Tuesday, September 20, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 5th Review - Voices in Time

I might have to go into a bit more background as to why I chose this particular novel than I generally do.  I have already noted that I am trying to go fairly deep into Canadian lit. during this challenge and am focusing on some of the most respected authors, which would certainly include Hugh MacLennan.  I had basically thought I would just reread The Watch That Ends the Night and that would be it for the near term.  But then I got interested in finding out about his later novels.  In the late 1960s, he wrote The Return of the Sphinx in which he basically revisited Two Solitudes but with a much more pessimistic outlook where Quebec separatism destroys any chance of Canada becoming a great country.  It sounds a bit like he was channeling Mordecai Richler.  I just ordered a copy of this, but I probably won't read it for a couple of years.

His final novel, Voices in Time, published in 1980, is a bit of a departure, where apparently some kind of nuclear holocaust has knocked out civilization.  As it is being rebuilt, the government of the time decides to eradicate all references to Nazi Germany.  I haven't quite gotten to their reasons for this, or the way that the past refuses to stay buried.

While this basically refers to the fairly recent past being obscured, there is a tradition in speculative fiction discussing what future archeologists would make of 20th Century society if all records had been lost.  Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub sort of starts along these lines, though this is really only a bit of a gloss around the main tale of a Kafkaesque, paranoid bureaucracy (it's actually a lot closer to Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum).  I actually read the Lem first and decided to pair it with MacLennan, which is a bit more grounded in the speculative fiction genre.  I think the Lem book might have worked better if there was more integration between the framing device that all paper began disintegrating, leading to the downfall of society, and the actual story, which is a recruit to the spy service housed in the Building running around, trying to find out what his actual mission is.  However, the two seemed completely unrelated, and frankly I got bored with the main story.  There is just so much discussion about double-, triple- and quadruple-agents that I can take.  We get it that no one can be trusted and everything is in a kind of code and that nothing is actually what it seems (even dead bodies).  Aside from an interesting suggestion towards the end that there exists a Building and an anti-Building, and that each agency has completely replaced the other's staff with double agents (thus leading to no change in the status quo), this got stale.  I'm starting to find that I like Lem's ideas and writing more in the abstract than in the execution...

A better example of this can be found in David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries, which is basically about a future archeologist discovering a motel room and mistaking it for a sacred tomb, much like a pharaoh's tomb.  (I actually thought there would be more like this in Lem's novel, but the framing device disappears almost immediately.)  Motel of the Mysteries was condensed into a Reader's Digest version, which is how I encountered it, all the way back in middle school.  While I am glad that Westfahl has blogged about it, allowing me to recover this from the recesses of my memory, he does seem to miss the point that it was a fairly gentle satire of the King Tut tourist craze -- and it was aimed at children in grades 6-10 (which is why I ordered a copy of the unabridged version for my children).

Having finished the Voices in Time, I can report back that the back cover got it a bit wrong.  The government of the time isn't specifically trying to abolish the history of the Nazis but really all history before the Third Bureaucracy.  And they apparently were even more worried about erasing novels than history books, since novels really allow one to try to step back into the past and imagine another life.  Voices in Time opens with an old man, a former teacher who was basically forced to lie to his students about what happened before the nuclear holocaust and suppress the historic truth, who gets a phone call out of the blue.  An archeologist digging around some buildings in what turns out to be Montreal has uncovered several boxes with papers belonging to the older man's mother.  These turn out to be a journal of sorts kept by his older cousin, Timothy Wellfleet, as well as a journal and letters from his mother's husband (and his stepfather), Conrad Dehmel.  After some urging, the man agrees to go through the boxes and try to construct a coherent narrative of these two lives, as well as to write a sort of glossary to explain all the many historical events of which the new generation was unaware.  These turn out to be the voices in time of the title.

At this point, the book essentially becomes a double Columbo episode, where we have a pretty good idea what happened in the end, but not the detailed links in the chain.

I'll let you decide if you want to read on, but beware that I will be unraveling the episode to some degree, so the standard SPOILER warning applies.

SPOILERS in time

It isn't until the end of the novel that MacLennan really tries to build up the chain of events that lead to the nuclear holocaust.  As far as I can tell, first there is a wave of Great Fear that destabilizes quite a few governments.  It is almost like a miasma that descends upon a society.  In this case, the narrator (and probably MacLennan) feels it is a reaction to the unlimited freedom and lack of serious purpose inherent in Western society at that time.  I don't know about the root causes, but the book would have been written in the late 1970s when things did seem to be spiraling out of control.  While there is much less inflation in our era, there is more than a little hopelessness going around these days...)  This unsettled some governments and led to the first Bureaucracy (it isn't clear if this is specific to Quebec or Canada or all of North America).  Then a group of radicals, inspired largely by the FLQ terror campaign of 1970 (but with vastly more scientific knowledge) threaten to set off atomic bombs in central cities unless huge ransoms are paid.  (In reality, it would have been more likely to be a dirty bomb, but that's just nit-picking.)  Most governments pay up, but one does not, so 500,000+ people are killed, and the government that tried to hang tough is turfed, leading to the Second Bureaucracy, and things get even worse.  Then somehow the computer systems that govern the nuclear missiles go haywire and an attack is launched from one country and an automatic counter-strike is launched, and before you know it almost everyone that lived in an urban center is dead and the power grid rapidly fails.  The main survivors are rural and religious (the older man happened to be off vacationing in the country), and they impose the Third Bureaucracy and reject the previous civil society and basically suppress information about what came before them.

I found this causal chain pretty weak, even for speculative fiction, though I did think there was a pretty decent chance a nuclear holocaust would happen in my late teens, so there was something in the air at that time and MacLennan is picking up on that.  What's perhaps the bigger problem is that MacLennan seems to be elevating the relative minor disruptive force of the FLQ and its influence upon Montreal, and linking it up with much more malign and powerful forces, such as the rise of the Nazis.  He does seem to recognize that the FLQ never had the same widespread support that the Nazis ultimately did, which is why it is a small cabal of conspirators that accidentally bring down Western society.  On the other hand, one can say that the FLQ was the turning point at which Anglophone society in Montreal started declining and Toronto, which had been derided as a sleepy, boring burg, surpassed Montreal, not only in terms of being the financial center of Canada but ultimately its cultural capital (for Anglophones).  MacLennan and Mordecai Richler never really forgave the Quebecois for this self-imposed wound, and yet both stuck around and both died in Montreal, even though they were fairly unhappy with these post 1970 changes.  Richler even has various people ask Barney Panofsky why he doesn't just move to Toronto since he is so unhappy in Montreal, and he basically answers that he isn't about to let the Quebecois push him out, which just isn't an attitude I find particularly admirable.  I don't find being so stubborn that you end up with self-inflicted wounds to be a winning attribute, yet I also tend to be more footloose than the general population, and I also think that moving until you arrive at a land that "fits" makes far more sense than fighting to preserve your home when it is changing inexorably in ways that you don't like.

Anyway, the core of the novel really focuses on the life stories of Timothy Wellfleet, a television personality, and Conrad Dehmel, a professor of German ancestry that eventually settled in Canada after WWII.  Wellfleet's television show is sort of a showcase for cranks and radicals, where he can expose the hypocrisy of society.  Dehmel agrees to come on the show to spread his warnings that French Canadian society (and perhaps Western civilization more generally) is starting to go down the same path that led to the rise of the Nazis.  This seems quite a stretch for me, though I have to say I would totally accept this argument if the main part of the book was set in 2016!  Wellfleet has something else in mind, however, and he launches an attack on Dehmel, saying that he has secret documents proving that Dehmel was a Nazi.  Dehmel, in a moment practically lifted from Joseph Welsh during the McCarthy hearings, walks out on the interview.  While Wellfleet might have survived this, the FLQ attacks have gotten worse. Wellfleet is considered to have encouraged them, so he loses his show.

I think MacLennan was just trying far too hard to make these parallels, and thus Timothy Wellfleet's story is really unduly prominent.  I just didn't think he was that interesting to read about, and I would have been quite happy for his section of the novel to be cut in half or even 2/3rds.  I also thought this was where MacLennan hewed too closely to Proust and his tendency to write extensively on events that the Narrator would have had no way of experiencing.  Wellfleet seems such an intense egoist that I find it completely implausible that he would have spent more than a page or two in his diary discussing the new make-up artist who he tries to chat up.  He certainly would not have recorded their dialog back and forth.  I also thought that structurally MacLennan just tried too hard in making both characters fall in love with Jewish women who loved them back, in varying degrees, but refused to marry them.

For several reasons, I think the novel would have worked better if the focus had been exclusively on Conrad Dehmel, which was quite a compelling story.  He was an intellectual who came from a military family, but one that didn't fall under the sway of the Nazis.  They wanted to serve Germany and make it great again, but pretty much loathed the Nazis, though not to the point of resigning their commissions.  Conrad was warned not to return to Germany, by Hanna, his love interest, but he does anyway and becomes trapped in a web of deceit.  He is absolutely astounded and appalled by the transformations made by the Nazis in only a few years (he had been completing his degree in England during their rise to power).  However, Conrad isn't the only stubborn one who makes bad decisions.  Hanna also returns to Germany, posing as a nurse from the Red Cross, to try to save her father.  Conrad makes a number of major sacrifices, including joining the S.S., to try to save the two of them.  So in that sense, Timothy is technically correct, Conrad did briefly become a Nazi, but not for any personal gain or because he shared in their ideology.  And to the end of his days, Conrad agonized over not only this decision but what he saw during his training sessions.

It's hard to rate this novel.  I think the sections where Conrad is the main voice are the best and certainly the most interesting.  It is sort of like reading a Gunther Grass novel where the main character is less a refusnik and more of an unwilling participant, but a participant nonetheless.  I wish there had been more of that and much less about Timothy Wellfleet.  I wasn't particularly convinced by the overall framing device, and I certainly thought that MacLennan was overreaching at several points in trying to connect the FLQ and Quebecois separatism in general to the rise of the Nazis.  However, if you like novels that explore the bitter ironies of life and/or people caught up in events beyond their control, then this might be to your taste.

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