canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by John Updike
Knopf, 2006

In conversation with Michka Assayas
Riverhead Trade, 2006

Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada 
by Max and Monique Nemni (translated by William Johnson)
Douglas Gibson Books, 2006

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Teenage boys play at revolution. Not all wish to blow themselves up. Some go on to be rock stars and statesmen. This past summer (2006), I read three books and was startled by the interconnections. 

In the first, John Updike decided one is never too late in life to strike out in a bold new direction. His new novel Terrorist imagines a teenage boy in New Jersey allows himself to be persuaded to drive a truck carrying a large bomb: twice the size of the bomb that brought down the federal building in Oklahoma City.

In the second, the front-man for the Dublin-launched, international super-group, U2, allows himself to be interrogated over a period of roughly two years by a French journalist with long-standing ties to the band. The result is as intimate a portrait as has yet emerged of the globe-trotting, world-saving, spectacle-wearing activist/singer.

The third book is Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada by Max and Monique Nemni, a vivid, densely researched biography of Canada's late Prime Minister. The authors had access to Trudeau's private papers, previously unseen, and what they uncovered was as shocking to them as it is strangely thematically linked to Updike's new novel.

No, the Nemnis don't suggest that Trudeau was a terrorist. But they do uncover evidence that Trudeau was a revolutionary, and not just a vague "pinko" as his critics in the 1970s used to call him. "Oh, yes. All that was known a long time ago," someone said to me, when I discussed what the Nemnis reveal in this book. No, actually; it wasn't. Trudeau had warm relations with Castro, yes. But what the Nemnis found in Trudeau's private papers was that he was, as they say in their title, a "son of Quebec." A nationalist, plotting Quebec's separation from Canada. By violent means if necessary.

This is the same Trudeau who out-manoeuvred Quebec's other favoured son, Rene Levesque, to repatriate the Constitution, following the defeat of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty association. The same Trudeau who championed the rights of individuals over the rights of majorities, specifically ethnic majorities. The same Trudeau who always claimed he had from the beginning gone his own way, had never accepted received opinion, had been from the earliest a rebel at heart. It is this last myth that the Nemnis dismantle most severely.

Trudeau, amazingly, apparently kept boxes and boxes of his schoolwork. He was Jesuit-trained as a teenager in Montreal, where he was a star student, routinely at the top of his class and rarely in trouble. His father died before he finished what we would now call high school, but the family was well taken care of financially by the inheritance his father left behind. Trudeau's life-long bond to the Catholic Church began early in his childhood, and his education was traditional for the period: highly religious. The Nemnis also find evidence that Trudeau submitted himself to the direction of church authorities well into his twenties, when he was at Harvard and still writing to the church for permission to read "banned books" (i.e., books placed on restricted reading lists by Rome).

Most shocking is the period between 1939 and 1944, when this books ends, just as Trudeau heads out of province to Harvard to continue his education. These years, of course, correspond with World War II, which, in Quebec, was a divisive, unpopular conflict. In particular, it was unpopular with the Catholic Church in Quebec, which was heavily tempted by fascist ideologies. "Corporatism" is the term the Nemnis tells us was the euphemism of the period, and Trudeau, by the evidence of his own notes, compares it favourably to democracy, which was considered weak, ineffectual, morally corrupt.

Now we are starting to align with the Updike's narrative in Terrorist.

Convinced by the Jesuits that the Allies were no more morally sound than the Axis Powers, Trudeau actively campaigned against conscription in 1942, making a fiery speech at a by-election rally that caught the attention of the press. The Nemnis argue that by this time Trudeau was against more than conscription; he was part of an underground network that was planning violent revolution. Thankfully -- and somewhat comically -- the plot disintegrated, and Trudeau stopped writing political articles and started writing about the joys of canoeing. He also went back and read Adam Smith again, and this time discovered currents in The Wealth of Nations that had been denied him by the Jesuits. He was on his way to becoming a Liberal Prime Minister, much later than anyone had ever expected.

The Nemnis have written a startling book, one all the more startling given the temptations towards violent political/religious action Muslim teenagers in Mississauga apparently face. I'm speaking, of course, of the recent arrests in the alleged plot to behead Prime Minister Harper, blow up the Parliament Buildings and cause other mayhem. When these arrests hit the newspapers, it was reported that John Updike said the arrests reaffirmed for him that the plot of Terrorist was plausible.

That a novel's plot is plausible is no doubt a good thing. The overall quality of the novel, however, is measured on other scales. How is the writing in Updike's new novel? I must say it's marvellous. I haven't read an Updike novel in years, and I will certainly be reading more. His prose is first-rate. His evocation of current reality is jarring for being so contemporary. Is it because it's Updike, and when I think of Updike, I think of the 1960s? Yes, I think so. Oliver Stone just this month (August 2006) is releasing a movie about the Twin Towers. We've already had a movie about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, following a revolt by the passengers over the 9/11 hijackers. 

Either history is passing more quickly into art, or I'm not used to living in interesting times. As a GenX-er, I'd been raised on Baby Boomer nostalgia. Everything interesting has already happened. Everything of importance has already gone down. Evidently, not so. (Though I did see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in Toronto in July, and they sang 40-year-old anti-war songs and sounded very urgent and earnest and out-of-tune.) 

Where is Terrorist weak as a novel? Some of the characters seem half-formed. Strangely, not the youthful Muslim protagonist. This character Updike has imagined in startling detail and his judicious quotations from the Koran show Updike has been diligent in his research also. The Secretary of Homeland Security, however, is a cardboard cutout, as is the Secretary's secretary. There is also an implausible connection between all of the key characters that is key to the resolution of the narrative. But the story, per se, is not why you should read this book. You should read this book for the beautiful prose and for the journey through the mind of the protagonist; to imagine with him what it's like to be a Muslim true believer in the homeland of the Infidel. A true believer and not a terrorist, because this boy is not converted to the cause until very late in the book, and only then through a bit of trickery. Would he have taken that step eventually, on his own or under the persuasion of a different leader-figure?

Interestingly, both Trudeau and Updike's protagonist are fatherless youths. Trudeau was led towards fascism by his teachers, both the individuals and the overall Quebec culture of his youth, yet he learned to read Adam Smith through re-opened eyes and eventually gave Canada, and the world, his towering legacy, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the end of Terrorist, ... well, do you want to know?

Stop here if you don't.

At the end of Terrorist, Updike's protagonist is not incinerated along with his cargo and dozens of innocents. His future is open to many options. One suspects, however, he will never be a rock star.

To some, Updike's novel has been controversial. The novelist Amitov Ghosh, for example, wrote in The Washington Post (re-printed on

With innumerable lives at stake, when Jack Levy finds himself faced with the task of giving Ahmad a reason to live and let live, he says: "Hey, come on, we're all Americans here. That's the idea, didn't they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans; there are even Arab-Americans." Not a word about humanity, family, friendship, sport, poetry, love, laughter.

It is as if a belief in American multiculturalism is the only good reason a human being could have for staying alive. Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this Earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to.

This is, in my opinion, unnecessary mean-spiritedness, "as if" nothing less than an overt denunciation of American exceptionalism is what is required. At the point in the novel highlighted by Ghosh, the protagonist does not want to remain alive, and it is not Jack Levy who convinces him to change his mind. It is the children playing in the back seat of the vehicle travelling beside him. The children who would be among those who would surely die if he triggered his bomb. Updike, the novelist, uses the children as a symbol of universalism -- not American multiculturalism -- as the saving grace. Shame on Ghosh for missing this point. The children must live. All children must live, including those tempted with blowing themselves up. 

Which bring us to Bono: In Conversation.

"I'm all about the big idea," Bono tells French journalist Michka Assayas, stating the obvious: billions of dollars of debt relief, cheap AIDS drugs, food for all affected by famine, U2's Zoo Tour: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Yes, we know. Bono is all about the big idea. Make Poverty History. Je me souviens.

What we perhaps didn't know is that Bono was a motherless son, whose father had been a wanna-be musician who became (even before the death of his wife) a bureaucrat instead. His father equally tried to scale back his energetic son's ambitions: a job at the post office or the like. Nothing big. Nothing fancy. Don't expect too much from life. It'll help you survive. By the time he was twenty-one, Bono had blown that strategy to bits a million times over.

These micro-details about Bono's early life were new to me, as was the depth of Bono's Catholicism. For example, as a teenager Bono lived in a house run by the Church. It was home to a number of youths who were led in Catholic practice by a live-in Priest. The problem was, Bono had this little side gig: the band, U2. The Priest wanted him to give up the band and devote himself fully to the household and its mission: good works to the community et al. What's clear now, decades later, is that Bono has maintained the same pattern of living, even though he left the house of the Church for the house of rock and roll. He has gone from being a teenager in a garage band who helped with social causes around the corner to being the face of the world's biggest touring band and helping with some of the largest social causes around the globe.

As a social activist, Bono is surprisingly polite. Yes, he says history will judge the West harshly for its inadequate response to the AIDS plague in Africa. But one of the more compelling sub-plots of this book is Assayas' attempt to get Bono to say something nasty about George W. Bush. Time and again, Assayas offers Bono the opportunity to put-down the U.S. President, but Bono skirts such contemporary issues as the "War on Terror" and the war in Iraq and U.S. foreign policy in general by saying that Bush has stepped up to the plate on AIDS in Africa: "He gets it." 

While it's easy to say that history will judge Bono harshly for oversimplifying his relationships with the rich and powerful, one anecdote might prove illustrative: Bono tells Assayas a story he heard from Harry Belafonte. Apparently Belafonte was part of the group around Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s when Bobby Kennedy was named by his brother to be the Attorney General of the United States. This was seen as bad news to those in the civil rights movement, because Kennedy was considered to be regressive on race issues. So there was much grumbling in the group around Martin Luther King. But King quickly put a stop to that: "Hasn't anyone got anything good to say about Bobby Kennedy?" No one did. So King told them to go away and not come back until someone had found something good to say about Bobby Kennedy. And what they found good to say about Kennedy was that he was close to his Bishop back in Massachusetts. The Bishop would be how they would get to Bobby Kennedy. The King group talked to the Bishop and the Bishop talked to Bobby Kennedy, and by the time Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 he was one of the leading figures fighting for civil rights in America. 

In other words, people can change, if you give them a chance. It's a very Christian, forgiving approach; this belief in transformation. Bono has clearly taken it to heart, in every way that cliché implies. He is willing to take his message of the need for transformation into the corridors of power around the world, pleading his case with hard-line partisans of many stripes. He is a true evangelist, full of fiery truth and fed by the belief of the justness of his cause. Which is based on a universalism others fired up with big ideas (Bin Laden comes to mind, substitute also Updike's youthful protagonist and the Jesuit-brainwashed Trudeau) can't quite seem to grasp. He tells the story, for example, of visiting U.S. senator Jesse Helms, a hard right Republican. He had been told the visit would be a waste of time. He came away with an admiration for the man and a new ally in his cause. 

Transformation is possible! That is the message of Bono's life. The other is that transformation is the goal; the Gospels of Jesus are the guide. The third message is that it's okay to party and live like a rock star (albeit one who married his high school sweetheart and speaks to former U.S.S.R. surpreme leader Mikhail Gorbachev "every couple of months"). Yes, he is a man of contradictions, our Bono: Paul Hewson. Acting out on Shakespeare's stage: the world. Playing it large. Not backing down.


Before I sat down to write this review, I didn't realize that each of these books was about someone who'd lost a parent. I wonder what that means. What I had wanted to do was connect the threads of these books: Trudeau's plotting with Updike's imagined terrorism, the confused nationalism of Quebec circa 1939-1945 with the confused ethnic "Islamofascism" that we've learned can germinate in places as odd as Mississauga, the transformative spirit that animates Bono with the "re-born" Trudeau post-1945 and the hope for Updike's protagonist at the end of the novel, which is the hope of all of us: that the children will live.

Michael Bryson is the editor and publisher of The Danforth Review.







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