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The One True Subject
by Pat Barclay

THIS SLY YET SERIOUS novel follows the travails of its mysterious narrator as he sets out to piece together the life of Thomas Obomsawin, who`s accused of setting fire to his mother`s house and is currently awaiting his trial verdict on "the only public bench in Sioux Junction;` which he`s "liberated" from the Ukrainian Catholic Church. "Obom" is a celebrated painter, whose work hangs in prestigious galleries and museums around the world. But at last he`s returned to his roots in a one-horse Northern Ontario town, which began to fold when the American-owned mine shut down. As its most important native son, Obomsawin certainly deserves a biography; this latest one, in fact, will be the third. The first two biographies, as Poliquin`s Franco-Ontarian narrator explains, were written by "a professor from Toronto and a Montreal art critic;" one in English, the other in French. Both were stuffed with academic verbiage and both were untrue; it`s become clear now that the "real" Obom is a different man. But so, it seems, is the narrator, who eventually confesses that he is the author of all three biographies! He explains his motives obliquely, in this passage describing his subject: Obomsawin`s historical paintings, then, were a kind of apprenticeship. The portraits of nuns and aldermen that he did at this time were mostly opportunities for him to observe, to select, to decide what it was he really wanted to depict. He learned that the canvas of History is always tainted by half lies, and that truth in Art can only be coaxed out in fragments. As more truths about Obomsawin`s life emerge, the narrator discovers some truths about his own. The son of a fanatical francophone, he wrote his first book in English because "[m]y sisters and I are trying to kill...[my father],... each in our own way." Later, he was encouraged to resume writing in French by his wife, "who had succeeded in completely yanking up her Acadian roots:" ("Under the direction of my wife ...I developed a proper French accent. I smoked Gauloises and drove a beat-up Peugeot. What an idiot!") Now he realizes that the earlier books were written not by "the real me, the old, mute me that had been muzzled and hobbled by my education and my society..but by a kind of editorial collective that took a little bit from each of me, but ended up sounding like no one:" This time around, the narrator has found both himself and his subject. He will write Obomsawin`s story in the one language that reflects his own true identity: northern Ontario French. In the circumstances, it does seem a tad ironic for one to be reading Poliquin`s novel in its English translation by Wayne Grady. Interestingly, though, the novel only seems to gain by this extra layer of suggestion. Obomsawin of Sioux ]unction is a witty and significant story, embodying some important ideas about the power and meaning of language.

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