FOR A LONG time the most attractive published document from early Canada was Word from New France, Joyce Marshall's translation of the letters of Marie de I'Incarnation. But it has been out of print for years, and no one has ever persuaded Oxford to reissue it. Now there's a new contender in Ramsay Cook's edition of The Voyages of Jacques Cartier (University of Toronto Press, 272 pages, $50 cloth, $19.95 paper).
Cartier's tale comes from very far away. Catastrophic disease and war soon obliterated the nations and peoples he visited in the 1530s. The details of his story were ancient history in Champlain's day, just 70 years later.
The Voyages shows Cartier dropping into Canada like a Renaissance astronaut. Once the navigational details are done, he lists marvels everywhere ("a fish large as a porpoise, white as snow, found nowhere else in all this river and country except at this spot" - the beluga of the Saguenay estuary). And in turn the people marvel at him. There's no spookier scene in Canadian history than the encounter of the people of Hochelaga with the alien French. They are fascinated, they are ceremoniously polite. They bring him their sick to heal, and Cartier dutifully lays on his hands.
At least that's how Cartier tells it. We'll never have the Hochelagan version. In his introduction, "Donnacona Discovers Europe," Ramsay Cook debates how best to read this one side of a "dialogue of incomprehension." It is a sparkling essay, guided more by new literary theory than old historical glosses, and it makes Europe seem as foreign as the New World.