Metafiction for the Marginalised

History and Revisionism in Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water; A Metafictional Analysis

This essay will compare the novels Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler and Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. Both novels share a common theme, a sense of history being rewritten by authors fully aware of the existing views on their subject matter. Historiographic metafiction involves games in which narrative reality and the reader's perception of them are confused. Metafiction uses a mode of writing that comments on its own activities: it is self-reflexive. For this reason, authors choose this style in order to comment on widely held beliefs, and possibly to change or rewrite some aspects of history. Both King and Richler have reason to desire an alternative viewpoint on their respective subjects. King deals with the twisted and corrupted history of the Native American, while Richler writes of the marginalised Jewish section of the population in Canada. A third-generation Canadian Jew, Richler was born on January 27, 1931, in Montreal, where his grandfather settled after venturing to Canada in 1904 to escape the Eastern European pogroms. Richler grew up in a self-contained world circumscribed by orthodoxy and by fear and ignorance of French and English Canadians. He attended Jewish parochial school, studied the Talmud and was expected to become a rabbi. All of these influences are apparent in Solomon Gursky was Here, and provide insights into his reasons for writing this book in a metafictional mode. Thomas King was born in 1943 to a Cherokee father and a mother of Greek and German descent. King grew up in Northern California, received his PhD in English literature at the University of Utah, and worked for a number of years at the University of Minnesota as Chair of their American Indian Studies program. King therefore had access and exposure to both sides of the story; his parents were of mixed heritage, and must have influenced King in their own distinct ways.


Green Grass, Running Water is a novel that introduces anachronistic details and names into a rendition of the traditional First Nations creation story. It deals with the white man's portrayals of the Aboriginal person as either a savage or as the sidekick to a white person. This white view of history has been perpetuated in English Literature by portrayals of Native peoples as "noble savages" or as children of a sort that must be treated with either pity or condescension. Thomas King is fully aware of the loaded cultural inferences he is dealing with in attempting to retell his peoples' story in a mode that places the story outside of the traditional white views of his culture. He uses magic realism, fairy tale imagery, and surreal happenings in order to subvert the widely adopted views of our society. For instance, his four old Indians are portrayed as traditional elders, but they are called by names that are loaded with Western cultural meaning. We have the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye, Ishmael and Robinson Crusoe- all characters that had aboriginal sidekicks. This appropriation is carried out by King in order to awaken our senses to the neglect that native characters have endured in white culture and the arts. In his short essay Shooting the Lone Ranger, King explains the role of his imagination in the portrayal of these icons of white culture: "All the way through my teens, the two sources of media entertainment I had were the radio and the Saturday matinee. Television had made its appearance, but not at my house. My aunt had a set and I would watch it every so often with my cousins, but I didn't much like it and I still don't. I much preferred lying in my bed at night, dreaming about my radio heroes, creating them for myself there in the dark. When many of the radio shows moved to television and we finally got a set, I was deeply disappointed to see what these characters looked like on screen."1. King had subconsciously created these characters in his own image, that of an Indian. These radio and television characters were powerful personae to the young King, and he subsequently became interested in this reversal of roles between these well-known personalities. King further states "I was not particularly fond of The Lone Ranger, but I listened to it. I wasn't concerned with the cultural biases the show presented. I wasn't even aware that there were any. And I wasn't upset that Tonto was the second banana in the series. After all, he was the only Indian on television or in the movies who didn't get shot at or killed all the time."2. His views on these characters was tempered by his imagination, Tonto becoming a pseudo role model because he survived when most non-white sidekicks were disposable heroes; or worse, villains. The way King sees the story of the Lone Ranger's appropriation unfold is thus "Sure, the rangers are ambushed, but none of them survives. Tonto and a friend get unlucky and stumble on the bodies, and, before they can get away, another group of rangers, or a posse, or a bunch of vigilantes comes riding up. The two Indians are trapped and have nowhere to go. They know that if they're found surrounded by dead rangers, they'll be killed. So, Tonto's friend, who is the quicker of the two, cuts a mask out of a black handkerchief, puts it on so no one can see that he/she is an Indian, and pretends to be a wounded ranger who has been rescued by a "good" Indian."3. The Lone Ranger is never a white person to begin with, he starts as an Indian, and Tonto becomes his sidekick simply by virtue of the fact that the Lone Ranger reacted more quickly to the perceived threat. This reading of the Lone Ranger myth gives us a great insight into King's world, it is populated with extra-textual characters plucked from their stories and transplanted into a new and strange world, a world replaying its own creation in an attempt to reclaim history that seems to have passed the Native Americans by. The other characters in his novel seem to be unaware of the goings-on around them, adding to the sense of upheaval that their lifestyles are causing.


Richler's book Solomon Gursky was Here is similar to King's novel except that the metafictional component deals with Jewish culture in and around Canada. It exposes and demystifies the Jewish mystique about money, relations, religion and friendship. The Gurskys originally made their money in the bootlegging business, and have dabbled in arms dealing, narcotics, prostitution and various sordid business deals. Theirs is a shady history, and one that had been portrayed in the popular media as one of glamour, riches and unreproachable charity. Only, there are a few people left who know more of the story than what was reported, and soon enough, the truth begins to filter out of the stream of false information. When a family has the power to influence editors and publishers, then their history will probably be unblemished and nearly heroic. However, Solomon Gursky's childhood friend, Moses Berger, is intent on uncovering the truth about Solomon's apparent demise. It is Moses who is responsible for the rewriting of the Gursky's history; a task that takes its toll on Moses, driving him to drink and despondency. Likewise, in King's novel, the change that was apparent throughout the novel is mired in the impossibility of reversing such a large part of the population's popular thought. Richler's work shows us a marginalised part of Canadian and especially Quebec history, one that, like King's story, is not taught in history classes. The Jewish heritage in Canada is shown to be one of extreme hardship, exclusion and yet, also one of success and ambition. The strange thing about Richler's novel is that it seems to portray many stereotypes that popular media has perpetuated. For instance, many of Richler's Jews are greedy and unprincipled, although some, like Solomon, have redeeming qualities that make them more palatable main characters. This sort of reverse metafiction is useful in allowing the audience to be aware of the stereotypes that Richler is dealing with. Many of the "facts" that Moses uncovers are from popular media such as newspapers and television. This helps to explain the focus on Jewish stereotypes, for the media unconscionably reported in a biased manner the goings-on surrounding the Gurskys. In a time when the Canadian government was not interested in allowing any more Jewish settlers onto it's plentiful and fertile land, one can assume that the general view the public took is one of isolationism and moral supremacy. This is indeed the milieu that fostered Richler's views on Jewish, French and English relations within Canada. He has stated that his own family upbringing was one of separation and lack of understanding of non-Jewish aspects of life, and in this context, Solomon Gursky emerges as a beacon of reconciliation. He is a bridge to the "other Canada", he embodies the idea that no matter how separate cultures may be, there is a connection at some humanistic level- be it one of greed or of saintliness.

 

In conclusion, these metafictional texts are representative of the state of post-modern writing in Canada. Their intense self-examination and inter-textual references give rise to a broader understanding of the history of marginalised segments of our population. However, this method of rewriting history is not without its specific problems. Metafiction places itself on the border between fiction and criticism. This borderline has been a point of convergence where fiction and criticism have assimilated each other's insights, producing a self-conscious energy on both sides. In criticism, this has meant an affirmation of literariness in its own language, an increased awareness of which critical insights are formulated within fiction. For fiction, it has meant the assimilation of critical perspective within fictional narrative, a self-consciousness of the artificiality of its constructions and a fixation with the relationship between language and the world. Tom Wolfe, a noted American author, explains the difference between a novel and a metafictional novel. "A novel's most important energy is social realism, the ability of fiction to portray the real world"4. Therefore, "metafictional self-reference to the godlike power of the author, appropriation of critical perspective and endless intertextual cross-referencing are only decadent forms of self-absorption which deprive the novel of that (see previous quote) important energy."5. Is this distinction important to make? I believe that it is, for when an audience participates in the enjoyment of a novel, they are implicitly trusting the author to provide a sense of reality, even if it is unreal. Metafiction however, purports to be historical, and bases itself on existing texts and media in order to give itself a representational standpoint. If this standpoint has been created by the author, even in order to "right" a previous "wrong", it blocks the reader from interpreting the work as either fictional or historical. Because self-reference is central to metafiction, it seems that metafiction itself is something other than fiction or history; it becomes a self-inclusive and necessarily exclusionary work, lacking reference and providing the audience with no more than an alternate viewpoint. The popular history seems undisturbed by these upstarts, their power is sapped by their weak structure and foundation.


 

Bibliography

From web page:

http://www.ucalgary.ca/library/SpecColl/richlerbioc.htm

 

From web page: http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postmodernism/Metafiction_outline.html

 

From web page :

http://www.bookwire.com/hmr/Review/tking34.html

 

Richler, Mordecai Solomon Gursky Was Here

Viking, Ontario, 1989

 

King, Thomas Green Grass, Running Water

HarperCollins Publishers, 1993

1From web page :

http://www.bookwire.com/hmr/Review/tking34.html

2From web page:

http://www.bookwire.com/hmr/Review/tking34.html

3Ibid.

4From web page: http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/postmodernism/Metafiction_outline.html

5Ibid.

Comments

Moses Berger

Moses was the friend of Solomon's children. He was not the childhood friend of Solomon himself.

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options


Check out Gangster Politics Montreal.