The CommunistĘs Daughter

by Dennis Bock
324 pages,
ISBN: 000200528X

Post Your Opinion
Cross-sectioning Norman Bethune
by Doug Brown

In The Communist's Daughter, Dennis Bock takes a controversial subjectłthe sweeping story of the medical innovator, social maverick, and anti-fascist Communist, Norman Bethunełand approaches it from an angle that renders that story narrower in scope, but difficult to tell. Bock is interested principally in exploring not Bethune's political significance, but his all-too-human life. In Bock's novel, Bethune recounts his personal history through introspective, confessional epistles, written from war-torn China during the last months of his life, to a hypothetical daughter that Bock has Bethune fathering in the midst of the civil war in Spain. In spite of this somewhat unlikely scenario, Bock has written a novel that, while playing freely with historical facts, illuminates his original subject through a sustained meditation on what the private emotional life of someone like Bethune might have been. In Bock's Bethune, "we have the re-imagining of a life in all its crepuscular beauty."
Bethune's story has cried out to be told from the very beginning, and the history of its tellings is as significant as the story itself. The earliest fictional portrayal of Bethune, T.C. Worsley's Behind the Battle, published in England in 1939 while Bethune was still alive, transmogrifies Bethune in Spain into a vain lout named "Rathbone." But Bock's novel reveals that the telling of Bethune's story is far from complete. Just as Rathbone provides a satirical contrast to subsequent reverential treatments of Bethune's character, so does the uniqueness of The Communist's Daughter become clearer when it is read not just as an exploration of Bethune's life, but also as an innovative departure from previous representations of Bethune.
We can thank Mao Tse-tung for ensuring that Bethune's story not only survived, but acquired currency both as a story representing its time, and as a Canadian tale of universal significance. Written just after Bethune died of septicemia at dawn on November 12, 1939 (how ironic and tragic it is that the good doctor and veteran of the Great War suffered his final agony on the first Armistice Day of the Second World War), Mao's hagiographic "In Memory of Norman Bethune" assured the continuation of Bethune's story when it was made compulsory reading for millions of hapless Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. Since then the governments of China and Canada have made it their business to preserve Bethune's legacy, but official interest in Bethune has been largely an expression of economic and political pragmatism.
Bethune's messy story, however, doesn't conveniently suit the propaganda purposes of either government, and it is Bethune's devoted biographers and a series of writers, filmmakers, and actors who, before and after the 1960s, revealed the deep ambiguities of the man's nature. The best known biography is fellow-travellers Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon's The Scalpel and the Sword (1952), but before that Bethune had already inspired a novel in China and a film proposal that came to fruition in 1990 with Donald Sutherland's possessed performance in Bethune: The Making of a Hero. There was a flurry of biographical and dramatic representations of Bethune through the 1970s, but the fascination with the man and the permanence of his story in the Canadian imagination had already been anticipated in Hugh MacLennan's 1958 novel, The Watch That Ends the Night. That novel's crucial character, Jerome Martel, though not directly based on Bethune, is significantly reminiscent of him. Dr. Martel is presented as the 'epitome' of the 1930s, assuming a place in MacLennan's historical imagination that Bethune has come to occupy in Canadian culture generally.
Bock has taken up the figure of Bethune against the background of competing versions of his story and an evolving sense of what it means. The novel's originality arises out of its unusual perspectivełBethune's own. When dealing with the better-documented later years of Bethune's life, Bock shies away from much that has concerned other writers. This novel is not preoccupied with Bethune's medical innovations, ideological development, or political activism. Flaws in Bethune's character such as his irascibility and his reputation as a womanizer and a drinker, are underplayed. Instead, The Communist's Daughter illuminates Bethune's psychological make-up, by offering plausible accounts of Bethune's relationship with his pious mother and his domineering evangelical father. Bock also imagines what Bethune's experience of the defining generational trauma of the Great War might have been.
There are so many what-ifs, and quite probably so much of Bock himself in The Communist's Daughter that any light this novel sheds on the historical Bethune falls only obliquely. Bock's is a self-conscious narration in which the fictional doctor's recounting of his own story to his unknown daughter mirrors Bock's retelling of Bethune's story to his future readers, which may include the sons to whom Bock dedicates his novel.
Bock offers a set of reflections on interrelated themes that deepen our sense of what Bethune might have been like. There is an ongoing meditation on the complete intimacy with the experience of death that Bethune acquired through epidemics of influenza and tuberculosis, experimental approaches to surgery, and especially his service in three wars. Bock's Bethune becomes not a 20th-century ideologue, but an archetypal healer and companion of the dying, and the novel leaves one with a sense of the profundity of a medical doctor's experiences. It also examines how self-understanding proceeds from personal failures and an awareness of the incongruities between one's public persona and one's private involvements with parents, friends, lovers, spouse, and child. Bock gives us Bethune's personal life as Bethune might have come to see it and in doing so brings us face to face with the untranscendable finitude of even the largest of human lives.
Readers familiar with Bethune may wonder why Bock introduces several fictional elements into a story that is already too rich and wide-ranging to be easily told. Historical characters like Frank Pitcairn, Agnes Smedley, Bishop Roots of Hankow, Robert Capa, or Zhou Erfu flit through this book; the form and scope Bock's novel afford him little room to flesh them out, so that unless a reader already knows their historical significance, they cannot contribute as much to the story as Bock might have wished. Because of the inherent formal and narrative restrictions of these epistolary monologues, Bock labours at times to introduce not only the requisite historical information, but also dramatic tension into Bethune's confessions. In a few instances, the effort involved becomes obtrusive, rendering improbable both the novel's dialogue and the conceit of its intimate epistles.
Readersłthose familiar with the competing versions of Bethune's story and those who aren'tłwill decide for themselves the extent to which this novel works for them. Bock does succeed in creating an effective narrative structure that frames Bethune's reminiscences and personal reflections. Opting for a quieter, less spectacular approach to Bethune's story means perhaps that the integrity and thoroughness of Bock's treatment becomes evident more gradually than would be the case had The Communist's Daughter been written as an epic historical novel. Bock's grasp of the historical period is sound, but his principal interests are the very personal dimensions of Bethune's life. The consistency and credibility of Bock's rendering allows us to listen anew to an important voice from the 1930s, but this time it is primarily to hear the speaker plumbing his own emotional depths and confronting his own imperfect heroism. ņ

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us