||Never Cry Minx
by Howard Engel
Farley Mowat, using more than thirty books with his name on them as a spade, has dug a deep niche into the snow-bank of Canadian letters. He has dug it himself, and there is no-one who belongs there beside himself. With his personal mixture of travel-writing, history, conservation, natural history, spell-binding, and humour, Mowat stands alone, perhaps growing more curmudgeonly with every appearance. The wonderful thing about him is that he is forever Farley; he makes himself at home, sees life steadily from the solid persona of his creation. He is no man's fool and his observations hold a substantial, no-frills good sense about them that have made him one of the most compelling and enduring of Canadian writers.
In the spring of 1953, Farley and his first wife Frances flew to London, then rented a little Hillman Minx convertible (nicknamed "Liz") with the plan of revisiting the scenes of his World War II battles. 1953 was the year of the conquest of Everest, and the Coronation; Eisenhower sat in the White House and Churchill in Number Ten. The big movie of the year was From Here to Eternity, the big book The Adventures of Augie March. We were singing "Cry Me a River", as the Mowats made their way south from a London swelled to bursting with Coronation tourists. They crossed to Paris, and went on through France and Italy, then back again.
On the level of travel-writing, the memoir, perhaps assisted by more recent observations, stands steadily on the same high ridges occupied by Theroux, Newby, Dobbs, and Fermor. But the book is more than an account of the scenery, the road, inns, and pleasant drinking companions encountered along the way. These, of course, are there in agreeable abundance, but there is another disturbing dimension to this memoir. The book has a driven quality about it. It reads as though the Mowats were on the run, or were being pursued by invisible forces. It reminds me of the Hemingway fishing story where the young author's intensity in his pursuit of trout is entirely inappropriate to the occasion. When critics explained that it was the fact that the fisherman was a returned soldier, veteraned out of the war in a shell-shocked body, the intensity of his fishing is explained. Here, too, Mowat's tourism is intense beyond the norm. He is haunted by the ten-year-old memories of the dead men he served with and the sounds of 88s screaming over his head. On the flat canal lands near Ravenna, he meets civilians who lived through the inferno of attack and counterattack over their fields. In the Vercors region, south of Lyon, he hears stories about the stubborn resistance to the forces of occupation mounted by the local inhabitants and the unrelenting reprisals the German army executed among them. At Ortona, where many Canadians fell, Mowat cannot tarry, the reality is too overwhelming, the memory still green. He rushes off to Positano, where he finds a primitive but self-sufficient pottery still making amphorae for men in the hills above. Here he and Fran find peace for a time, in a place that seems to thumb its nose at Caesar, Mussolini, and all.
In his writing, Mowat exhibits, nay, rejoices in, a happy Calvinist truth-telling: he doesn't like German tourists cluttering up the parking lots at Monte Cassino, at least partly because he believes that they have missed the lesson of the twenty to thirty thousands of tons or bombs dropped on the town and monastery. He resents that money was spent twice in resurrecting a defeated Germany, while other Kaiser-and-Nazi-ravaged countries were left to struggle out of the shell-holes as best they could. He is tough enough to risk driving "Liz" through spring storms over the Great Saint Bernard Pass, but not stout enough to look at some of the sights he came to see. And who can blame him? When horror refuses to be hidden behind moss and new election posters, the alternative is to turn Liz around and get out of there.
Farley Mowat is a good guide. He takes both his language and his surroundings seriously, but is sensible to such nuances as opening times at the local pub, and has an instinct for discovering diverting hostelries along the way. Then he bundles on to the next attraction, whether it be a Roman villa in the Cotswolds or a cave high in the Vercors range with spent cartridges inside. The book abounds with the roulette of the road, such as when Farley was taken for an English priest in mufti by an aroused hotel operator east of San Remo. One misses the chance of showing him the mosaics of Ravenna, when they were so close, but one hopes that he has since added them to his collection of memories to be brought out and shared another day.