Personal Politics, Political Persons

Reviewed by James Gifford

“I am not the person to read these books; this is not the time to read them,” or so I thought . . . I read David Bergen’s Stranger, a novel about an adopted and stolen child, during the horror show of the Trump administration’s incarceration of infants and children in “tender care” prisons. I’m adopted and know my birth mother well. No unbiased reading is possible. Stranger’s mother-child centre is rife with missing and dead children, some treated casually and some with pathos.

Something like Lawrence Durrell’s pithy aphorism “one always falls in love with the love-choice of the person one loves” is afoot in Stranger’s tangled extramarital relations. The protagonist’s lover’s wife only orgasms with her husband’s lover. The novel paints its opening scenes around a fertility clinic in Ixchel, Guatemala, named for the Mayan goddess of midwifery, and after enough love to produce the child, love vanishes. The lover kills a Mexican child, although this boy seems an afterthought. Another boy dies for the protagonist’s journey to reclaim her child, and finally a detective is murdered while searching for the child. It’s a feast of death for one life. With border crossings, kidnappings, poverty, squats, gated communities, and class/race conflict bordering on the revolutionary, Stranger is a book for today even if its characters remain strangers to the reader.

Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights and Measures is a very different novel stylistically, but like Bergen’s, the book is driven by a conscience worrying over the unfolding of historical conflicts. Parr’s first-person narrative, set during the years after Lenin’s death, sees rising Soviet totalitarianism as Stalin consolidates power. Fittingly, the neuroscientist at the heart of the narrative, Tatiana, is reflected in a stream-of-consciousness form, so the novel stylistically mirrors its contents. It begins with an explosion and inexorably moves from conflict to conflict via dialectical thought. Unlike Bergen’s characters, Parr’s live and breathe, and the reader falls into the narrative quickly. The gripping plot is framed by political and philosophical inquiry with keen care for historical accuracy. For readers, the challenge is to unify the problems of scientific and social progress while both are subverted. Paired with a love story, the question seems to be how Stalinism finds a counterpart in science and the heart, with a will to domination and possession growing in both. Despite the dialectical concepts that generate so much of the novel’s movement, the characters are compelling as personalities caught in history, and less so as historical processes generating personalities. This sustained tension between plot and thought is the novel’s greatest success. The reader is pressed to ask challenging questions of history, science, and private life without ever shifting out of the gripping narrative. Uncertain Weights and Measures is clearly a novel of ideas, but it never reads like a treatise or thought experiment, though in a sense it is. Parr was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, and her first book declares the opening of an exciting career. Her voice is to be listened for in Canadian literature’s future.

This review “Personal Politics, Political Persons” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 129-130.

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