Feature

Where the Heart Is

Doing the Heart Good
Neil Bissoondath

Cormorant Books
$34.95
hardcover
328pp
1-896951-35-X

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms tells us that, in modern usage, the protagonist “has come to be the equivalent of the hero.” Hero is a word we associate with…well, with heroism, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as action indicating “nobility, courage and outstanding achievement.” So what to make of a novel with a protagonist whose own daughter sees in him “no possibility of heroism?”

Neil Bissoondath was born in Trinidad (he is the nephew of Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul) and is a longtime Quebec resident. He has been known, since his widely read anti-p.c. essay collection Selling Illusions, as a defender of the writer’s right to speak in any voice he or she chooses. It’s a particularly significant issue for writers from minority groups, who are so often assumed to be speaking for “their people.” Bissoondath has turned the tables on such assumptions before, and in Doing the Heart Good he emphatically does it again. The central figure here is Alistair Mackenzie – a white, elderly, anglo-Quebec war veteran, living largely on memories. Not your average hero.

Mackenzie’s days as a man of action are far behind him. In World War II, a split-second battlefield decision – the one act of conventional bravery in his life – earns him military decoration and instills a life-long reluctance to place himself in the line of fire – figuratively or literally – again. Back home he marries and settles into a career as an English professor, specializing in 18th century literature and nursing a lifelong passion for Charles Dickens. (The 19th century is about as modern as Alistair gets in his tastes.) By his side for decades is his beloved wife Mary. Her death, and the subsequent burning down of his house, leaves him living with his daughter Agnes, her francophone husband, and their six-year old son. Nearly all his possessions save his war medals are lost; what he does have is plenty of time to reminisce.

The plot of Doing the Heart Good moves forward through Mackenzie’s recollections of a series of friends and acquaintances. A diverse lot, they are united by the fact that they are all, in some way, envelope-pushers, people who take decisive action in contrast to the relative stasis of Mackenzie’s postwar life. There’s Dan Mullen, a hard-living novelist with a wealthy wife whose artistic career is the cause of mild self-recrimination for Mackenzie, who once nursed such ambitions himself. There’s mild-mannered Frank, who shockingly takes matters into his own hands when he learns that a war criminal is living in his apartment building. There’s the dwarf accountant Slovar, gleefully fleecing unsuspecting Montrealers of their wealth.

As Mackenzie recalls how these and others impacted on his life, a larger picture is gradually revealed. Something handy about having a 75-year old narrator is the peg provided for social history. Seminal events in 20th century Quebec are presented not in newsreel fashion but through Alistair’s personal associations: the October Crisis and imposition of the War Measures Act is a hot-button topic between Alistair and his son-in-law; ruminations on Pierre Trudeau’s death and political legacy are triggered by Alistair’s memory of seeing the former P.M. walking on the mountain. Alistair is an unapologetic product of his time and background – never having learned French because “there wasn’t the need,” – he’s the kind of stick-in-the-mud who insists on addressing his son-in-law Jacques as Jack. In most contemporary novels he would be, at most, as figure of fun. But Bissoondath gives him dignity; furthermore his intractability provides much-needed tension, and makes his gradual softening towards his upstairs neighbour Tremblay genuinely meaningful.

A further distinction of Doing the Heart Good is its handling of Alistair’s marriage. There aren’t enough novels examining long-running love, aging, and coping with the loss of a life partner, but all three are taken on here. It’s territory that, if not handled with the right mixture of delicacy and humour, can easily slip into mawkishness; to Bissoondath’s great credit this novel never does.

There are nits to pick here. The deliberately archaic voice of the narrator works to convey his age but goes a little florid in places, and the ‘here’s another story I remember’ structure feels disjointed at times. But this novel overcomes such handicaps through sheer strength of characterization. One of the noblest aims of fiction is to make readers relate – if only for the duration of the book – to people whose worldview they don’t necessarily share. For anyone not an anglo Montrealer of a certain age, Alistair Mackenzie may seem a distant figure indeed, but by the end of Doing the Heart Good you’ll feel as though you know him. Whether you like him – let alone see him as a hero – is up to you.

A Chat with Neil Bissoondath

What made you choose Alistair Mackenzie as your narrator?

It’s not that I chose him, or especially wanted to write a novel from his kind of perspective. Rather, as happens with all my fiction, he chose me. That’s simply the way it happens. One day he was there. One of the first things in the book I wrote was one of the later episodes, where he recounts the burning of the house. And he continued telling stories. I simply followed him through. I’m a very instinctive writer.

Alistair isn’t really a man of action, is he?

He’s had more action than I’ve had, or most men have had, in having gone to war. Most of us (men) may like to think of ourselves as men of action, but God knows I’m not, and most men I know aren’t, in any spectacular way. As a writer I’m not so much interested in the extraordinary human being as in what may make the ordinary person extraordinary.

How significant is Alistair’s Dickens fixation?

That’s strictly Alistair. To tell you the truth, I’m not a big Dickens fan. As far as his reading A Tale of Two Cities is concerned, I only realized the significance of the title – how it could be taken to mean Montreal – after my editor mentioned it.

Do you think the whole question of voice appropriation is still the hot potato it was, say, ten years ago?

I think all that is over. People have come to realize that appropriating voices is what novelists do. Without it we’d all be autobiographers. I really don’t think it sets off fires anymore.

Any comments on your uncle being awarded the Nobel Prize?

It took a long time. He’s done an enormous amount of work, and he’s got a style and an approach and a way of thinking that is unique both in fiction and non-fiction. The award is a way of saying “You have lived your life well.” mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette.

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