The Real and the Other
- Philippe Jacquin (Author)
Les Indiens blancs: français et indiens en Amérique du Nord (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles). Libre Expression (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Mathias Carvalho (Author) and Jean Morisset (Translator)
Louis Riel: poèmes amériquains. Éditions Trois-Pistoles (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Albert Braz
Some writers can be rather reticent about the main objective of their works. That is not at all the case with Philippe Jacquin, who says in the opening line of his book: "L’Amérique a une histoire française." Ironically, the chapter of French history Jacquin explores in his fascinating study deals with the numerous Frenchmen who, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, fell under the spell of North America’s Aboriginal cultures and disappeared into them. That is, he devotes his work to those Frenchmen who voluntarily eschewed their Europeanness and became "White Indians." But as he concludes his work, "l’anthropologie des sociétés coloniales offre à l’historien une réflexion sur sa propre société."
According to Jacquin, a respected French scholar who specializes in the relations between Natives and newcomers in North America, groups like the coureurs de bois, fur traders, and the Métis can all generally be classified as White Indians. These are groups characterized by "l’amour du vagabondage, le goût de la liberté, l’alliance avec les indigènes. Tous sont à l’origine du mythe du transfuge, de l’Indien blanc, de l’homme civilisé qui redevient ’sauvage,’ comme si hors d’Europe notre culture ne pouvait s’affirmer que par la force, la moindre faiblesse nous mettant à la merci des autres civilisations." Jacquin, who traces the phenomenon of the "White Indian" to that very first coureur de bois, Etienne Brûlé, also claims that it is particularly pervasive among the French. Whether or not one accepts his thesis, it is difficult to dispute his contention that one of the most compelling aspects about "Indiens blancs" is that "ils doutent de leur propre culture au moment où elle triomphe, sûre de son bon droit et de sa légitimité à asservir les autres peuples."
As mentioned, among the groups that Jacquin considers White Indians are the Métis, the mixed-race people whose nineteenth-century leader is the subject of Mathias Carvalho’s Louis Riel: poèmes amériquains. First published in Rio de Janeiro in 1886, and now available in a bilingual Portuguese-French edition, Louis Riel is actually two books in one. The first part comprises Carvalho’s poem and a French translation by Jean Morriset, a Quebec geographer who has written extensively on Riel as an "American writer." The second part includes a long essay on Riel by Morisset, an essay by Riel on the Métis of the North-West, and Riel’s long poem on Sir John A. Macdonald.
Carvalho’s poem is not particularly accomplished. Indeed, its main distinction is that it is the first known work to claim Riel as a pan-American liberator, a northern companion to the U.S. abolitionist John Brown and the Brazilian proto-nationalist Tiradentes. To quote one of its stanzas (in my translation):
RIEL had visions! In his feverish brain
He could feel the gallop of the splendid
Of the new ideals of civilization;
And saw Privilege struggling and dead,
Over the immoral body of that dreadful
The great festival of the Sons of Reason.
Carvalho, an obscure Brazilian poet who seems to have vanished from the annals of even his own country’s literature, is not content to idealize Riel as a selfless patriot. In a characterization that would probably corne as a shock both to Macdonald and to the historical Riel, the poet presents the David of the New World essentially as a Canadian nationalist. In Carvalho’s words, Riel is the "fearless fighter for Canadian independence." However, for a work composed in the 1880s, it seems surprisingly unaware not only of Confederation but also of the fact that the "sacred boreal eminence" called Canada also has a sizeable English-speaking population.
Not all the problems in Louis Riel can be attributed to Carvalho. For example, there are numerous grammatical and stylistic errors in the Portuguese section of the poem, which almost certainly are due to the transcription. Also, the Brazilian original is entitled Poemas americanos I: Riel, the first part of which translates simply as American Poems or Poèmes américains. Morisset, however, elects to use the spelling "amériquains" in order to stress the améri-canité of Carvalho and, especially, of Riel. Morisset’s emphasis on the New Worldism of Riel is part of his attempt to claim the Métis leader as Canadien rather than Canadian. As Morriset explains in his preface, he deeply resents Riel’s "nationalisation posthume à une British America devenue fallacieusement Canada, et incarnée par tous ceux qui, à Ottawa et ailleurs, auront ordonné son exécution."
Morisset’s frustration with the appropriation of Riel by English-speaking Canadians is understandable, but not unproblematic. First, the response to the Métis leader by French Canadians/ Québécois has not always been an uncomplicated one. After all, it was the Franco-Catholic community that first demonized the politician-mystic as an apostate and to this day continues to be ambivalent about him. As Morriset concedes, while "la mort de Riel n’a jamais été aussi vivante au Canada anglais," his "vie, en effet, n’a jamais été aussi virtuellement morte au Canada français." Second, in order to re-establish Riel as a pan American liberator, Morisset transforms him into an apostle of republicanism. This strategy is extremely unconvincing in light of Riel’s life-long involvement with the Conservative party and his identification with the French royal family. Moreover, one may be willing to rationalize Carvalho’s messianic republicanism, considering the time and place in which he was writing. However, it is much more difficult to accept the equation of republicanism with enlightenment, particularly by a contemporary writer who stresses the need for a New World way of seeing. As Mario Vargas Llosa has stated, in several American societies "it was during the Republic (in the nineteenth century), not during the colony, that the native cultures were systematically exterminated."
- Souvenirs et découvertes by Jeanette den Toonder
Books reviewed: Les secrets de la Sphinxe: Lectures de l'?uvre d'Anne-Marie Alonzo by Roseanna L. Dufault and Janine Ricouart and Momo et Loulou by Louise Desjardins and Mona Latif-Ghattas
- Divergent Perspectives on Grace and Memory by Sharanpal Ruprai
Books reviewed: Valley Sutra by Kuldip Gill, Enter the Chrysanthemum by Fiona Lam, Fish Bones by Gillian Sze, and Reticent Bodies by Moez Surani
- Organic Re-membering by Jes Battis
Books reviewed: Blessings by Bernice Laver, Bones About to Bloom by Shari Andrews, Concrete and Wild Carrot by Margaret Avison, and Snow Formations by Carolyn Souaid
- Wolf, Star, and Ash by Joel Deshaye
Books reviewed: Wolf Tree by Alison Calder, Combustion by Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Contrary Infatuations by Dymphny Dronyk, Last Scattering Surfaces by Gil McElroy, and Radius of Light by Joshua Auerbach
- Vies précaires by Mariloue Sainte-Marie
Books reviewed: Les espions de Dieu by André Roy, Le Livre Des Absents by Hugues Corriveau, and Agonie d'André Breton by Jean Yves Collette
MLA: Braz, Albert. The Real and the Other. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 154 - 155)
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