||Painting The Lily
by Norman Sigurdson
LILY COOLICAN, the heroine of the two previous novels in Heather Robertson's The King Years trilogy, is nothing if not a namedropper. Witness this snippet of dialogue (based on an actual incident with Paraskeva Clark) from near the beginning of Igor, the final volume of the trilogy.
I remember once when Norman Bethune
"You knew Dr. Bethune?"
"Knew him," Lily blinks, "I f---ed him!"
In the first volume, Willie: A Romance (1983), we discover that Lily had secretly been married in the 1920s to none other than William Lyon Mackenzie King, and she and he rub shoulders with a host of prominent political personages of the day. Then in Lily: A Rhapsody in Red (1986) we are treated to Lily's conversion to Communism in the 1930s during which she meets and interacts with a host of historical characters from Sir Harry Oakes and the Prince of Wales to Harry Houdini and At Capone.
The opening scene of Igor: A Novel of Intrigue holds fast to this tradition by having Lily, now 87 years old and a member of the
Senate, go out for some groceries and bump into the president of the United States. It is the spring of 1981 and Ronald Reagan is in Ottawa for a visit. Lily happens across Reagan and Trudeau in a scrum of reporters and reaches into her shopping bag and pelts the president just above the heart with a raw egg.
This is only the first improbability in a novel that is little more than improbability after improbability. (Strictly speaking, of course, the first improbability is Lily the ex-Communist having been made a senator at all, by John Diefenbaker no less, mostly, it seems, because she and Olive had the same taste in hats.)
There is certainly nothing wrong with improbability in fiction; having an author make you accept something that you refuse to believe can be a joyous thing indeed. Nor is there anything at all dishonourable about having historical characters mix with fictional ones. E. L. Doctorow did it wonderfully in Ragtime (a novel Robertson mentions three times in Igor in case we miss the point), as has Timothy Findley in The Telling of Lies.
In fact, most of what makes Igor such a mess worked very well in Willie, less so in Lily. The trilogy seems to have run out of juice as it rounded the final bend and the clever historical parallels, the wildly outrageous coincidences and the mystique of Lily, the wild woman who knew (or f--ed) everyone and went everywhere, has worn pretty thin. We seem to be getting egregious name- dropping, paranoid plotting, and unbelievable encounters for their own sake, not for any clear artistic purpose.
The Igor of the title turns out to be Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet cipher clerk who defected from the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa on September 5, 1945 with a batch of papers purporting to blow the cover off a secret Soviet spy ring in Canada, thus firing the first salvo in the Cold War. The plot takes a while to get around to Gouzenko, but when it does the portrait of him comes straight from John Sawatsky's excellent oral history Gouzenko: The Untold Story (1984). Robertson does credit Sawatsky in the
acknowledgements, but her Gouzenko simply does and says pretty well word for word what he does and says in Sawatsky's book; here he does and says them with and to Robertson's fictional characters.
Apart from Lily, the main heroine is a television reporter in her late 30s who came to Canada in the '60s with her draft-dodger boyfriend (who is now a Canada Council bureaucrat). Jennie Hutchinson becomes interested in Lily after the egg-throwing incident is covered up by the C.I.A. and Lily, Jennie, Jennie's ex-husband, and Lily's "honorary grandson," an Indian video artist named Burlington Skyway, all become involved in a Byzantine plot involving Gouzenko, the K.G.B., and the C.I.A.
There are some ironies in Robertson's timing. At a time when we are seeing unbelievable changes in the Communist world almost daily, she has written a novel that tries to tell us that the Cold War is still raging. Her view of Canada's place in East-West tensions is naive and sensationalistic. She tells us nothing new or interesting about Gouzenko, in fact makes no effort at all to probe his psyche or make him real for us, and does not seem to know how to handle the oncevibrant Lily as a near-nonagenarian. Half way through the book I found myself having to suppress an uncharitable thought that perhaps Robertson should have stuck to the rhyming names for her trilogy, and called it Willie, Lily, and Silly.