Oh, Canada. What a complex little country we are. And there are authors determined to make us laugh about ourselves even as they jab a knife into our soft fleshy bits. Repeatedly.
The Lennoxville Library has two impressive works of homegrown political satire on the shelves. Scott Gardiner’s King John Of Canada (2007) is a fun and funny novel, riffing off the headlines. A scandal has engulfed the Governor General, and the ruling Tories need the brouhaha to die down. What better idea than to replace the foreign head of state with a homegrown monarch? Even better, let’s use the lotto to anoint our new royalty.
And so, King John is crowned. Infuriatingly, he’s from Toronto.
Our chatty memoirist is Blue, a transplanted American who is best friend, speechwriter and political advisor to His Majesty.
This is an impressively imaginative work with national scope, and filled with jokes about what makes a Canadian. The king’s personal guard are dubbed the Fighting Ospreys, and one of John’s more successful campaigns seeks to end the tyranny of goose poo. The story skips from present to past and back again, which makes for an engaging read. Blue is chatty, in exile, mourning his friend, and trying to write a book before he freezes to death. (The cottage isn’t winterized.)
John’s ascension was a surprise to everyone. Luckily, he’d already thought a few things through: “People think that politicians exist to solve problems. They are in error. Politicians exist to create problems. Human beings require a constant supply of things to adapt to. The function of politics is to supply this demand.”
With this axiom in mind, John was determined to be more than a figurehead, and had no fear of exercising the power that he had no business invoking. And by the time he was done, the Canada that we had left was a very different place. Who needs Quebec, after all? And Natives really need to settle down.
As a reader, you’ll laugh. Then shift uncomfortably in your seat. There are sections that will make you angry, too. Satire must make readers uncomfortable, or it is a failure.
The book covers the king’s reign, and his complex style of governance. As Blue says of his monarch: “It was one of his favorite themes, how human nature leans simultaneously to wildness and civilization, and how government must always be aware of this.”
A better-known novel is The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis (also published in 2007). It is more firmly set in the halls of the House of Commons, where a political attaché is sent off to find a sacrificial Grit to run in the Ottawa suburb of Cumberland. The opponent is the Tory finance minister, who has a lock on 90 percent of the vote.
This is a far more linear narrative. The first half follows the no-hope campaign of one Angus McLintock, a flatulent, literature-loving Engineering professor who agrees to run in exchange for a few months off work – and an absolute guarantee he won’t be elected.
The nuts and bolts of election skullduggery are considered, although this time the political attaché spends his efforts destroying his own candidate.
And party politics get a drubbing: “Well, during an election period, seemingly rational people commonly take leave of their senses and replace reason with hope. Political parties have practiced the mass delusion of their members long before the Reverend Jim Jones took it to the next level.”
Unfortunately, things go terribly, terribly wrong. The second half of the book follows McLintock as he wends his way through the complexities of his new job as an MP. (Quebec New Democrats, take note.)
The Best Laid Plans won the CBC Canada Reads competition in 2011, and also picked up a Stephen Leacock humour award.
Both books get a bit earnest about Canadian politics in places, willfully mistaking ideology for “common sense.” Both our heroes are stubborn and obsessed with principle (though King John’s are compromised in order to get the right thing done, while Angus McLintock skips happily from success to success without any compromise whatsoever. Ha!). Both men are white, of a certain age, and rather determined to represent a certain kind of Canada. Both blend in a heady dollop of media madness.
And both authors insist that a small group of dedicated people can bring real change to the country.
One of the great things about Canada, though, is that we also care about the regional, and the local. And so as we celebrate our 147th birthday next week, remember that change for the better is something that starts at home.
– Eleanor Brown, June 27, 2014