Tuesday, February 07, 2006

6. Voices in Time by Hugh Maclennan

I picked this paperback up new for real cheap (99 cents) at a book sale. Despite its safe, pseudo-intellectual cover (some semi-abstract painting that had nothing to do with the book and was overly framed so you couldn't really look at it properly), the blurb about a story set in several time periods, including a post-apocalyptic future interested me, especially for a Canadian book. I only learned later that Maclennan is the author of Two Solitudes, considered the classic novel of relations between the french and english (which has long been on my list) and that this was one of his last books). Voices in Time is one of his last books and not very well known, though respected by those who've read it.

The set-up seems arbitrary at first. The world has been destroyed and a fascist government called the Second Bureaucracy is running things. Their fascism is distant and indirect and seems to be relaxing as younger people take over. One of these young people is a historian who has uncovered a bunch of documents that tells the tale of the forgotten past (most records and memories had been destroyed and repressed by the First Bureaucracy). He contacts an old man who is connected to the documents. The book is basically the old man putting together the records, connecting them with his own memories and telling the story in the records.

See? It's kind of a convoluted setup. But you start to get into it, because the stories the old guy tells are really engaging. The first one is about a young, hipster talk show host in Montreal in the late '70s and especially focusing on the time of the FLQ crisis. This guy is the older cousin of the old guy telling the story and he ends up, through his own selfishness and misguided politics and the power of his show, causing a casualty of the revolution. It all hinges around an interview he has with an german professor who was in Germany during the second world war.

The bulk of the book is actually the German professor's story. He has to work for the Nazis in order to survive and to protect his loved ones, including his jewish fiancée he met in England. It's a gripping, brutal and sad story of a society turned to aggression and insanity. Just as a story, the professor's narrative is really satisfying. But it also reminded me how frightening (and how possible) the rise of Nazism was. The whole point of the book is to tie this in with the separatist crisis in Québec, to compare the similarities in youthful anger and uncontained social energy and how it can be used by forces beyond the understanding of the people in the street. He doesn't make a direct analogy between the Nazi movement and what happens in Quebec. He's not condemming anyone in particular, just pointing out warning signs. He takes it to an even higher level by putting it all in the context of a world totally destroyed as terrorism and the fascist response by governments reach a global level. Fairly prescient, no?

So in the end, though complex, the structure made sense to me and I walked away both a satisfied reader and someone with a renewed sense of the delicacy of our society and how easily it can tumble into chaos and then fascism. Here is a great quote from near the end of the book:

The entire world is screaming for freedom and is sincere about it, but they don't understand what freedom is. The most violent screamers are really screaming for release from freedom's discipline, which means they are screaming for somebody to return them to slavery.

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