Sunday, May 24, 2009

Doors Somewhat Open

Doors Open Toronto, May 23rd and 24th, 2009

I persuaded R to accompany me on my sojourn to see a few buildings that I have always been curious about: Don Jail, Allan Gardens Conservatory, the Flat Iron Building, the Carlu.

We live a few blocks away from the Don Jail. Apparently the greater portion of the GTA population also shares my morbid curiosity because when we got there at 11.30 on Saturday morning we were met with the news that our wait would be about four hours. We fled ... it was really warm and the line horrendously long. A real cross section of city in the line up. But apparently you can still book an event(??) or a historical tour here.

I wanted to include a section on a visit to the Don Jail in my new work but, alas, I will have to rely on archival info and photos ... the book is partially set in the 1980s so I have to sort out what the conditions were like, who was imprisoned there and why ... There is a plaque on the corner which tells you that executions were performed right up until the 1960s. The old jail was built between 1862-65 (our desire to imprison people predates our desire to be a country in 1867 apparently) and was inhabited until 1977 and then the prisoners were moved to the new jail which adjoins the old.

" ... the Don was the site of a number of hangings. Starting with the execution of John Boyd in January 1908, hangings at the Don took place in an indoor chamber, which was a converted washroom, at the northeast corner of the old building. Previously, condemned men had been hanged on an outdoor scaffold in the jail yard. The indoor facility was seen as an improvement because outdoor executions were quasi-public (at the hanging of Fred Lee Rice in 1905, crowds had lined surrounding rooftops to see something of the spectacle) ... Twenty-six men were hanged on the Don’s indoor gallows. The jail saw three double hangings ...", wikipedia, last updated 15 May 2009

The old building has now been purchased by Bridgepoint Health which will turn it into a series of offices beginning with renovations in October 2009. I feel somewhat guilty for wanting to see the building as it was the site of a great deal of suffering - so what draws us to such things I wonder? The same impulse perhaps which drove the Romans to watch Christians being devoured, crowds of people watching hangings and executions like a circus event or even closer to our time, crowds in the 19th c. frequenting morgues and orphanages as a form of entertainment of sorts.

Off to the Allan Gardens Conservatory at Gerrard and Jarvis Streets. It really is quite beautiful. I had no idea the scope and breadth of the plants, flowers and vegetation. The Gardens make an appearance in the book too. It is an odd combination of the beautiful and the grotesque there ... the conservatory is large, spacious, very well preserved with exotic flowers and vegetation from around the world, fountains, memorial benches, etc ... Yet outside the grounds surrounding the conservatory are filled with homeless people, some apparently mentally ill by the looks and sound of them. It really is a disturbing combination.

I wanted to capture that in the book ... the juxtaposition of wealth and affluence in the city with the lives of those who have fallen through the cracks in the social fabric and somehow survive in this metropolis.

We drove over to the Gooderham Building (or more commonly known as the Flat Iron Building) at 49 Wellington St. E. It's not an original thought but it is one of my favourite buildings in the city and not far from the first condo that R and I owned on George St. when we got married. I miss that neighborhood at Wellington and Front. It's even prettier now with its new shops and the St Lawrence Market, little boutiques, coffee shops.

We waited in line for an hour and as R and I both noted the exterior of the building was much more interesting than anything inside. Before they allow you to climb the five stories to the top there is a charming mini-lecture given by one of the Doors Open staff.

She talks about George Gooderham, the original owner of the building whose father William Gooderham (1790-1881) made a fateful and ultimately wise decision to use an excess of wheat in the early 19th c. to manufacture liquor. With prohibition in the 1920s they became even more fabulously wealthy. She claims that Gooderham was so wealthy that he built a bank across the street to house his money as well as a tunnel which lead from the Flat Iron Building to the bank (now torn down and replaced by an ugly 1970s structure which houses a Pizza Pizza joint). It holds the city's oldest elevator which can only take 3 - 4 people at a time and which we were not permitted to use.

Allegedly, Al Capone and his men were frequent customers of Gooderham's during Prohibition and often visited the building. The building was the first flat iron building in North America predating the one in New York by ten years. She said that flat iron refers to the triangular shape of the building which resembles a traditional iron one uses on clothes?? That info alone was worth the trip ...

When we were let loose in the building we climbed the five stories to the top but all you see on the way up is a fairly innocuous hallway leading to a series of law offices which are inaccessible. If you peer through the glass of the doors you see, surprisingly, cheaply furnished offices which lack any semblance of grace or style considering this is supposedly the most expensively rented office space in Toronto. Immensely disappointing! I had hoped to be able to go into the cupola where George Gooderham himself had had his office but this was not to be.

The next day I was in the area and went to see the Carlu at College and Yonge (R had already been there for an event). An enormous, gorgeous series of rooms in the Art Deco style opened in 1931. The venue once hosted Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Glen Gould. It has a 1,200 seat concert hall, a grand foyer, the Round Room ... stunning in every aspect.

In 1930, the Eaton's department store chain, opened Eaton's on College Street. Lady Flora McCrea Eaton, a member of Eaton's Board of Directors, retained the French architect Jacques Carlu to design the seventh floor of the building. When the Eaton Centre was built in the 1970s at Yonge & Dundas, the Eaton family sold it.

The Carlu had been abandoned for decades but was once the haunt of the very affluent and famous. The guide said that in the 70s some misguided soul wanted to renovate it, removed the Lalique fountain (pictured above) and art deco statues and replaced it with orange coloured columns and an orange shag rug. Ack! Can you imagine? Now it is a elegant venue that you can rent for special events.

Viva Doors Open for sharing this history with us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Tyson (U.S., 2009) directed by James Toback, 88 minutes

Neither boxing nor Mike Tyson interest me. When I heard that this film had been made, I likely had the same response that many might have had: So, Toback is going to try and clean up Mike Tyson’s image and present an alternative, more palatable view of what this guy is? Buona fortuna buddy ...

Tyson has come to epitomize an unsavory and disturbing stereotype: the feral, dangerous, uncontrollable black male. A street punk, a man who abused his wife, a convicted rapist, a vicious fighter who bit the ear of an opponent in a boxing ring, an inarticulate and volatile loser long on the wane …

But … this film accomplishes what I would have thought difficult, if not impossible, to do: not rehabilitate Tyson but make the viewer understand why he is what he is. And that’s invaluable in understanding any human being. I would not say that as a viewer I might approve of or forgive his transgressions but, as a human being, I think I am more aware of what lead him down this tortuous path.

Many times, the camera will focus on different physical parts of Tyson during his description of his life and its many travails: his eyes, his mouth, his hands, the large tattoo on his face, in multiple frames, with the soundtrack running through in two or three layers of sound. It may not be an original effect but it serves an effective purpose here: is his monologue only part of the true story as Tyson is the sole interviewee? Only part of the truth of his life’s narrative? Does it reflect an aspect of madness that he experienced when in jail during solitary confinement? Whatever its purpose it works.

Tyson addresses all the controversial issues head on often in a mangled and slightly comic English unique to him, openly, artlessly: his unhappy beginnings, his violent temper, his troubled marriage to actress Robin Givens, the rape charge made by beauty contestant Desiree Washington for which he served a three year sentence, the fight with Evander Holyfield where he bit the man’s ear, the prison term, the conversion to Islam, a tangled financial and emotional relationship with Don King, the fight promoter whom he alleges stole his money.

Toback is very clever in this simple technique as Tyson’s candor immediately disarms the skeptical filmgoer. Apologies are not made but guilt and personal flaws freely admitted. The man seems a shadow of what he once was, or, at least, what he once attempted to portray to the public. Shy and awkward, often afraid of situations and personal failure, nervous and fearful around women, forever the fat boy taunted by bullies who grew so strong that none could challenge or beat him.

Fatherless and haphazardly raised by what he describes as a “promiscuous” mother, the boy drifted into petty crime and thievery. Luckily, in juvenile detention he was guided towards an older trainer named Cus D’Amato who took an interest in the wayward teenager. He instilled confidence in the boy and trained him to be the ruthless fighting machine that he came to be winning the world heavy weight title at 21. With D’Amato’s death in 1985, things did seem to spin out of control for Tyson who still mourns the man as a father figure and a mentor.

Woefully, great success does not necessarily prepare an individual for what lies ahead; in fact, it seems to exacerbate existing emotional problems: an inability to control his temper, an insecurity which invites leeches and parasites of both sexes, an inability to form healthy relationships with women and friends. It has been a complicated and eventful life and not unworthy of examination.

I don’t know the truth about this man. Toback has claimed in interviews that no less than the legal eminence Alan Dershowitz examined the evidence against Tyson regarding the rape charge and said that the case should have been thrown out, that the man was railroaded. To this day, it is the single thing that he will not take responsibility for, claiming that Washington is a liar who ruined his life.

I see a defeated, frightened man whose career is behind him with no discernibly clear path ahead. The footage of the interview of Tyson at the end of his last fight in 2005 is very painful to watch. He admits he has no heart for the sport and just wants out of boxing.

But he seems to have rethought his priorities and is more concerned with seeing his family succeed than achieving any personal goals for himself – and that in itself represents a profound change for the man. His highest aspiration today appears that he wants a grandchild. Who would have thought it?

Friday, May 15, 2009

A German Fate?

" ... the pain I went through because of my love for Hanna was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate ..."The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (Random House, Inc., 1995) 218 pages
I must say I don't fully understand the furor over the film - the venom it seemed to inspire when it was released last year. It ended up on the list of worst films of the year etc ... Is it the fact that a German writer dared to create a somewhat sympathetic portrait of an ex-Nazi guard and the boy who loved her? One article mentioned that some objected to it "for affording Germans an easy way out of their feelings of guilt by turning them into 'victims' of the Nazi regime". It was described by as "The Worst Holocaust Film Ever Made".

I think this book serves as a metaphor for all the German youth of Schlink's generation who came to find out that those they loved had a hidden Nazi past - parents, beloved teachers, grandparents, respected authority figures. And the damage that that knowledge did to them. The Germans have a very specific word for dealing with Holocaust guilt and the past: "Vergangenheitsbewältigung"

The argument is particularly relevant in that John Demjanjuk is still very much in the news.

I won't detail the whole plot of the book again as I think I have covered it fairly thoroughly in my review of the film a few months ago. The film is quite faithful to the book and I think it is superior. The writing is not spectacular nor particularly beautiful but offers a unique and very powerful set of events.

Set in the 1950s in Germany, fifteen year old Michael Berg's initial sexual relationship with Hanna Schmitz begins a lifelong relationship with a damaged, lonely woman hiding a number of secrets. The boy is lovingly portrayed here: sensitive, passionate and intelligent. Hanna is, by turns, volatile, cold, jealous, demanding, tender, and has a complete hold on the boy's psyche. For me, it is not so much what transpires here on these pages but what remains unsaid by both characters that affects me most.

Why does Hanna disappear from his life without leaving Michael a word or sign? We find out much later.

What was Hanna's motivation, as an SS guard, in taking the most fragile, vulnerable girls and having them read to her before they were shipped to Auschwitz? Did she seek to alleviate the suffering of their final days or eliminate them quickly before her secret was found out? We know Michael's theories but never learn what was in Hanna's mind. This is not a criticism of the novel but an observation.

Why did Michael assume that the man who gave him a ride to the concentration camp was guilty of some war crime or atrocity when he mentioned the camps and the killing of Jews? Is it because, as a German, he sees all Germans as complicit. Indeed, we never learn the truth about this mysterious stranger except that he is outraged at the suggestion. But perhaps: "Pointing at the guilty parties did not free us from shame, but at least it overcame the suffering we went through on account of it."

Michael wonders of his generation, "Was their disassociation of themselves from their parents mere rhetoric: sounds and noise that were supposed to drown out the fact that their love for their parents made them irrevocably complicit in their crimes?"

Why didn't Michael save Hanna when he learned her secret and could, at the very least, lessen her prison sentence with his knowledge? Did he want to be be spared from the association from this presumed heartless war criminal? Was he so repulsed by her history that he could not even bear to try and save her?

After she is released he seems alternately drawn to her still and repulsed. Is it moral repulsion or physical repulsion too? Cannot bear to look at the woman that once meant so much to him?

These are intriguing questions which lingered long after I finished the book.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Masses, the Mansions and the Masseys

Improbably, my socialist pink heart always smarts a bit as I pass the old Massey mansion on 515 Jarvis St. here in Toronto. At one time, it was right on my way from our house in the east end to the university when I went to work by car. That was when R was working horrendously long hours and I was on J pick-up from her daycare a number of years ago.
I liked winding past the old Victorian houses in Cabbagetown before I reached Jarvis St. Once told I had a Victorian soul, I was enormously pleased. My friend either meant that I loved things of the 19th c. or was hopelessly old-fashioned and romantic (I'm unsure which - possibly both).
519 was inhabited by the formidable Massey clan and it now serves as a large venue for a popular restaurant chain. It is very well maintained I must say - the only eyesore being the gas station immediately to its right on Jarvis which always enrages me a little when I drive by it. A conservatory once stood there. In the late 19th c. someone once quipped that there were only two classes in Toronto at the time: the masses and the Masseys. How true that must have seemed in light of their wealth.
It's not particularly beautiful or grand but I find the sight very affecting. The mansion itself seems a hodge podge of architectural styles to my unsophisticated eyes. But there is something about the dissolution of a once "great" family and the general decline of the area (which has picked up commercially over the last number of years admittedly). When I arrived in Toronto in the 70s jokes about the unsavory "commerce" on Jarvis abounded.
The Massey house was originally built in 1867. At the time, Jarvis Street was one of the wealthiest parts of Toronto and the street featured many such large mansions along a wide tree lined boulevard which housed the captains of industry. The street was nicknamed the "Champs Elysées" of Toronto. Old photographs will attest to its beauty. In 1880, it was purchased by Hart Massey, the industrialist, who built the firm which eventually became Massey-Harris. The house was named Euclid Hall (for a previous home owned by the Masseys in the U.S.) and the family added greenhouses outside. Hart's son Chester Massey built the home to the north at 519 Jarvis where Vincent Massey, the first Canadian born Governor General, and his brother the actor Raymond Massey were raised.
As various commercial operations moved into the area, the Masseys left as well as many other affluent Torontonians who moved to the Rosedale area. By the turn of the century the area had begun to lose its sheen. The building was bequeathed by Hart's daughter Lillian Massey, a great philanthropist and eccentric in her own right, to the University of Toronto’s Victoria College when she died in 1915.
It then became the first home of the Toronto radio station CFRB in the 1920s and converted to an art gallery until 1960. It became a restaurant called Julie's Mansion. The grounds were sold off, the greenhouses demolished and replaced with a service station which still stands there today. How demoralizing that must have been.
In 1976 it was renamed the "Keg Mansion". And oh how the mighty have fallen ... But it is not alone ... consider the fate of some of the surrounding mansions.
This is an excerpt from a new manuscript entitled "Vita's Prospects" that I am working on (unfinished) with thanks to the journalist Nicki Thomas for a recent article in the Globe and Mail entitled "Two mansions mark the tipping point of Jarvis", May 2, 2009:
Vita could now pick out those mansions along Jarvis Street once inhabited by the very wealthy: the two Massey mansions, owned respectively by industrialist Hart Massey at 515 and son Chester Massey at 519, sitting cheek by jowl; builder Charles Rundle at 514; builder Edward Gallow's house at 512; George Gooderham, President of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, at 504; businessman William Cawthra’s home on the southwest corner of Jarvis and Isabella. Now they meant little more than street or perhaps at most a building name to most people here in Toronto.
The houses at 512 and 514 were now bed and breakfast hotels and Vita is secretly grateful for the extreme care and attention the owner has lavished on these grand old ladies over the last twelve years that he has owned them. But there is still an element of sadness in beholding them despite their careful upkeep. She read recently that the owner is broke and can’t afford to keep them. However, he did save the pair of manses from more ignominious fates.
The Rundle house was derelict by the 70s – unheated and utterly deserted. The city took it over in the 1980s. Then it was purchased by Virgin Records and they used it as a sort of haven for musicians who could lodge there and use it as rehearsal space. Perhaps 512, the Gallows house, fared a little better, and was treated a tad more respectfully. For twenty years it was inhabited by sixteen Jesuit priests. Perhaps it was better kept, even if they did not have strict appreciation for its Victorian charms.
Somehow, don’t ask Vita to explain, the fact that the Gooderham house at 504 is now a well-known Italian eatery and Euclid Hall, the former mansion of the formidable Hart Massey, is now a chain restaurant adds insult to injury. But the worst, she fears, is the fate of Elderslie at 471 which once served as the residence of the Hon. Alexander Morris who was in Sir John A. MacDonald’s cabinet and now serves very competently as a Mac’s Milk.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ciao Cenerentola

Live broadcast of La Cenerentola at the Metropolitan Opera, May 9, 2009

This is my first comic opera and the first ever for B, a good friend. I didn't want to scare her off. I remember I took R to a four hour production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena (without surtitles!) in Italian at the then O'Keefe Centre when we started dating. Ai yi yi ... and yes reader, he still married me.

As a neophyte, comic operas are not among my favourites, nor is Rossini particularly. I favour something darker, more realistic - more in the vein of the late 19th c. - Verdi, Bizet or Puccini (say La Traviata, Tosca, Carmen, Madama Butterfly or La Boheme). No gods and goddesses cavorting for me or enchanted princesses. Blood, murder and adultery - that's more my thing. You know, starving seamstresses and their lovers, kind hearted courtesans, fifteen year old geishas and evil cigar factory girls. That's more my speed.

Everyone is familiar with the fairy tale of Cinderella (La Cenerentola). I won't rehash the plot nor try and critique the performances which I am not knowledgeable enough in opera to do. Let me offer a novice's view ... watching opera live in a cinema on a huge screen is new to me.

This is only my third production in a cinema - last year we saw La Boheme with the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu and this year we saw Madama Butterfly with Patricia Racette. We have conservative tastes in this art and these two, while immensely popular, are seen as traditional chestnuts for seasoned opera goers. For us it is still new and exciting and we learn something everytime we see a production.

My concerns have to do with seeing the medium of opera (where the sound and the voice reign supreme) in a movie theatre where the visual supersedes everything else on a fifty foot screen. It is an uneasy marriage at times.

I was not familiar with the Latvian soprano Elina Garanča who starred as Angelina (la Cenerentola) in this production. But she is picture perfect here with a soaring beautiful voice and charming manners. What a workout these roles are - during intermissions you can see the sopranos panting, trying to catch their breath as they come off stage which is an intriguing backstage view. She has the sweetness and freshness for the role which disarms the listener (and viewer). She is lovely (look at those Slavic cheekbones and blue eyes above) - few could look so dazzling on a fifty foot screen. Her costumes (drab servant girl, glittering blue ball gown and a traditional wedding dress at the end) and jewellery dazzle ... as do the stepsisters' attire which is exquisitely designed in strong contrasting colours.

The sisters are all in deep purples and dark blues, reds and rich plums with striking dashes of makeup and lipstick. Cinderella is light and fresh and cool looking (plain sometimes I think but that's just my taste) to emphasize her simplicity and innocence. As ever, heavy makeup equals villainy here. I was never one who dreamed of being Cinderella. It's difficult to play this role without coming off as cloying and sickeningly sweet - I think Garanča succeeds in disarming the audience.

Elina is paired with the tenor Lawrence Brownlee who has an attractive face and demeanour but, for me, I found it difficult to imagine him as Cinderella's dashing prince Don Ramiro because he is rather on the short side and portly and she towered over him a bit. He is, by turns, appropriately tender, righteous, kind, chivalrous, furious, but alas, not striking enough for our Cinderella.

There is a new twist for those who know the fairy tale because here in the Rossini opera (written in 1817) - the evil stepmother is replaced by a cruel stepfather, Don Magnifico. Instead of a Fairy Godmother we have Alidoro, who seems to be a sorcerer of sorts and the Prince's confidant. Cinderella is identified by the Prince by her bracelet not by her glass slipper. I do think that this small change loses some of its power in this interpretation - the image of the glass slipper left behind is so powerful as well as the Disneyesque fighting of the sisters over the shoe when the Prince seeks Cinderella plucks at something undefinable in the feminine psyche (for better or worse).

There is also a greater focus on the male characters (Alessandro Corbelli as a cruel and very comically played Don Magnifico), Dandini (Simone Alberghini) who impersonates the Prince to deceive the two avaricious step-sisters (played with great mischief and zeal by Rachelle Durkin as Clorinda and Patricia Risley as Tisbe), and Alidoro (John Relyea) rather than a fairy godmother who grants Cinderella her wish to attend the Prince's ball.

The set design by Maurizio Balo has a weird Alice in Wonderland feel with an enormous, very simply designed sets in stark colours and doors which are twenty feet high but, sadly and oddly, this just emphasizes Brownlee's lack of physical stature. Nor does the final scene where Brownlee is literally placed on an over sized white wedding cake like a small doll help.

And in an amusing twist (for me) the Met conductor Maurizio Benini looks very much like my Italian teacher TV (those are his initials by the way - not that he is on TV!). Outside an ice storm raged and we could hear the storm during the production but when we left all was sunshine and warmth ... as it should be.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My Mafia, Myself

"You carry on, do what you have to do - the rest is worthless. Because the threat isn't always a bullet between the eyes ... They take you slowly, one layer at a time, till you find yourself naked and alone and you start believing you're fighting something that does not exist ..."
by Roberto Saviano (Picador, 2008) 301 pages

This book was made into a gritty, very compelling film which premiered at TIFF last year. Forget the cinematic glamor of The Godfather film or the pulpy juiciness of the novel or the profane wittiness of Goodfellas, this is the real deal – the true sordidness of organized crime in southern Italy and Europe, the so-called “ghetto of Europe”. One reading should pretty well eradicate the mafia-groupie in all of us.

There is a not so secret society amongst Italians of those who are obsessed with stories about the mafia. We are mesmerized whenever we see The Godfather on TV and probably own the DVD. We have seen it innumerable times. We've even sat through Godfather III. We are hooked on The Sopranos and actually suffered a sort of withdrawal when the series ended. We have seen all the films on crime families and criminals: Goodfellas (1990), Scarface (1983), History of Violence (2005), Casino (1995), On the Waterfront (1954), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Road to Perdition (2002), The Untouchables (1987). I am a member of such a society.

So, suffice it to say, I was immediately interested in this book. The title is a brilliant play on the words Camorra (a mafia-like society in the region of Naples) and Gomorrah (as in the biblical city in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah). Saviano is mesmerizing as he takes us into a inferno like pit of murder, drug trafficking, political assassinations, black market manufacturing, torture and criminal activity in Naples and its environs. The Camorra has killed more people than the Sicilian Mafia, the 'Ndrangheta, the Russian Mafia ... more than the IRA in Ireland, the Red Brigades in Italy, the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) in Spain.

The word Mafia is not used here in this context … in the area of Naples it is know as La Camorra and members are referred to as Camorristi, also known as clan members. Saviano details many aspects of the clans’ power and influence in various aspects of Italian society: the black market luxury garment industry, the drug trade, the purchase of weapons (primarily the Kalashnikov rifle and the "cult" like reverence it inspires), the role of women (many are much more active participants than you think); the role of “submarines” in paying off Camorrista family members.

Roberto Saviano is from Casal di Principe which he describes as "the capital of criminal entrepreneurial power" with some intriguing combination of shame or pride depending on the situation he finds himself in. He says that compared to his hometown Corleone is Disneyland.

Saviano explains in detail how the clans work: for instance, the drug trade of the Paolo Di Lauro clan employs thousands who have no idea whom they truly work for aside from the general name of the clan. Each clan members’ knowledge is limited so even if questioned by police or foe they do not know the hierarchy or how the flow chart of power is structured.

Some scenarios he relates: Pasquale, a skilled tailor labours in a Camorra controlled black market garment factory creating knock off luxury garments. One day, he sees on TV that a particularly beautiful garment prepared for a famous couture fashion house is being worn by Angelina Jolie at the Oscars. This both angers and excites him because even though he crafted the garment he will never be acknowledged for the creation. Pasquale is eventually driven from the industry (because he dared to share his skills with a Chinese-born competitor working in his region for a fee and threatening the Camorra's hold on the market) and instead becomes a truck driver to save his neck.

When the clans (what we would think of as Mafia families) want to test a new batch of heroin to determine how good it is and whether it will kill anyone they test them on "Visitors". These are hard core heroin addicts who are willing to risk death for a free hit. Saviano tells an absolutely horrifying story of witnessing one such trial on the streets where the dealer and everyone else around the addict fear that the heroin has killed him. The man is revived by his weeping addict girlfriend in a most unusual manner which I will leave to you to discover.

He details the logic of retribution of the clans against perceived wrongs and how all are vulnerable:
"... the map of an individual is drawn through his acquaintances, relatives, even his possessions. A map on which messages can be written. The most terrible messages. Punishment is necessary. if someone goes unpunished, it might legitimize new betrayals or schisms."

The clans' tentacles are long and pervasive. "Submarines", such as the cited Don Ciro, are low level money men who pay monthly allowances to clan affiliates who have been loyal and have relations in prison. These usually go to wives or girlfriends with children by Camorristi, but some men as well - always paid to the men's mothers to avoid humiliation of and abuse from the men.

The nicknames of the Camorristi will amuse and/or puzzle: Perhaps the Camorrista resembles a movie star who plays a role on TV (Zorro) or the movies (Rambo) or the son of a Libyan dictator (Ghaddafi). Perhaps he has attributes like a certain animal: lione (lion), 'o lupo (wolf) or i capitoni (the eels) or certain physical or mental attributes: 'o milionario (the millionaire), bello (beautiful one), 'o pazzo (the crazy one), capelli bianchi (white hair), 'o nano (the dwarf) and then there are the more bizarre untranslatable names: scipp scipp, quaglia quaglia, zig zag.

And forget about the myth that organized crime does not harm women or children. Saviano details scenario after scenario in which women are shot in the face, tortured for information on rival clans, corpses dumped and burned in their cars, for real or perceived transgressions. They might be active participants in the clan, suspected girlfriends of Camorristi, or merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Young boys are enlisted as assassins, as drug mules, as couriers of information, as decoys meant to lure out real targets, as horrifyingly graphic examples of how not to challenge the clans’ authority. This is a world where priests like Don Peppino are shot in the face for their defiance of the clans.

For many women marrying a Camorrista is like "receiving a loan or acquiring capital". You have connected with a winner, someone ambitious and aggressive and able to make money for you. In the twisted logic of this scenario, this is someone who is not a failure.

In Gomorrah, Saviano consciously emulates the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini who, on November 14, 1974, lashed out against the Democratic-Christian political regime in Italy and was asking questions on the front page of Italy’s most influential newspaper, Corriere della Sera about organized crime, political protection and the government's collusion. The article began, "Io so (I know)..." and Pasolini listed all he suspected but could not prove.

In the chapter "Cement", Saviano makes a lonely pilgrimage to Pasolini's grave in Casarsa and murmurs aloud his own 21st c. version of "I know" before his tomb. He sees the corruption and rot of the Camorra's involvement in the construction industry and cannot look at a building without imagining the work and blood that went into it:
"I know how economics originate and where their smells come from ... the proofs are irrefutable because they are partial, recorded with my eyes ... And so I tell. About these truths."

He knows that before these construction magnates turned themselves into managers, financial sharks, newspaper owners "before all this and under all this lies cement, subcontractors ... vans crammed with men who work all night and disappear in the morning, rotten scaffolding and bogus insurance".

For me the most painful story is that of his father's fate. A trained doctor, as a youth he rode with paramedics in ambulances and encountered many victims of the Camorristi when called to emergencies. The unofficial medical policy was not to intervene if one encountered a still living casualty because chances were that the Camorristi would hijack the ambulance and finish off the job, usually with the paramedics and doctors aboard, often killing them as well. On one such encounter he came across an eighteen year shot in the chest - his nursing colleagues begged him not to intervene but he could not watch the boy die so he assisted him and he survived. That night, Camorristi broke into the doctor's home and beat him so badly he was not able to resurface for two months.

Unfortunately, his father learned his lesson - when he had his own son Roberto (the author of this book), this educated man taught the boy to shoot with the following piece of wisdom:
"Robbe' what do you call a man who has a pistol and no college degree?"
"A shit with a pistol."
"Good. What do you call a man with a college degree and no pistol?"
"A shit with a degree."
"Good. What do you call a man with a degree and a pistol?"
"A man, Papa."

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary man.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Killing the Swallows

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (Penguin Canada, 2005) 384 pages

I saw Joseph Boyden read about a month ago at OISE/UT. He's a great reader, really very elegant and understated in style. I picked up this book at that reading. He also wrote Through Black Spruce
which won the Giller Prize in 2008.

Boyden tells the story of two boys, Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack (the latter name is a corruption of an Indian name Weesageechak), two Cree boys from northern Ontario who go to fight as snipers in WWI. The story is loosely inspired, in part, by the life of Francis Pegahmagabow, a Cree, a famous war hero and exceptional sniper in WWI.

Only one makes it back to Canada after the war and when he returns he is a damaged, haunted young man. Xavier, the shyer, less extroverted one who struggles with English, survives the Great War only to return without a leg and hooked on morphine. He is met by his Auntie Niska, his mother's sister, a Cree living in the bush, living the old ways.

Xavier drifts in and out of consciousness in a morphine daze and allows Niska to care for him as they travel through the bush back to her home in the wild by canoe. He relives the military battle at Ypres, France where he and Elijah, the seemingly braver one, the more resourceful one, became expert snipers. What a horrible realization that it is Xavier who returns addicted to morphine.

Early in the novel, Xavier says: "I will tell the elders the many strange things that I have seen ..." which gives us a glimpse of the trials ahead. The book is meticulously researched - and often graphically described - which only increases its power. One feels the cold, the lice infested clothes, the mud, the filthiness, the blood and savagery of trench warfare, the tension and fear before battle, the rivalries, hatreds and mistakes amongst the men which inevitably occur in battle and even the deliberate murders which occur of dreaded superiors or rivals in the field of battle.

The boys board a train to enlist - forced to sit in a back car because they are Indian which no one seems to question, not even themselves. They travel by boat to England and they join the war effort in France where Xavier, nicknamed X, feels like a "brown ghost" with the wemistikoshiw (whites) because his English is not good and he recedes into the background.

The boys watch comrades die, kill "Fritz", the German enemy, and wrestle with death daily. They face lice, hunger, poison gas, racism, trench foot, rotting and destroyed bodies, rats in the battlefield where "rumors fall like rain". In battle, where Xavier and Elijah are teamed up to eliminate an expert German sniper who is picking off Canadian soldiers, Xavier cuts the stripes off the uniform of the slain man as a trophy. That struck me forcibly ... did that allude to the ancient tradition of cutting the enemy's scalp - how deep rooted the desire to have tangible proof of one's power to kill. More on that in a moment ...

There are so many powerful scenes here: Elijah straddling the base of an enormous statue of the Madonna, left exposed by shelling in a destroyed church. Elijah scalping a fallen soldier. Xavier being seduced/seducing the French girl Lisette. Niska's lover betraying her in the church. Elijah landing on an enemy dugout, getting stuck in the dugout and then massacring the surprised German soldiers one by one. The teenage boy soldier shot by the Canadian military for falling asleep at his station and endangering them all. Xavier putting the horses out of their misery on the ship in a terrifying and unexpected way. Elijah going through the pockets of the dead Canadian soldiers before he buries them and cataloguing their possessions one by one in plastic bags. Xavier bayoneting soldier after solider and struggling to remove the bayonet. Elijah's last day with Xavier ...

One minute Gilberto, a fellow soldier, is smiling at Xavier, the next second "the smile on his face blooms into a red flower".

When Xavier and Elijah meet the real Francis Pegahmagabow (nicknamed Peggy) in the book, Elijah's first impulse is to want to kill the man because his sniper kills outshine Elijah's.

X deserts the army for one day to return to Lisette only to find her with another man – X risks court-martial when he returns and is ordered to speak to the Sgt. to explain his absence. Elijah insists that he come along to “translate” as X’s English is so poor but he does so only to protect X. Hilariously, X profanely insults Elijah and the senior officer that Elijah translates into a more acceptable response in order to save him.

But despite some of his kindnesses to X, Elijah descends into his addiction, or his madness, and becomes progressively more unstable and violent. X realizes that Elijah has come to love killing, has gone mad in the process of becoming so proficient in it. Xavier withdraws because he is frightened and increasingly losing his hearing. Soon we will discover what becomes of Elijah.

Niska, in trying to save her nephew when he returns from the war, tells him stories of her life, of being forcibly removed to a residential school by nuns to rid her of her "heathen" ways and having her long hair cut off and how she rebels, of being rescued by her mother and escaping into the bush, of losing her virginity to her "Frenchman" (in a couple of pretty steamy scenes, mind you) and worse, much worse, as things end badly for Niska's lover. Her mother's death. Her loneliness. Many of her relations die or are scattered to the winds by starvation which drive them into the hands of the wemistikoshiw who wish to "civilize" them.

This is not the first time that Niska saves Xavier. When Niska first finds her nephew Xavier in the residential school (where he has been left by Niska’s sister who cannot care for him) she finds Xavier paddling in a canoe with a nun who is fishing. She sees that when X “misbehaves” the nun strikes him with a paddle on the head. Niska is so disturbed by the sight that the next time she returns to rescue X she urges X to hop into her canoe, the nun topples over into the water and she smacks the nun with a paddle for good measure.

Niska is a windigo killer as was her father before he was imprisoned by the wemistikoshiw and died in jail. Their role in the tribe is to kill those who have gone mad and threaten the safety of the tribe.

Slowly we learn of Xavier's fate during the war ... how he lost his leg, why Elijah disappeared and why Xavier returned with Elijah's name. An amazing conclusion ... so powerful and satisfying emotionally.

One thing niggles at me in terms of the plot. Niska is telling these stories to Xavier (which are fascinating and mesmerizingly told) - and these stories are sometimes sexually graphic, humiliating and violent. Would an aunt share this with a nephew in this fashion? I know she is trying to lull him out of his state of shock or depression but it seems an unlikely scenario. I could accept this portion of the novel if Niska was thinking of these episodes as she cares for Xavier, rather than speaking them aloud to him.

This last image that I will relate was the most telling in the novel I think. Elijah's killing the nest of swallows at Breech’s order serves as a perfect metaphor for the conflict between Indian and wemisitikoshiw world. Xavier is confined for medical examination (Elijah has lied and said X is disoriented and nauseous after battle to cover for his unauthorized trip to find Lisette).

The hospital room’s only other occupant is a swallow which chirps loudly and when Breech, a senior officer, is disturbed by its twittering he orders X to knock the nest down which he refuses to do. Elijah does it instead. Here is Elijah (whom I always picture as the actor Adam Beach) willing to play the game to get ahead, winning the honors, accepting the glory. The Indian boys see the scene as “natural”, the presence of the swallow is not disturbing or unnatural, the white commander sees it as a sign of disorder and chaos which must be tamed or destroyed – not unlike the wemisitikoshiw’s intrusion into the Indian’s world.

An absolutely phenomenal book.