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The Trade: Dressing up colonialism


Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which I think is pretty neat considering the novel focuses on the fur trade, and as you might well imagine, the fur trade is not usually a sexy or glamorous topic. I say “usually” because Stenson does include some sexy-glam, but not nearly enough to titillate a Giller jury (though maybe I’m projecting here, as the Giller has recognized a fair number of novelists writing historical fiction: Margaret Atwood, Michael Crummey, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Anne Michaels, Wayne Johnston, Jane Urquhart, John Bemrose, Elizabeth Hay, and most recently, Joseph Boyden). So maybe my point is less that historical fiction is unpopular and unrecognized, and more that it is a triumph of the Canadian h.f. novelist. In this case Stenson takes what grade seven history turned into a mind-numbingly-dull exercise in remembering that the NorthWest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged in 1822, and turns it into a fascinating and engaging narrative of deceit, violence, betrayal and madness. 

My favourite part? When a cat adopts orphaned bunnies only to watch while the bunnies get eaten. A microcosm for the rest of the narrative that sees (somewhat unconvincingly innocent) good-hearted and sincere men turned violent, or become objects of extreme and disproportionate violence. Stenson ultimately lays the blame for the violence of the fur trade at the hands of “colonialism,” but does so by personifying the ruthless economy of colonialism in the HBCo governor. This sleight, whereby colonialism is not blamed for the devastation of the land, the buffalo and indigenous people, but rather the governor is, remains a problem for me.

That said, Stenson does well to draw attention to the complexity and pervasiveness of colonial violence by including a missionary and an artist-in-the-field-reporter (I should say that the epistolary narratives of the missionary and artist are distracting and awkward inclusions at the end of a narrative that has otherwise been third-person omniscient) as a way of gesturing to the ways colonialism, Christianity and archival “truth” (in the form of paintings and written histories) sustain one another.


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Historical Fiction

Banal Nationalism: Written before 9/11


I’m not sure how I feel about posting on non-fiction. Reasons for? I read a lot of it and much of it is interesting. Reasons against? I only ever read non-fiction for work and I’m not sure I like the idea of “Literary Vice” being related to work. Also, I have less to say about character consistency and plot engagement when it comes to non-fiction. Considerably less.

I read “Banal Nationalism” because I was curious about the ways individuals perform their national-allegiance (nationalism, if you will). The book was written by a sociologist (Michael Billig) in 1995 and makes a few interesting points (and then makes those same points over and over and over again), chiefly: nationalism is not confined to extremist states or burgeoning states; nationalism can be seen in everyday life in things like flags on buildings and national news sources that refer to “us” when speaking of the country-proper; the nation is still important in a “so-called” postmodern era. He had very little to say about individual performance of nation. Sigh.

The problems: very little distinction made among nation, state, and nation-state; passing remarks about “Quebec nationalism,” but nothing specific about nationalism in the Canadian context (a problem for me because I work on Canadian literature); the idea of counting hanging flags as evidence of the strength of nationalism in a given region is silly; it was written before 9/11.

This last point is certainly not the fault of the book, but all the same, I can’t help reading it with a certain frustration. Some of the comments about the distinction between patriotism and nationalism (patriotism is seen as something at best, good, at worst benign, nationalism is aggressive) and the supposed anxiety about the permeability of borders would be much strengthened by a post-9/11 critique of changed border security methods, the Patriotism Act (or in Canada, Bill C-36), the divisiveness of the war in Iraq (which functions contrary to Billig’s claim that wars show the strength of nationalism), for example. I should follow-up and see what Billig has said post-9/11, but frankly I’d be surprised if he sad anything more than “A lot of flags waved post 9/11. Flag waving proves nationalism is alive and well.” 

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