- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Up in Montreal, they're holding a "celebration" (that's what they call it in Canada) tomorrow to the memory of Mordecai Richler, a great North American novelist, who died of cancer at the rather young age of 70 last July. Richler was a longtime friend whose novels, from his first "The Apprenticeship of Dudie Kravitz" to his last, "Barney's Version" I admired and enjoyed as did many, many thousands. "Dudie Kravitz" became a highly successful cult movie.

Had Richler moved to the United States early in his writing career he would have earned the global reputation of a best-selling novelist like Saul Bellow, also Quebec-born, whose home base became Chicago. I say this not in derogation of Mr. Bellow. After all the Canadian brain-drain has been going on for almost a century: Deanna Durbin, Bobby Orr, Walter Pidgeon, Norma Shearer, Lillian Gish, John Kenneth Galbraith, Donald Sutherland, Lois Mayer, Paul Anka. And that brain drain is still under way. But Richler, Montreal born and bred, stayed put. Understandably. Montreal, the second-largest French city in the world, is a wonderful place except for those awful, awful winters. He also stayed put because the Quebec government supplied Richler with juicy raw material for his novels which for the most part deal with Montreal's Jewish elites.

Part of Richler's fascination with his native Province of Quebec was the separatist Quebecois who, despite their defeats in provincial referenda, are still determined, to split off from the rest of Canada. Their independence propaganda tactics, particularly their attempts to impose by punitive laws the French language on the non-Francophone population, lent themselves to widespread ridicule much of it inspired by Richler. And he had plenty of material to write about. Having banned signs in English, the Quebec government threatened a jewelry store with a $1,000 fine if it didn't remove a "Merry Christmas" sign." The Bagel Factory became La Maison du Bagel and the topper, Notre Dame de Grace Kosher Marche de Viande (Meat Market).

Richler allied himself to the late Pierre Trudeau, the charismatic French-Canadian prime minister, with whom he enjoyed a close friendship. It was Trudeau who said:

"It's because I'm a French-Canadian myself that I'm so opposed to separation. Why should we be reduced to a self-inflicted ghetto? And if we become unilingual again, how will we function on this continent?"

Richler hated the bigotry of the early Quebec sovereigntists who were openly anti-Semitic. Richler denounced that leadership as often as he could, most notably in a long, satirical New Yorker essay in 1991. In a sense, he exemplified what Alexander Solzhenitsyn meant when he described the role of the writer in the Soviet Union as that of a "second government." When the Quebecois pronounce their militant slogan "maitres chez nous," (masters in our own house), Richler once wrote, they don't include "the MacGregors and the Schwartzes." By the "MacGregors" Richler meant the large numbers of Protestants in Quebec and, of course, the "Schwartzes" meant the Jews. Today's PQ leadership has modified dramatically the ethnocentricity of previous leaderships. Richler'sanswer to his Parti Quebecois critics was expressed in a few simple words: "I'm trying to tell the truth. I think you should be able to tell the truth at any time."

All of the above are transient writings and musings, magazine journalism, by a gifted polemicist but Richler was more interested in the novel which he once describedrather macabrely in these words: "Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing, it's about dying, about the brief flicker of time we have here, and the frustration that it creates."

Richler has not yet received the recognition due him as a great 20th century novelist confirmed by his last novel, "Barney's Version." That recognition will not be long in coming. As he wrote:

"You really write as a recognition of death and you want to leave something. I mean, it's an enormous conceit. And you hope one thing,something, somewhere will last."

It will, Mordecai.


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