Sep 2, 2011

St Urbain's Horseman

I’VE read a couple of other Mordecai Richler books by now, but this one was probably the most passionate, the most powerful. A man caught between two generations, between the Holocaust and the hippies, Jake Hersh is driven by a code of conscience and social justice that he feels is the only way to live up to the memory of his cousin and childhood hero, Joey. Joey who stood up to the anti-Semitism of Montreal in the ’40s, only to be run out of town. Who then went on a world-wide walkabout, rousting and rabble-raising and, seemingly, hunting down Nazi war criminals.
Meanwhile, Jake makes a life of comfort and luxury for himself, starts a family and settles for a peaceful home life. All the while tormented by his social conscience, a growing unease and a sense that the world is too unfair to let him live out such a good life without repercussions.
The chapters bled into each other, the pages flew by in a blur, and before I knew it it was over. Still, there were passages which stood out brilliantly, that you devoured because they were just so damn good.
Reading this passage reminded me intensely of the deshi diaspora in Western countries–so ironic:
Sitting with the Hershes, day and night, a bottle of Remy Martin parked between his feet, such was Jake’s astonishment, commingled with pleasure, in their responses, that he could not properly mourn for his father. He felt cradled, not deprived. He also felt like Rip Van Winkle returned to an innocent and ordered world he had mistakenly believed long extinct. Where God watched over all, doing His sums. Where everything fit. Even the holocaust which, after all, had yielded the state of Israel. Where to say, ‘Gentlemen, the Queen,’ was to offer the obligatory toast to Elizabeth II at an affair, not to begin a discussion on Andy Warhol. Where smack was not habit-forming, but what a disrespectful child deserved; pot was what you simmered the chicken soup in; and camp was where you sent the boys for the summer. It was astounding, Jake was incredulous, that after so many years and fevers, after Dachau, after Hiroshima, revolution, rockets in Space, DNA, bestiality in the streets, assassinations in and out of season, there were still brides with shining faces who were married in white gowns, posing for the Star social pages with their prizes, pear-shaped boys in evening clothes. There were aunts who sold raffles and uncles who swore by the Reader’s Digest. French Canadians, like overflying airplanes distorting the TV picture, were only tolerated. DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET, THE TROUBLE IS TEMPORARY. Aunts still phoned each other every morning to say what kind of cake they were baking. Who had passed this exam, who had survived that operation. A scandal was when a first cousin was invited to the bar mitzvah kiddush, but not the dinner. Eloquence was the rabbi’s sermon. They were ignorant of the arts, they were overdressed, and their taste was appallingly bad. But within their self-contained world, there was order. It worked.
As nobody bothered to honor them, they very sensibly celebrated each other at fund-raising synagogue dinners, taking turns at being Man-of-the-Year, awarding each other ornate plates to hang over the bar in the rumpus room. Furthermore, God was interested in the fate of the Hershes, with time and consideration for each one. To pray was to be heard. There was not even death, only an interlude below ground. For one day, as Rabbi Polsky assured them, the Messiah would blow his horn, they would rise as one and return to Zion … .
And this captured the exact feeling of when you suspect that you have it too good, that you’re one of the top percentiles out of the billions on this planet:
… From the beginning, he had expected the outer, brutalized world to intrude on their little one, inflated by love but ultimately self-serving and cocooned by money. The times were depraved. Tenderness in one house, he had come to fear, was no more possible, without corruption, than socialism in a single country. And so, from the earliest, halcyon days with Nancy, he had expected the coming of the vandals. Above all, the injustice-collectors. The concentration camp survivors. The emaciated millions of India. The starvelings of Africa.
I probably didn’t get most of the jokes. There were scenes and passages that brought a smile to my face, but nothing like the laugh-out-loud humour others seemed to find. Not like Barney’s Version, but of course that’s a story for another blog post.