31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 21: “Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada” by Ray Smith

May 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada

The title story of Ray Smith’s 1969 collection is a postmodern collage that neatly puts the boots to the kind of earnest Canadian nationalism running rampant in this country at the time. Subtitled “A Centennial Project,” the story traverses the nation from Cape Breton to British Columbia, with detours to Poland along the way, in the process touching on subjects as diverse as American hegemony, Expo ’67, and the literary technique of The Bible. Clearly, Smith’s story is not a typical piece of Canadian naturalism.

Commenting on the story in his introduction to the Biblioasis Renditions edition of the book, Smith says, “Large political enthusiasms (and there were lots about in the late sixties) seem to me to suffer loss of clarity, complexity, subtlety. ‘Cape Breton …’ was my attempt to retrieve and fix some nuances in a valid balance.” Readers unsympathetic to what Smith calls “soi-disant originality” may find little apparent balance in his story, which appears on its surface to be a series of unconnected, technically discrete scenes. But “Cape Breton …” evinces a deep structure, not on the level of plot (there is no plot to speak of) but on a thematic level. The balance in Smith’s story results from the involutions of his sustained examination of power dynamics on several fronts: personal, national, and international.

This being a work of postmodernism, it is incumbent upon Smith to comment on his process in the story, and to draw his reader’s attention to its essential fictiveness. He does this in a snippet explaining how a friend “conned” him into a discussion of his interest in “compiled fiction” (this section, narrated in the first person, is associated with the author, although there is no specific indication that the narrator here is Ray Smith). In this section of the story, the narrator addresses the reader directly and then goes on to point out that the technical form is not new, but dates back at least as far as Ezra Pound. “Other precedents might be Francis Bacon’s essays, the Book of Proverbs … the whole Bible …” “Hey, that’s great,” the friend says. “But I hope you aren’t expecting to sell any of these compilations.”

This is at once a sly acknowledgment of a reticence on the part of Canadian publishers (and readers) to embrace technically challenging material, and an example of Smith’s humour, which is one of his most potent attributes. It is deployed throughout the story by way of biting irony (the reference to “Anti-American slogans like; ‘Give me liberty or give me death!'”) and absurd juxtapositions (“For Centennial Year, send President Johnson a gift: an American tourist’s ear in a matchbox”). There is also savage political commentary disguised as frat-boy badinage:

See, the way I look at it, your problem is that Joe Yank is the biggest kid on the block. Now I know you’re pretty friendly with him – him being your cousin and all – but someday he’s going to say, “Johnny Canuck, my boot is dirty. Lick it.”

Now then, are you going to get down on your hands and knees and lick or are you going to say, “Suck ice, Joe Yank”? Because if you do say, “Suck ice,” he’s going to kick you in the nuts. And either way, you’re going to lick those boots. It just depends on how you want to take it.

Those words, written in 1967, seem to have an uncomfortable resonance from the vantage point of 2010.

Indeed, much of “Cape Breton …” involves an examination of the power imbalance between Canada and the U.S. “Americans,” we are told, “are loath to fight without a divine cause,” which is becoming more apparent with each passing day. “With their divine cause,” Smith goes on, “the Americans would destroy our Armed Forces in one week.” And should we decide to fight back, what are the options open to us? Blowing up the Peace Bridge or mailing an American tourist’s ear to the U.S. president. Smith suggests that in the face of American hegemony, Canadian nationalism is a patent absurdity. Like the anonymous couple who decide that it’s better to declare their love for one another “even if it’s a technical lie,” Canadians are forced by circumstance of geography and economic and military might into a Hobson’s Choice: “Would you rather be smothered under a pillow of American greenbacks or cut open on a U.S. Marine’s bayonet?”

The Canadian geopolitical situation is juxtaposed with that of Poland, which has “survived despite the attentions paid them by their neighbours, the Russians and the Germans.” The Polish patriot Count Z. dies in battle, while Baron Otto and Prince Igor take up residence in his old office to partition the country over a snack of liverwurst and vodka. In Smith’s allegorical conception, patriotic self-actualization ends in death. (In this regard, note the absurd futility of the scene between Bill and George, who represent a comic debasement of the self-defeating antagonistic relationship between putatively friendly nations.)

In the end, Smith seems to imply that blind Canadian nationalism is like the virgin Judy, who goes to a party with the explicit intention of losing her virginity. Unable to find a willing suitor, she heads out into the street, where she is violently raped. Fortunately, her virginity is later restored “in a Venus-wide bath,” allowing her to repeat the process over again. Through it all, Judy is convinced that “she leads a sane, healthy, and well-balanced life.” And that, my friends, is one of the most damning indictments of the Canadian condition in our literature.

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