love this acclaimed author had for the community and its inhabitants, beyond the debates triggered by his political positions . . . a love he expressed so clearly, from the 1950s, in a whirlwind of anger, humour and poetry,” added Mr. Luc Ferrandez.