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Canada Mordecai Richler gets his glory: Montreal renames library after him

The Gazebo on Mount Royal which was to commemorate the late author, Mordecai Richler in Montreal, March 12, 2015.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

What Mordecai Richler would have done with material like this.

The Jewish son of a scrap dealer becomes a literary giant, and dies. The befuddled and broken city he needled relentlessly and helped make famous tries to rename in his honour a urine-soaked alley near one of his former drinking holes. His family respectfully declines. The city names a gazebo after him. It soon falls into such disrepair the homeless won't even sleep in it. They can't – the floor has rotted away.

Finally, on Thursday night, 14 years after Mordecai Richler's death, a solution: In a French borough filled with the nationalists he regularly sent up, the city renames a library filled with French books housed in a converted Anglican church. Henceforth, the works of a satirist who showed no mercy on authority will be shelved at the Bibliothèque Mordecai-Richler in the glow of five-metre stained-glass windows depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

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"A library in Mile End. It's perfect," Mr. Richler's son Jacob said in a simple and dignified ceremony at Montreal City Hall. "The fact it's located in a former Anglican church somehow makes it a little more so."

It may just be that 14 years were needed, according to the author's wife, Florence Richler, who beamed throughout the ceremony.

"I think we don't usually appreciate anyone who stirs the pot and makes trouble. We can have them at our dinner table and be thoroughly entertained, but I don't think we can appreciate them and be articulate about it," Ms. Richler said. "But years later, it's safer. After all, he can't talk back. They're safe."

Over his career, Mr. Richler's satirical aim shifted from his own Jewish community to outside elites and nationalists. The range of his targets is often forgotten in Quebec. He once wrote in The New York Times that if Canada was a house, Edmonton would be the boiler room. The city went nuts.

When Mr. Richler died in 2001, the wounds of the second Quebec referendum were still fresh, and he had been one of the more biting combatants. Mr. Richler had no time for nationalists of any stripe, but the Quebecois version was a primary target of ridicule.

At Montreal City Hall, Gérald Tremblay was mayor for most of the interregnum between Mr. Richler's death and Thursday night, and he administered the city with seemingly one guiding principle – avoiding controversy. Taking on nationalists to properly honour the city's famous literary son would have triggered the kind of volatile chemical reaction he lived to avoid.

So instead, an alley and a gazebo were proposed, to the satisfaction of no one except graffiti artists. "Quite shameful, wasn't it," Ms. Richler said. "But it did make us chuckle. I was naughty and offered to buy the paint."

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Denis Coderre became mayor 16 months ago, and stirring the pot is what he does. "It took 14 years for the city to pay homage to its enfant terrible of the Mile End. I'm sure Mordecai probably would have done a biting send-up of this absurd situation," Mr. Coderre said Thursday before unveiling the new plaque and naming Mr. Richler a Citizen of Honour.

Mr. Coderre said Mr. Richler depicted the city "flawlessly," a politician's compliment the author would have undoubtedly found alarming.

Noah, another of the three Richler journalist sons, said Montreal's "lively cultural landscape" has evolved tremendously in 14 years. Federalists and nationalists get along better, as do English and French speakers.

"I'm glad there isn't that arch-sensitivity any more," he said. "But I don't have any false expectations about memory. The real thing is the books. But despite his gruff exterior, Quebec and Montreal meant so much to him he would have been pissed off if somehow he was excluded from the communal memory on a permanent basis. He belonged to the place; it belonged to him."

For many years, it wasn't quite so obvious in the mainly francophone Plateau borough, the local administrative district within Montreal that includes Mile End and Mr. Richler's St. Urbain Street. Plateau Mayor Luc Ferrandez switched to English to gamely explain how his neighbourhood got past the "occasional conflictual relations between Mr. Richler and the local population" to make the difficult decision to rename the library.

Mr. Richler made Jewish Montreal known around the world and even inside Montreal, Mr. Ferrandez said. He also captured the essence of the Plateau as it was for more than a century: a way stop for the dispossessed, whether they were "Jews who had been run out of Europe, the Irish or Italians fleeing hunger, or the de souche francophone Quebeckers coming from the countryside seeking a paying job."

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In short, "he made us aware of our own complexity and variety," Mr. Ferrandez said. "Whatever his complex relationship with Montreal and Quebec, he was of it."

As for the broken-down gazebo that still bears Mr. Richler's name, Mr. Coderre had a final promise for Ms. Richler: "We'll take care of the gazebo too. Even if we have to go down to the hardware store ourselves, we will finish it."

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