WHILE MONTREAL ISN'T Dubrovnik yet, people here may be forgiven for feeling a hit beleaguered.
With unemployment reaching Newfoundlandic proportions, the recession is beginning to look like the Depression without public works. The press is full of talk about where to set the boundaries of an independent Quebec and whether force is an option in deciding Quebec's future. On the social circuit, the chatter among anglophones turns inevitably on whether to stay or go - although given the state of the country's economy, that choice may not last.
Truly we are cursed with living in interesting times. So where are the chroniclers of this anxiety-ridden scene? In surveying Quebec's literary landscape, what seems an obvious question turns up a less than obvious answer.
Certainly, there is no shortage of polemical outbursts, what with Mordecai Richter thundering away last fall in the New Yorker to an American audience about the absurdities of living in this French-dominated corner of North America (his book on the subject is due this year). And Reed Scowen, a former member of the National Assembly and current chairman of Alliance Quebec, gave us A Different Vision, an anglo-pride call to arms. Meanwhile, William Johnson, a political columnist at The Gazette, wrote - in French no less -Angtophobie: Made in Quebec to prove that Quebecois literature is rife with resentment of English-speaking culture.
But what are the novelists, poets, and playwrights saying? And why are French-speaking writers so quiescent on the subject of Our national neurosis? Here there are subtler forces at work, proving that the close-Lip picture of a place often looks different from the one that appears on the national news.
For one thing, people here get along in day-to-day life in a way that contradicts the scary headlines. French- or English-speaking, recent immigrant or vieille souche (old stock), they are too busy getting on with their lives to spend time hand-wringing or hating their neighbours. For anglophones and ethnic communities, this attitude represents a salutary adjustment in thinking. The byword is integration - that is, fitting in with the francophone majority without succumbing to assimilation. Bilingualism and trilingualism are the norm. So, when the playwright Marianne Ackerman's L'Affaire Tartuffe - about l8th-century British soldiers in Montreal who stage a play by Moliere to attract the attention of French-Canadian women -is written and staged in French and English, it is assumed that the audience is comfortable in both languages. By the same token, in today's overheated political climate, the play's use of metaphor and historical reference is a typically wary way of commenting on the interdependence of Canada's founding cultures. As L'affaire Richter proved, it doesn't take much to bring the communal pot to a boil.
Language barriers are also coining down elsewhere. Tundra Books, Meridien, and Libre Expression are among the Montreal publishers operating in English and French, and Guernica Editions publishes in three languages: English, French, and Italian. A recent Gazette book section featured only French-language books on its front page, and Le Devoir devoted a page to "a journey into the heart of the other solitude," i.e., the Toronto literary scene.
That cultures share the same living space is a boon for translators. In Montreal literary circles Sheila Fischman is as well known and respected as the authors she translates (Yves Beauchemin and Roch Carrier, among others). The English-language publisher Vehicule Press has built a small industry out of bringing lesser known French voices to the attention of English readers with translations of works ranging from the memoirs and tales of the 19th-century storyteller Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspe to the poetry of the former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister Gerald Godin.
Integration is also evident in French-language literature. Echoing a national trend exemplified by the success of Rohinton Mistry, Cecil Foster, and other writers recently arrived in this country, the Prix de Montreal, one of Quebec's premiere literary prizes, was won last fall by Emile Ollivier, who is from Haiti, as is Dany Laferriere, whose second novel was translated into English last spring. And on the French best-seller list for many weeks last year was Un Ete sans aube, a novel about an Armenian family cowritten by jean-Yves Soucy and the Armenian writer Agop Acikyan.
This is not to say that all is rosy on the co-existence front. There is still much wilful ignorance of the rest of Canada in French Quebec, a tendency reflected in the dearth of English-Canadian literature in translation while English-language books from other parts of the world regularly appear on the French bestseller lists.
For its part, the anglophone literary community remains hugely afraid that responsibility for cultural funding will devolve to the provinces, just as Quebec is urging in the current constitutional debate. Publishers and writers fear the loss of the Canada Council, perhaps less because of the notion that they might be treated unfairly by Quebec than because of the possibility there wilt he less money to go around for all. Off the record, many francophones share the same anxiety.
Hard economic times affect both literary communities in equal measure. The GST has been devastating, here as elsewhere, its impact exacerbated by the limited economics of scale to be had in the smaller French- and anglo-Quebec markets.
One bit of fallout from the recession last year was the nonappearance of Quebec,, English-language publishers at the Salon dot Livre, Montreal's book fair, which has become the largest event of its type in Canada. Funding to attend, which in years past came from the Canadian Book Information Centre, the marketing and promotion arm of the Canadian Publishers' Association, was unavailable. This year, however, the Salon's organizers promise a concerted attempt to bring the English-language publishers into the fair.
Fatigue is a likely reason why writers are staying away from direct confrontation with the political issues of the day. For francophone intellectuals, nationalism was the rallying cry of the '60s and '70s. Since then, politicians and big business have pressed nationalism into the service of promoting Quebec Inc., their corporatist vision of Quebec, which of late has fallen into disrepair. The literary writers, meanwhile, have moved on.
Typically, both the fiction and non-fiction winners of last year's French-language Governor General's Awards wrote on topics far removed from the political arena. The fiction winner, Andre Brochu, an ardent nationalist best known for his essays and poetry, won with a novel about a man burdened by the emotional baggage of his failed love -affairs. The non-fiction prize went to Bernard Arcand, brother of the film-maker Denys Arcand, for a book about pornography.
Anglo writers, too, have other agendas. Some, like Kenneth Radu, winner of the 1991 QSPELL Award for fiction with A Private Performance, prefer the intimate scale of domestic life. Others, like Merrily Weisbord in Our Future Selves, tackle universal social issues such as aging. Still others, such as Daniel McBain, a transplanted Saskatchewanite living in Montreal, extravagantly praised for his first novel, Art Roebuck Comes to Born with a Tooth, draw inspiration from their roots in other parts of the country.
Engaged in worlds of their own creating, the interests of both French and English writers are diverse, too much so to be pressed into the service of a single cause. Still, I would love to see a well-crafted comedy of manners about our times in Quebec.