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book review

My Stories, My Times

By Jean Chrétien

Random House Canada, 288 pages

Jean Chrétien was on a river cruise in Siberia, and his hosts were trying to drink him under the table. It was a year after Canada beat the Soviets in that 1972 hockey series, and the vodka-drinking was competitive. When tipsy Russians challenged four boozed-up Canadians to a swimming race in the freezing-cold river, Mr. Chrétien stripped to his underwear, and, at the sound of a pistol, dove in. The Russian racers, still dry on the boat, laughed their heads off.

But once back on board, Mr. Chrétien, refreshed by the river water he’d swallowed, stayed on his feet till the ranking Russian was carried out drunk.

It’s not hard to imagine the former prime minister telling stories like that around the dinner table. That’s the etymology of My Stories, My Times, the 84-year-old Mr. Chrétien’s collection of anecdotes and reflections. His grandson, Olivier, now 36, had heard his tales, and suggested he write them down. This is Jean Chrétien holding court.

The book’s charms lay in its authentic voice: it is Jean Chrétien telling stories, not a ghostwritten memoir. Its flaws come from there, too. The English translation is at times clunky, or literal – sometimes, if you can translate it back into French, you’re more likely to hear Jean Chrétien speaking.

And then, if you don’t want to hear Jean Chrétien holding court, you won’t like this book.

Don’t read it if you are, say, Paul Martin. Mr. Chrétien’s tribute to his wife, Aline, includes a gloat that Mr. Martin’s supporters offended her so much with efforts to oust him that she encouraged his run for another term. The sponsorship scandal is barely mentioned in passing.

But this is not a memoir − Mr. Chrétien published one of those in 2007. “It’s not my history. It is my stories,” he said in an interview at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel.

“In the beginning, it was not to be a book,” he said. He was chronicling stories, or writing reflections, in longhand, mostly at the dining-room table. “And you know, at the beginning, it’s tough – the first 20 minutes. But suddenly, you’re in your subject,” he said. “My wife would say, ‘Jean, you’ve been sitting there since a couple of hours.’ ”

Another prime minister, Stephen Harper, just published his own tome, warning the conservative movement to come to grips with rising populism. Each book fits the prime minister: Mr. Chrétien was more instinctive, making pithy judgments formed by experiences. He was an anecdotal prime minister.

He recounts how British prime minister Tony Blair sought in vain to persuade him, over a beer at a summit in South Africa, to join the invasion of Iraq − which he reports as a story about the importance of judgment in politics. There are casual swipes at Donald Trump, the story of how he almost ordered a plane shot down on 9/11, or singing O Canada for the Queen (badly), and yes, actual fish stories.

There is only one Russian drinking story, but a surprising sprinkling of Russians. Most Canadians don’t know that his six years as Indian and Northern Affairs Minister included forging polar relations with Soviets long before he befriended Boris Yeltsin. The eclectic Russian tales run a gamut of instinctive, Chrétienite political judgment: he assesses whether Russian president Vladimir Putin interfered in U.S. presidential elections (he did); provides a simple, shrewd explanation of why the autocratic Mr. Putin remains popular (while Westerners celebrated the fall of communism, Russians endured misery, and Mr. Putin reawakened national pride); yet he implausibly muses that Western allies might have averted the Cold War by accepting the Soviet Union into NATO.

'In the beginning, it was not to be a book,' the former prime minister says of My Stories, My Times – a new memoir that originated as a series of memories and thoughts, recorded longhand at Chretien's dining-room table.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There’s unassuming insight woven from long political experiences. He starts a reflection on Hérouxville, the village not far from Mr. Chrétien’s hometown of Shawinigan that sparked Quebec’s debate on wearing religious symbols by adopting a code of conduct for immigrants in 2007 – but then winds it into the story of Joseph Guibord, the 19th-century Quebec printer who was refused burial in a Catholic cemetery (his body moved twice) because of his secularist views.

“If you are as zealous about secularism as in other days they were zealous about religious things, you know, it’s a lack of freedom and all that,” he said. But he wouldn’t tread into Quebec’s current politics: “I’m not there any more.”

He was there a long time. His Quebec political stories include a teenage meeting with “le chef,” premier Maurice Duplessis in the 1950s, running in 1963 against Réal Caouette’s Créditistes, being courted by René Lévesque to join the provincial Liberals, and a Mexico vacation with Jacques Parizeau − before the latter became a separatist politician.

Through it all, there’s a mostly positive assessment of progress, democracy and Canada, from a PM who didn’t seem to lose sleep over problems and ended his speeches with an upbeat, “Vive le Canada.” His stories are history – a kind of written-down oral history. One-sided, probably sometimes imperfectly remembered, but the often surprising personally penned tales of a long-running actor on the Canadian stage.