Yann Martel has gone on vacation so he’s sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper two books to cover the month of April. It’s about time that Martel took some time off: he’s just completed two years of providing Harper with some bedtime reading, begun after Martel noticed how harried the PM was during a ceremony to celebrate the Canada Council’s 50th anniversary. What Harper needed was some “stillness” in his life.
The latest books aren’t likely to provide that, Martel says, even though one is what we used to call a comic book and is now called “graphica.’ It is Louis Riel, by Chester Brown, a biography of the Canadian Métis leader who became a martyr in some people's eyes. “Would the Parti Québécois have been elected in 1976 had Louis Riel and the Métis Red River settlers been treated more fairly by Ottawa?" Martel asks. "Or would that have lead Ontarians to elect an “Ontario Party” advocating union with the United States? What is clear—and you must surely know this from your own personal experience in politics—is that once prejudice and bad faith are entrenched among a people, it’s very hard to get them to get along.”
The second book is The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima, translated by John Nathan. Martel spends more time recounting the way Mishima killed himself by ritual suicide than in presenting the book, but he suggests that Chester Brown probably knows and admires Mshima’s “aesthetic” craziness. One of the wonders of books, Martel writes, is that they can “rest together without strife on a bookshelf. The hope of literature, the hope of stillness, is that the peace with which the most varied books can lie side by side will transform their readers, so that they too will be able to live side by side with people very different from them.”
Pax vobiscum, in other words. And, maybe, beware of people who will give their lives for their causes.
PS I forgot to mention Martel’s 52nd gift to Harper, Burning Ice: Art & Climate Change, a collaboration organized by David Buckland and the Cape Farewell Foundation and sent March 30. Now there is troubling reading. Needless to say, Harper hasn’t acknowledged that book any more than he has any but the first one.