- Marie Vautier (Author)
New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Coral Ann Howells
Vautier investigates the relationship between myth, history and identity through her study of six novels from English-speaking Canada and Quebec written during the 1970s and 80s, in an ambitious attempt to define Canada’s distinctive version of postcolonial literature. The great strength of this book is that it canvases questions concerning nationalist politics and cultural identities through a comparative study of texts in both English and French, thereby highlighting the multiple versions of historical "reality" and different political agendas within bilingual multicultural Canada. In constructing her theory of New World Myth, Vautier interestingly adopts a double focus which pays attention not only to differences between English-Canadian and Québécois texts but also to their common concern to resist and revise European master narratives (in which she includes biblical and classical myths as well as European histories of the New World). This study shows how some contemporary Canadian novels are engaged in narrating the nation, for this is not about post-nationalist arguments but rather about post-European and postcolonial arguments, engaged with reconstructing national myths in a postmodern context.
The theory of New World Myth is formulated in the first chapter and developed in subsequent chapters, each of which offers comparative readings of two postmodern novels (one in English and one in French). The same six novels recur throughout, worked into different patterns in an investigation of the New World Myth concept. The structure allows for close textual analyses embedded in a sustained discussion of postmodern fictional techniques plus a range of political, cultural and historical questions relating to competing Canadian nationalisms. Written in English, this book is evidently for anglophone readers, and speaking for myself as someone most comfortable in English, I learned a great deal about the history and shifts of emphasis in Quebec’s political agenda. Consequently I was better able to appreciate the ways in which the selected Québécois novels might be read as responses to specific political crises and ideological tensions. I am grateful for the critical balance which Vautier’s study provides across the two literatures.
The reader is tempted to ask how this theory of New World Myth (duly acknowledging Margery Fee’s use of the term in her 1986 essay on Tay John) differs from Linda Hutcheon’s "historiographic metafiction." After all, the same questions are raised here about postmodern challenges to the authority of traditional histories and there is the same focus on the storyteller’s creative imagination, the same narrative self-consciousness, the same techniques of bricolage and irony. But New World Myth is different in its emphasis. While no less suspicious of history and imperialist agendas, it is concerned not only to reinvent New World histories but also to invest them with a significance which formerly attached to biblical and classical myths. Vautier’s frame of reference inevitably uses dimensions of the sacred, the supernatural and the allegorical traditionally associated with mythologizing, though these new myths make none of the traditional claims to universality. On the contrary:
This New World Myth is anchored in historiography; it is highly political; it is concerned with both epistemological uncertainty and the need to know, and is intent on imaginatively reclaiming the past while flaunting its awareness of the processes involved in this act.
Every chapter emphasizes particular strategies for New World myth-making in specific historical and ideological contexts. Discussing Rudy Wiebe’s The Scorched-Wood People and Jacques Godbout’s Les Têtes à Papineau, Vautier foregrounds the role of the narrator as self-conscious myth-maker, with narrators who are themselves fabulous figures: Wiebe’s Pierre Falcon speaks from beyond the grave, while Godbout’s "Charles et François Papineau" is a monstrous bicephalic talking head(s). The chapters on Jovette Marchessault’s Comme une enfant de la terre and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan engage with challenges to Christian belief systems, whether it be Kogawa’s allusions to Buddhism or Marchessault’s parodies of biblical myth and Catholic ritual together with her incorporation of Amerindian mythology. With George Bowering’s Burning Water and François Barçelo’s La Tribu, Vautier returns to the role of the creative artist as reinventor of history and New World myth-maker.
This brief sketch does not do justice to the diversity of theoretical issues raised by the detailed textual analyses, and it is this contextual aspect which makes the most persuasive argument for the importance of these myth-making metafictions. The major questions relate to national and cultural identities with their different inflections in the anglophone and francophone contexts. While considering issues of race and immigrancy in anglophone novels, Vautier pays particular attention to the representation of Amerindians in Québécois texts and to the topic of métissage, one of the forgotten features of New France’s colonial history which is foregrounded in the novels of Marchessault and Barçelo. Barçelo’s text with its blurring of divisions between Amerindian tribes and twentieth-century Québécois provides, as Vautier suggests, not only "the forum for a postcolonial re-examination of Franco-European approaches to "primitive" cultures," but also (and quite remarkably for the early 1980s) "a space to discuss Quebec’s struggle with internalized historical-political myths" of a homogeneous collectivité. In many ways Barçelo’s text is the emblematic illustration of the theory of New World Myth, combining the deconstructive strategies of historiographic metafiction with magic realism in its textual fabrication of a hybridized New World inheritance, so "reimagining the past in a postcolonial, postmodern and post-European manner."
Vautier’s book is well researched and convincingly argued, and in a truly postmodern manner she does not claim comprehensiveness but chooses her texts to illustrate the discontinuities within Canadian historical narratives of nationhood. I would suggest however that the project of refiguring European myths in contemporary Canadian fiction might sometimes work in an opposite way to Vautier’s theory. I am thinking of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride or Alice Munro’s story "The Children Stay," where allusions to biblical and classical myths and to literary legends arguably extend the resonance of Canadian crises beyond the local into a global context. But that is another side to the story and would make a different book.
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MLA: Howells, Coral Ann. Mythologizing History. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #167 (Winter 2000), First Nations Writing. (pg. 149 - 151)
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