Columns

Imaginary Places

Alberto Manguel

In the 1970s and ’80s, Canada was becoming visible through its complexities, not merely through its clichés; but then it all stopped.

When I first arrived in Canada from Argentina in the late 1970s, to work with the editor and publisher Louise Dennys on a monstrous project that became The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (in those days before electronics I had to travel with a knee-high pile of carbon-copy typescript), I discovered that Utopia really existed. Not the slave society proposed by Saint Thomas More as ideal, but one in which the vague nineteenth-century notions of equality and freedom seemed truly to be at work.

Shortly afterwards I moved to Toronto with my family, and to my great surprise, not only did Canadian citizens seem to have a voice in the affairs of state, simply by joining school boards, commissions, councils, grass­roots groups and the like, but also the arts—that undervalued, underpaid, underdog sector of every society I had ever known—had, if not pride of place, at least a seat in the first rows, in the Canada of the eighties. There were grants for writers, assistance to publi­shers, financial support for theatre groups and galleries. In Buenos Aires, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Jorge Luis Borges, had trouble making ends meet and was rarely paid for his contributions to newspapers and magazines. In Canada, I found, a less-than-unknown would-be writer such as myself could get (and got) money, actual hard cash, from the federal and the provincial arts councils. No less astonished was Sir John Mandeville when he dis­covered that in Cathay, gold grows on trees.

Best of all, as I soon discovered, was the encouragement Canadian writers and artists received when they travelled abroad. Cana­dians often found that for foreigners, Canada had no recognizable features, perhaps because of its wise efforts to keep the identity of their country open. I myself had no idea of where it was that I had decided to settle. Canada was a vast pink space in the atlas (“too much geography and too little history,” as someone once said), and there were no notable Canadians from whom I could borrow the country’s face. I had read Margaret Atwood and thought she was American, and Robertson Davies and Mazo de la Roche and thought they were British. I didn’t know that “on the contrary” (as Samuel Beckett said when asked if he was English), they defined something else, more generous and open. When I gave readings in Spain, in France, in Germany, in Scandinavia, representatives of the Canadian government made themselves known. The Canadian em­bassies invited Canadian writers to dinner and the Canadian consulates threw parties for them. No doubt the bulk of the budget allotted to this kind of activity was devoted to businessmen and investors, but some of it was thrown in the direction of the arts.

And the businessmen and investors profited. Not that every foreign bureaucrat and banker quoted back to them, admiringly, an Atwood poem or a Davies witticism. Not that when Winnipeg was mentioned, every foreign potentate beamed “Sandra Birdsell!” But slowly, to the image of the Mounties and the poster for dogsledding in Quebec, were added other, more unexpected and more profound aspects of our nation. Canada was becoming visible through its complexities, not merely through its clichés. Then it all stopped.

Beginning in the nineties, and fully in place today, all true effort to support Canadian artists and writers abroad has ceased. Translations of Canadian books, one of the most efficient ways of hearing Canadian voices around the world, are hardly ever financed. Cana­dian representatives no longer show their faces at Canadian readings or exhibitions. No aid is given to events that include Canadians, even when the subject of the talk or show is Canada. In this sense we have become like much of the rest of the world, where artists and writers are remembered only when the social cake requires a little decorative icing.

The recent financial crisis, so useful to justify every outrageous decision taken in the name of greed, is of course blamed for this withdrawal of support. But the truth is, the blame is ours. We have allowed our public transit systems to collapse and for rail lines to be ripped out. We have allowed the health system to become so degraded that, in Alberta, for instance, we find it normal to queue for hours outside public clinics in freezing weather to see whatever doctor happens to be present. We have allowed arts programs to be cut from our schools, and we accept that our children will be brought up in a system that considers painting and music superfluous activities. Maybe, immersed as I was in imaginary places, I believed in a country that never quite existed, at least not beneath the surface, and that now, when the arrogant cupidity of our economic system no longer bothers to hide its methods or intentions, even that surface has been blown away and Canada appears to be neither better nor worse than most other countries.

And yet, I refuse to believe that what I first saw here was merely illusory. It is the publishing companies that produce trash, the bookstore chains that sell it, the production companies that look for nothing but a quick profit, the government budgets that consider art and books a waste of good money, that have the illusory quality, perhaps because they have no true grounding, no possible future. And the quiet, slow-grown convictions of honesty and generosity that resulted in the policies I discovered when I arrived, may yet spring up again: witness the efforts of the small publishing companies, of magazines such as Geist, of the surviving independent bookstores, of countless daily individual acts of resistance. One bit of evidence emerges from having read, in my distant youth, hundreds of accounts of utopias and dystopias: we can remain a faceless, medium-range economic power, or we can invest in our imagination and trace the lineaments of our future—that is, if we mean to survive.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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