Culture & Conversation

Elysian fields

Death is in the air these days. Two books by Montreal writers access “the other side” in fresh, imaginative ways. Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality examines our thirst for the fountain of eternal life. Mark Abley’s Conversations with a Dead Man summons the ghost of a famous poet to answer for his part in the destruction of First Nations communities. Both books increase our capacity for wonder and empathy, without offering easy answers to a spate of questions raised.

Weighing in at 404 pages, The Book of Immortality is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, journey into diverse realms of science, belief and “the magic behind living forever”, as the subtitle promises. Gollner spent years tracking down a colourful cast, from the magician David Copperfield, who owns a string of islands in the Bahamas purported to contain the fountain of youth, to a Jesuit priest who once made an impression as Gollner’s film prof at Concordia University.

A beautiful writer with a droll sense of humour and an ear for the telling anecdote, Gollner offers not so much a convincing argument as a cathartic exploration of traditional religion splintered into many parts. Raised in a secular environment, he is fascinated by people of faith, be they orthodox believers or flamboyant eccentrics. By the end, we are ready to accept his conclusion that eternal life would be unacceptable to the mere mortal. One would probably expire from boredom, or long to die. A great read, it’s of interest to anyone with even a faint rumble of hunger for spirituality.

Mark Abley’s biography of the Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott, Conversation with a Dead Man, adopts the form of a dialogue between the writer and his subject, an ingenious way of turning the central mystery of Scott’s double life into the spine of his narrative. Not only was Scott a much-celebrated literary figure in early 20th Century Canada, he was a high-ranking federal civil servant charged with implementing policies designed to wipe out Native culture. He oversaw the residential school system, where hundreds of First Nation children were taken away from their parents and suffered horribly, many dying. This and related policies were an effort to break the chain of what politicians, educators and much of the public saw as a primitive, doomed culture. Scott ignored repeated complaints from those who saw the damage first-hand, out of reluctance to upset church authority and his superiors. As a poet, he made imaginative leaps, but as a bureaucrat he was a man of his times.

The concept works. I actually believed the poet/bureaucrat had a mind of his own, autonomous from the writer. Ultimately, though, Abley resists the reductive leap that would have taken their encounter into the realm of drama: the flashpoint where personal and private collide.

Scott’s American-born wife, an accomplished musician, insisted on sending their only child to a boarding school in Paris, convinced the backwater of Ottawa was unworthy of their daughter’s talent. She died there of Scarlet Fever, age 12, a few days after her parents had paid a visit. They were en route to a vacation in Spain when the telegraph reached them.

Did the child’s death steel him for the hard task of ripping Native children away from their parents for the sake of cultural advancement? A chilly thought, it is consistent with his cold Protestant ideals. Abley raises the question but doesn’t press it. Instead, Scott gets off with the Nuremberg defense: he was only following orders.

We, of course, do not.  Conversations With a Dead Man is an important step in the assumption of collective guilt we must all assume before any real progress can be made on the righting of so many wrongs against Canada’s indigenous peoples. Having raised a good/bad man from the dead, this rich, resonant work should galvanize readers into action against the awful legacy of attempted genocide.

Two powerful books, genre-benders, nourishing, provocative: read them both to escape surface noise, and enter into the private obsessions of two fine minds committed to the service of ambitious themes.

Marianne Ackerman’s novella and stories, Holy Fools, will be published by Guernica Press this fall.

(CC) Sugar skull by jacobg.

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