The City as Living Library

by Jack Ruttan

Originally published in PLACE PUBLIQUE

City of Forgetting, by Robert Majzels, The Mercury Press, 1997. 168 pp. $16.95.

Another brick goes into building the myth of the city of Montreal with Robert Majzels' new book City of Forgetting. In general, the places it describes aren't the most magical that can be imagined: Place Ville Marie or the Chalet on Mount Royal, for example. The people too are those you would rarely give a second glance at, or even make an effort to avoid. Still, the book charges them all with magical significance. It finds mystical crosses -- confluences -- everywhere. The most obvious of these, but not the only one, is the giant illuminated cross overlooking Mount Royal, at the foot of which most of the characters take shelter in a homeless persons' camp.

The people too are mystical. Outwardly, they are street inhabitants. They have characteristics that may remind the reader of real people in this neighbourhood. There is the harmonica-playing lady who used to haunt the Prince Arthur pedestrian mall (what happened to her, I wonder?), and the man with a cart and dog. However, the book pictures them as incarnations of persons from literature and history. Che Guevara is here, as is Clytaemnestra from The House of Atreus. The architect Le Corbusier pedals the cart and dog around, seeking to remake the city.

It is overstating just a little to call this Majzels' version of Ulysses, with Montreal standing in for Dublin. While in James Joyce's book the larger-than-life figures were made into everyday people, here, it seems to go the other way. These really are Guevara, de Maisonneuve, et al, experiencing the world as homeless people. Sometimes the story reads like an incredibly detailed version of the delusions such real-life individuals sometimes have. But bibliographic references are brought in to suggest accuracy, and several pages of endnotes show that many of the words used here are taken from the books in which these people can be found.

Here we have another example of what is sometimes called a postmodern novel. This is a book that exposes its roots as a made-up work of fiction, and occasionally stops the story cold to take side trips into areas of research the author has an interest in. Perhaps this has been happening so often lately because many of our authors are academics and teachers. This book in particular is almost explicitly like a wander through the library, taking random volumes off the shelves.

These criticisms do not stop City of Forgetting from being a poetic and beautifully composed piece of writing. Digressions and all, Majzels has woven a seamless tapestry that holds the reader until the end. However, there is a coldness to the book that may give one qualms after finishing it. Using some of the traits of real street people seems questionable, when the novel does nothing but make them part of an intellectual exercise. These people have their stories too, but the book that will tell them is waiting to be written.

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