Ask foreigners what they know about Canada, and the response is likely to be, "Nothing." Press them, and you might elicit the following: "SARS, the ice storm, and the October Crisis." And yet the kidnapping of British trade consul James Cross and the murder of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte are defining moments in Canadian history.
Strangely, the Front de libération du Québec doesn't figure largely in Canadian arts and letters. The late Brian Moore wrote a Truman Capote-style novel, The Revolution Script, about the kidnappings, in 1971, but it has long been out of print. Robert Lepage's satirical 1998 film Nô, which juxtaposed bumbling FLQ terrorists with an amateurish troop of Montreal actors staging a Feydeau farce in Japan, won a prize for the best Canadian film at the Toronto International Film Festival, but didn't make a major a commercial impact.
That's why it is odd to find three novelists, Aimée Laberge ( Where the River Narrows), Michel Basilières ( Black Bird) and Giles Blunt ( The Delicate Storm) using those long-ago events as key dramatic elements in new fiction this spring. Even odder, last week the celebrity panelists on CBC Radio's Canada Reads jury chose Hubert Aquin's controversial 1965 novel Prochain Episode, or Next Episode -- about an imprisoned Québécois separatist who is writing a novel about terrorism and espionage -- as the book all Canadians should read this spring.
Why now? Mostly I suspect it is timing. The 30th anniversary of the October Crisis was commemorated three years ago in a number of televised and print documentaries. The topic was in the air, and probably unconsciously triggered creative muscles in novelists of a certain age. All three are in their early 40s, and so, old enough to have absorbed the shocking news reports in 1970. Since it takes about three years for fiction to work its way through the publishing process, that may explain why the FLQ is emerging as a trend in Canadian literature.
Laberge was 12 and living in Quebec City when Laporte was kidnapped and murdered. The news bulletin is conflated in her memory with the image of her parents returning from a hunting trip to New Brunswick with the head of a moose tied to the hood of the car. "It was bloody, the eyes were dead, it was disgusting," she remembers.
All the while her parents were unloading the car and working on the moose carcass, she could hear the news reports on radio and TV. "It made for quite an extraterrestrial experience," she says, "all of that meat and the blood and the FLQ on the news." It is a memory that forms the basis of a climactic scene in Where the River Narrows, her first novel.
She didn't set out to do a book about the FLQ, she says of her family history about the lives of women in Quebec from la survivance to the Quiet Revolution and beyond.
What she wanted to trace was the huge change that has occurred in Quebec society as women have come out from under the yoke of the Catholic Church.
She first tried to deal with Quebec independence through her contemporary protagonist Lucie (the daughter of a separatist father and a mother who swooned for Trudeau), who is a researcher at the British Museum in London. But, she says, she "got nowhere." Then, as she began poking around in her own image bank "of those guys and those women coming back from the hunt," she found a way to make it work on the page.
"I suppose people outside Quebec and Canada thought we were all Felquistes and terrorists, but there was a whole range of opinions," she says. "It was much more layered and much more interesting."
The way she depicts this layering is to have the hunters argue over terrorism, independence and the suspension of civil rights as they carve up the kill, and their wives bicker over the choicest bits of meat.
Laberge, a francophone graphic artist who left Quebec when she was 25, met and married TV journalist Kevin Tibbles when both were working at the CBC in Toronto.
"My whole life became more and more English," she says in her Québécoise accent, about her decision not to write in French. As a writer you absorb everything around you, she says, and as your reality changes, so does your language.
What didn't change, though, was the literary landscape she carried around in her head. "What I write about is the place I left. And the place I long for is the place I make up every day in my mind -- this genetic landscape, this mythical place -- but I will never go and live back there."
Despite his name, Michel Basilières's first language is English, and in contrast to Laberge, he is embracing French as an adult. He grew up in Montreal in the area east of McGill called the Ghetto, and lived there until he moved to Toronto with his wife Barbara about seven years ago.
Rather like the Desouche family in his novel, Basilières grew up in a house in which one language dominated and the other was suppressed. His father is bilingual and his anglophone mother still doesn't speak French. Also like Laberge, Basilières did not set out to write a book about the FLQ. Rather, he tried to put everything into the book that conjured up Montreal for him. The result is a blend of fact and fantasy that owes allegiance to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 19th-century symbolist writer Marcel Schwob and the gothic novels of Angela Carter, and which borrows liberally from science fiction and horror.
His love for books that "are fantastic and unusual" meant that historical accuracy was the last thing on his mind. For example, he has a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking Péquiste premier (who runs over a pedestrian after a New Year's Eve celebration) in office in the same era as the language laws and the murder of the Cross figure.
The reader accepts this muddling of the facts because Basilières has created a fictional environment in which the bizarre and the outrageous are as nondescript as the mailbox on the corner. Having looked around in both English-and French-Canadian literature, he couldn't find anything that represented Montreal the way he saw it. So he simply used everything he remembered.
"The October Crisis didn't come out of nothing," he says. Demonstrations, bombings and other subversive acts had been the backdrop to his entire life. The fact that they culminated in the imposition of martial law is associated in his mind not with fear, but with Halloween. It was his dad's job to take him and his siblings trick-or-treating, and for some reason he drove them to Westmount. "Every door we went to," he says, "was guarded by a soldier."
Giles Blunt remembers precisely where he was during the October Crisis: living in Rochdale College in Toronto. "Studying," he says with a laugh about life in the drug-and-sex-soaked residence, "same as everybody else."
Blunt had a friend at the time whose father had some connection to Ottawa, and he came to buy the line his friend was peddling about a huge insurrection. And Trudeau, according to Blunt, played the role of the firm, decisive leader perfectly. "You couldn't have cast him better," he says. "It was just that he was wrong."
Blunt, who earned his credits working as a TV scriptwriter in New York, had always wanted to write about the October Crisis, but couldn't figure out a way to do it until his agent, Hellen Heller, suggested he plot a crime novel about an old terrorist. She made the suggestion just as people were gearing up to commemorate the anniversary, and Blunt began thinking about Jacques Lanctôt and the rest of the conspirators. "I like the human side of crime stuff and what people are really like," he says, an admission that should be obvious to fans of John Cardinal, Blunt's lovable but fallible detective from the Algonquin Bay Police, in his award-winning novel Forty Words for Sorrow and his new title, The Delicate Storm.
"The more research I did, the more interesting it got," says Blunt. "It was front-page news around the world, it was the first political kidnapping in North America, and the fallout was minimal in terms of what happened to the people who did it. A couple did 12 years -- for a murder? and for convulsing the country? -- and now they are fully integrated into society."
The problem for Blunt was connecting the FLQ to Algonquin Bay, or more properly North Bay, the town where he lived from age 10 to 17, and the setting for all of his crime fiction. But even that proved doable: North Bay has a large French-speaking population, and forms one point of a triangle connecting Toronto and Montreal.
Blunt read Moore's The Revolution Script, as well as newspaper and magazine accounts, and watched the made-for-TV anniversary specials. He's still taken by a segment with James Cross, whose name he changes in the novel along with Pierre Laporte's, out of a curious regard for their families.
"At the end of a long interview with him, Cross says, 'The irony is that I was a trade consul, I had no power whatsoever.' And I said to them, 'If you think Her Majesty is going to raise a finger to save me, you are sadly mistaken." ' " Cross, according to Blunt, then reveals an even greater irony -- he is not even English, he is Irish. All of that, and they picked a victim from a country that had suffered far more from English "oppression" than anything the FLQ could imagine. It's more than ironic, when you think about it. It's pathetic.