A unique perspective on power

(Photo: Kate Szatmari)

There is little doubt that John Ralston Saul, BA69, DLitt’97, has led an intriguing life, from his early business accomplishments (he helped Maurice Strong set up Petro Canada), to his more recent occupancy of Rideau Hall as former governor general Adrienne Clarkson’s vice-regal consort. While Saul is perhaps best-known as the author of provocative non-fiction like Voltaire’s Bastards and A Fair Country, he first made his mark in the world of writing with the novel The Birds of Prey, an international bestseller. He recently returned to fiction with Dark Diversions, a black comedy about the foibles of the international jet set. The book was originally published in French in 1994, but Saul reworked it for its recent debut in English. He spoke to McGill News contributor Jake Brennan, BA’97.

Just how “fictitious” is the world you create in Dark Diversions? At one point you have your narrator write, “There is a way of telling a story so that no one sues. Anyway, people never recognize accurate portraits of themselves drawn by others, because they see themselves quite differently.” In your experience, is that true?

I think that is absolutely true. All novels are based upon real people. It’s not reportage, but it comes out of what you experience of the world.

At a launch party in Paris for my first novel, The Birds of Prey, a woman I knew quite well came up to me furious, saying “You put my father in your novel, this is absolutely terrible, how dare you.” So, two points. The first is that she was referring to a character who had tortured and betrayed people and was corrupt. And secondly, it wasn’t her father. So there I was, my eyes getting bigger and bigger, thinking, “So this is what she thinks of her father!”

Obviously, all of these people are real in the sense that we’ve seen these kinds of things. But you’re not painstakingly putting in a real person; that’s not what you do. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important, I think, to try to write about a period that’s a little bit in the past. You have time for everything to settle. The surface is what you see in the beginning; the surface is us right now. Twenty years from now, it might be that something more interesting is there, but you have to let it all settle down.

Sometimes writers will take an experience they’ve had with someone and simply change the name, or create a pastiche of characteristics from different sources. But in this book, you also have historical figures you identify by name – all the dictators.

I also have John Cage in a walk-on role. I dragged out all sorts of John Cage interviews and found dialogue of his that might fit. I changed it a little bit, but it’s basically John Cage dialogue taken from somewhere else and put into his mouth in this scene. The dictators never said anything interesting, so there’s absolutely no point in quoting them.

All my novels have in them phrases or sentences taken from very well-known works. It’s done on purpose, [as] a tribute. And I’m always waiting for people to notice. “Oh look, he’s got a bit of The Odyssey stuck in the middle of this conversation,” or “that description is straight out of The Watch that Ends the Night.” Nobody ever notices it, and it’s very frustrating to me.

The genre of the picaresque novel generally strings together anecdotes whose only link is that the protagonist, in this case your narrator, experiences them all. I’m guessing one reason you wrote this novel was as a way to relate some of the best characters you’ve met and yarns you’ve accumulated over the years.

I do think the picaresque novel is a really interesting tool. The novel was born in societies that were rather late medieval, where there wasn’t this idea of the middle-class family holding together. Or they were born in that very confusing period, the eighteenth century, when everything was changing and nobody knew what was what. And so writers, philosophers, poets, talk about the way society was falling apart, and the way they did it was the road movie. You know, the guy got in a car at one end of Highway 66, got out at the other end, and all these things had happened along the way. That’s the origins of the novel – The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, but also Candide, Tom Jones.

In some ways this book is a little bit like Candide. All these awful things happen, but meanwhile there’s this sense of "Just keep moving, it’ll be okay, don’t get involved, cultivate your garden."

The narrator seems intent on pointing out the banality of rich people’s lives – their gossip and intrigue is no different from that on The Jersey Shore or General Hospital, only with better costumes and props. Would it be fair to say that you share the satirical, anti-elite views of your narrator?

Elites always exist. There will always be elites. They take different forms at different times. To be against the elites is a losing cause because there will never be a society without elites. In fact, the moment you graduate from university, you’ve already moved into the lower echelon of it, you know?

With a book like this, does a novelist offer readers a glimpse into how the “one percent” live?

One of the characteristics of this "professional society" we live in is that everybody’s been hived off, so that once you come out of university, it’s "you go over in that building and you look at livers, and you go over in that room and you look after post-modern Western European literature" – that sort of thing.

I think novelists have become much more locked out, which has had an effect on what people write, because what can they get access to? In a funny sort of way, I’ve always been an exception to that rule, and not because of family connections or anything; I come from army officers in Canada – humble. It’s just that I’ve always been very, very curious, and I’ve always been able to be wherever I wanted to be. That has nothing to do with going to Rideau Hall. In fact, in Rideau Hall, we spent most of our time, whenever we could, in the Arctic and [visiting] smaller communities.

What I really notice is there hasn’t been much good writing in North America about money, capitalism, the market, power. People have a lot of difficulty writing about it because they don’t know it. The people who can write don’t know about it terribly well, because they’ve been hived off. But in a way, I do, and for me it’s quite easy to write about it. I always find that when I’m talking about money in literature, I have to refer back to Zola’s novel L’argent, which is the last really good book about it. That’s 120 years ago!

Concerning your work as the president of PEN International, what do you feel the greatest dangers are for writers in the world today? What concerns you the most?

We still have over 800 writers on our Writers in Prison list, so that’s just an endless slog, getting them out, getting them recognized, keeping them alive. There’s a growing trend, certainly in Latin America, toward just killing them, so that you never get a chance to defend them. In Mexico we’re almost up to 100. Earlier this year we sent a big delegation to Mexico, and we actually found a way, I think, to be convincing to the Mexican government – the president signed a law. I’m about to lead a delegation to Turkey, where there about 85 writers in prison.

We’ve also just completed a charter of rights on digital freedom of speech, an attempt to deal with the fact that everything is up for grabs. There are some great things that go along with the new technology, but you have to admit that in the last 11 years, enormous protections of privacy, which is key to freedom of expression, have disappeared. There are cameras everywhere watching people. Governments and private corporations are keeping track of, and even owning, what people are writing and saying on the Internet. In terms of the Western world, these are the biggest challenges to freedom of expression since the Second World War. And we don’t even know where it’s going.

Is there any chance there might be further editions of the Extraordinary Canadians series you edited for Penguin?

I would love to do another six [books]. We’ve talked about it, and maybe we will. I have a nice little list. We could round out certain things that are missing.

Are you able to divulge any of the people on your list?

I think that Oscar Peterson would be great. I would love to see a double Borduas-Riopelle edition. Emily Howard Stowe, the first woman to practice medicine in Canada, was a very interesting figure. Then there is James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia. He’s fascinating. He was part black, and his wife was Métis.