Writing Montréal

February 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

I am reading Kim Echlin’s beautiful novel, The Disappeared, right now.  It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada, and it won a Barnes & Noble award down here in the States.  The awards are very much deserved, Echlin’s prose is beautifully constructed; sparse, taut, sensual sentences follow the heroine, Anne Greves, from the cold streets of Montréal to the scarred streets of Phnom Penh in the wake of Pol Pot and genocide in Cambodia.  It is compelling reading.

But (and you knew this but was coming), I find myself fascinated with the problems in writing Montréal, as The Disappeared is full of them.  I have sometimes wondered if Montréal, being the complicated, chaotic, bizarre city it is, can even be successfully written, especially en Anglais.  But, of course it can.  Mordecai Richler.  Rawi Hage.  Occasionally, even we academic types get it right, most notably, Sherry Simon in her brilliant book, Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City.  Montréal is not your average city.  Your average city is a huge, complicated, seething multitude of humanity.  Your average city is complicated, it is corrupt, it is beautiful and it is dirty and savage.  Montréal is all that and more, in large part because it is, as Simon argues, a divided city.  Divided cities, of which there are many in the world, are necessarily more complex and complicated.  There are competing historical narratives and political realities battling for space on the cultural and political landscape of the city.  Derry, Northern Ireland, is a small divided city, but the city is caught between two competing narratives of the city’s past, one Catholic, one Protestant, fighting for dominance.

Montréal, of course, is rent between the francophone version of the past and vision of the present and the anglophone equivalent.  Historically, the city is split down the middle, blvd. Saint-Laurent, the Main.  To the east, francophone and Catholic, to the west, Anglophone and Protestant.  But this dichotomy doesn’t really work in reality, as the Irish complicated it, they were Catholic and lived in the west end, they were English-speaking and lived in the east end.  Then the Jews came around the turn of the last century and settled in between the French- and English- speakers.  And then the rest of the world came, and the city became multicultural in the last third of the 20th century.  Then there’s the question of class.  Montréal today is a city that holds a history for all these diverse populations, speaking their own languages, going to their own houses of worship, patronising their own businesses.  But Montréal also holds a history of these people crossing their divides, and working together, shopping together, sharing their food and their language across these divides.  We historians are left to find all these disparate strands of Montréal and attempt to unravel the complications, to look at how the complications arose, to see how all these peoples co-operated, and how they conflicted.

To return to The Disappeared, Echlin gets caught up in all of these complications.  For example, the main character, Anne Greves, an Anglophone teenager in the 1970s, whose father teaches at McGill, lives on avenue du Parc.  Anglos in Montréal today tend to call it Park Ave.  Even bilingual ones.  In the 1970s, Anglos did not call it av du Parc.  But Anne also uses the English names for nearly everything else in the city.  Bleury Street.  The Oratory.  Mount Royal.  Old Montréal.  And of course Anne would, all my cousins who are Anne’s age, who still live in Montréal, use the Anglo names.  The only other locale in Montréal that gets called by its French name by Anne is the bishop’s cathedral downtown, Marie-Reigne-du-Monde.  Being the Montréal purist and historian, I find these kinds of misnomers distracting.  Perhaps it’s because Anne is caught between these various Montréals, perhaps it’s because she came of age in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when we fought about all of this, what to call things, what language we must speak and so on.  And maybe it’s because Montréal is just here in passing, it’s where Anne is from.  Soon, we are in Phnom Penh with her, sifting through the aftermath of Pol Pot’s psychotic reign.

But Echlin’s problems with nomenclature in Montréal really only speak to the general day-to-day issues on the street there.  What you call av du Parc (OK, I admit, I’m an Anglophone who tends to use the French names) reflects a lot on who you are, where you’re from in the city, what your politics are.  The same is true of Saint-Viateur, Mary Queen of the World, the Oratory and so on and so forth.  And it is exactly this nature of the divided city I adore about my hometown.  And I have to admit, I kind of miss it.

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