Let’s begin with the idea that stories are really, really important. When Robert Fulford was asked to give the Massey Lectures a few years back he celebrated the “triumph of narrative” quite convincingly. A few years later Thomas King took on a similar theme and in each of his lectures (The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative) he was quite frank about his agreement with Fulford’s basic thesis.
"The truth, as far as I'm concerned, is that stories are all we are," he said in an interview. "That's it. Nothing more. If we didn't have the stories that we tell each other, that people told about us, I don't know what we'd be. I can't imagine myself as an entity without telling a story."
If that’s true, then the stories we tell about the places in which we live must help us to define who we are and just what those places are in relationship to us.
Margaret Atwood tackled that idea years ago in a book called Survival (1972), and again in Strange Things (1995). In one of the dozens of interviews in this book, poet and anthologist Robert Bringhurst goes even further, suggesting that we exist basically to be a support system for the stories that need to be told.
“When we pass through a forest and make up stories about it, we’re deciphering the stories that are already in it.”
Richler begins with the proposition that Canada was once best described as a place called Nowhere and that we have been going through stages on the way to Somewhere ever since, although the location keeps changing with time, and it’s not defined in the same way in every part of the country.
In typical BIG IDEA fashion, Richler finds that this journey has three stages which he calls Invention, Mapping and Argument. In the first we give our place a rudimentary identity. In the Second we give it a shape and dimensions. In the third we argue about what it all means.
Richler argues that Atwood’s first book belongs to an earlier version of the literary definition of Canada, and that we have moved on from there, though not at the same rate in all parts of the country. Nor are we just exactly ONE country, or one defined society. For Richler, Canada has at least three distinct societies at present: Newfoundland, Quebec, and Cities.
Richler’s daunting task, one which took him four years rather than the one he had though it might take, was to travel the length and breadth of the country, from east to west to north, meeting with writers in their natural habitats, asking why they write about the places they do and how they have been influenced b these places.
The list includes Atwood, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Rudy Wiebe, Austin Clarke, Alice Munro, Yann Martel, Lisa Moore, Tomson Highway, Eden Robinson, Michael Crummey, Bringhurst, King, Nancy Lee, Timothy Taylor, Michael Turner, Lee Henderson, Douglas Coupland, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod, Wayne Johnston and Zsusi Gartner, as well as film maker Zacharias Kunuk. The full list of interviewees takes up two-thirds of page 467.
I found this book a leisurely read in the mornings since I’ve retired from classroom teaching - a good book for morning coffee time - and it took me several weeks to get through it. This is where what I felt is its main shortcoming made itself felt. One reviewer has suggested it would make a great text for a Canlit class, but it would simply have to be indexed first.
The book is organized around its ideas rather than around its interviews, so the writers stroll in and out of the argument at places where their comments fit rather than all in one place. This fits the nature of the narrative but makes its hard to pin down any particular section that you want to take a second look at later.
While this book was in progress, Richler also put together a radio series with the same name for CBC’s Ideas program. Capsule summaries of the ten programs can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/literary_atlas /index.html. These include some photographs, short author biographies and audio clips from the series as well as suggested reading lists and lists of the music that was used in each episode.