ACQL 2009 Winner – Maude Lapierre

Colonization, Miscomprehension and Juxtaposition: Majzels’ City of Forgetting as a Contact Zone

Robert Majzels describes City of Forgetting, a novel where historical and fictional characters live homeless in contemporary Montreal, by referring to Lyotard’s conception of “the clash of incommensurable spaces and times” (“Interview” 127). Lianne Moyes argues that these clashes, which the novel refuses to harmonize, are “productive” (“Homelessness” 128), because they enable the characters to form a fluid and mobile community  that resists hegemonic narratives and normative spaces (“Adjacencies” 186; “Homelessness” 131). Domenic Beneventi also views resistance as central to the novel, though he reads Suzy Creamcheez as the main figure of resistance. However, the tensions that arise in City of Forgetting are simultaneously productive and destructive, since the copresence within contemporary Montreal of characters who possess grand narratives that are specific to their time and geographical location allows for juxtaposition and subversion, but also leads to miscomprehension and erasure. Reading Montreal as a space layered by the discourses of modernity and colonialism can then construct the city as a contact zone marked by asymmetrical relations of power because of the manner in which the characters and the city assert their oppressive (colonizing) discourses. The novel is thus a conflicted space that cannot be resolved, since resistance to totalizing discourses is possible, but never sufficiently effective to prevent erasure or miscomprehension.

The phrase contact zone was coined by Mary Louise Pratt:  it is “the space of colonial encounters . . . in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact” (Imperial Eyes 6). A determining part of her definition concerns the unequal relations of power between the groups that come into contact, as one will inevitably attempt to assert its superiority over the other (6). The contact zone is then a space of conflict, as even though all the cultures involved engage in an “ongoing relationship” (6), the reciprocity between them is always “uneven” (Clifford 204). James Clifford has rearticulated Pratt’s theory in an attempt to examine the space of contact within “the centers rather than the frontiers of nations and empires” (204), which expands Pratt’s theory to include cultural contacts occurring through means other than invasion, such as the arrival of migrant populations. To Pratt, a contact zone is marked by “perils” (“Arts” 37) and “joys” (39). The perils constitute the difficulties the oppressed face when they attempt to make themselves understood by the dominant culture, since their underprivileged position implies that subaltern people who attempt contact often face “miscomprehension, incomprehension… and absolute heterogeneity of meaning” (37). Contact zones can then be the “sites of exclusion and struggle” (Clifford 212), since those who cross the boundaries set between their subaltern culture and the dominant one face the problem of making themselves understood by those who do not wish to comprehend. The contact zone also has its positive effects, or “joys,” as it creates a space where cultures can meet and get rearticulated in ways that would not have been possible had they continued to develop independently. The marginalized group can thus gain access to the dominant culture’s forms of representation in order to subvert them, using the conqueror’s language, which can involve the use of the oppressor’s traditional genres and styles, in order “to construct a parodic, oppositional representation” of the dominant culture (“Arts” 35). Transculturation, which is defined by the ability “to select and invent” (Pratt Imperial Eyes 6) from the dominant culture’s materials in order to create something new and specific to the subordinate culture, constitutes another productive phenomenon of the contact zone (6). From the centre of a single city, contact can allow for a reworking and questioning of the relationships between cultures, and serves to subvert the dominant culture’s hierarchical structures (Clifford 194) which were previously constructed as “natural” (204). The contact zone can then be understood as a conflicted space which is simultaneously productive and destructive.

In City of Forgetting, the city is marked as a colonial space through the various symbols within the landscape that highlight the tensions between colonizers and colonized. The cross on top of Mount Royal, which is echoed in the underground subway station of Berri-UQAM and in the shape of Place Ville-Marie, recalls that conversion was the initial purpose behind the European foundation of Montreal (Majzels City 38). As Sherri Simon points out, the discourse of modernity which is behind the design and creation of the subway system and that of the skyscraper is associated with colonialism because of their shape (Simon 200). However, the Mohawk voices Sieur de Maisonneuve hears add another layer of meaning to the symbol of the cross, interpreting it as a sign “of vengeance and murder” (Majzels City 139) and not as the act of faith and foundation it is supposed to represent (Moyes “Adjacencies” 171). This interpretation of the crosses emphasizes the violence of colonization, but also associates the discourse of modernity and Montreal’s  recently built cruciform buildings with that initial moment of conquest. Montreal’s colonial past then continues to “govern its architecture” (Beneventi 119), which emphasizes that the city itself is marked by a layering of discourses (Majzels “Interview” 127) that compete with each other in their attempt to define what the symbols stand for: the crosses are simultaneously associated with  religious fervour, modernity, and violent conquest. This meeting of discourses is also recalled in the tensions and asymmetrical power relations between the French and the English parts of Montreal, embedded within the structure of the city. “Le Montréal français” of Prince Arthur Street is represented as a “Disney-Paris” (Majzels City 32), a sterilized environment that allows tourists to experience the francophone culture of Montreal, and is set in opposition to the “Anglo Power” (87) of Saint-James Street. The asymmetrical relations of power between the French and the English are then evoked in the structure of Montreal, while the colonial markers of the early stages of the colony associate the discourse of modernity with the colonization of spaces.

Within this setting, the discourses the characters present qualify as colonizing because they are totalizing, asserted as universal and all-inclusive. Sieur de Maisonneuve’s discourse is the most overtly colonizing, since his desire to convert First Nation populations to Christianity assumes that his religion is superior to theirs, and that the Iroquois should thus abandon their customs. The First Nations resist that initial moment of colonization by “[waging] war against” de Maisonneuve (Majzels City 106), and by letting their voices emerge while the latter carries his cross around contemporary Montreal (Moyes “Homelessness” 128). However, the city itself chooses to remember and glorify, in the form of the monument at the Place d’Armes, the moment in which de Maisonneuve’s discourse is successful, inasmuch as it celebrates the moment in which he managed to assert his power over the ones he came to convert. Le Corbusier’s desire to impose a standardized system of measurement that is organically linked to the body of “an average male” (100) constitutes another attempt to assert power over others. As Ché Guevara points out in the novel, “power . . .  determines the standard of measurement” (99), which implies that the standard Le Corbusier presents will only be accepted if he finds someone, such as Rockefeller, who has enough power to impose it on the rest of the world. Furthermore, since Modulor is based on the height of “the average Frenchman” (100), it proves to be not only as arbitrary as the measurements currently in use, but also Eurocentric and patriarchal in its assumption that universality can be found in the body of an average Northern European male. Guevara’s desire for a revolution is another hegemonic discourse, mostly because of the violence which characterizes it. As Pratt argues in Imperial Eyes, the contact zone is characterized by the violence behind cultural encounters (6), and Guevara, who would “set fire to the cities, [and] flood the streets in blood” (MajzelsCity 91), evokes that violence in the manner in which he wants to impose his worldview. The historical discourses represented in City of Forgetting are thus colonizing because of the hegemonic manner in which the characters attempt to assert them.

The presence of homeless characters in the novel also underlines the powerlessness of those who do not belong within the constructs of the dominant culture, making the city a colonizing space inasmuch as it seeks to control the characters’ way of life. As Suzy Creamcheez is reinventing herself because she has forgotten who she is, she seeks to find her identity by focusing on her muscled legs, which she soon identifies as a “runner’s legs . . . running . . .  from the law” (Majzels City 36). As Lianne Moyes mentions, the characters and their encampment on Mount Royal need to be policed because they pose a threat to the established order (“Homelessness” 132). However, even though the encampment enables the characters to resist the normative rules of the city (Majzels City 34), the novel continuously emphasizes the characters’ inability to do so effectively. The shower curtains they use to build their shelter are necessary for their protection from the rain, yet their visibility proves to be a liability, since “the real danger comes from those in the pay of law and order and the Park Department” (13). Even a more normative space for the homeless proves to be under threat in City of Forgetting, as the women’s shelter to which the female characters escape comes under attack by a demonstration in favour of men’s rights. As unwanted inhabitants of the city, the characters have no resources to turn to in times of need, and the deaths of all but Suzy Creamcheez by the end of the novel emphasize their precarious position: they are not protected by the legal structures which assure the safety of citizens because they are notcitizens, since the only way to be considered as such is to have a fixed address (Feldman qted in Moyes “Homelessness” 130). Citizens can assert power over the homeless, while the homeless characters are only able to assert power over each other. Suzy can then take over a homeless man’s “spot” (Majzels City 77), while being herself chased away by the authorities later on. Montreal, as presented in Majzels’ novel, is then marked by asymmetrical relations of power, since the homeless characters live under the threat of the dominant culture’s regulations.

The concept of the contact zone can also help explain the quarrels that arise between the characters, since their different perspectives prevent them from communicating with each other effectively. As Lianne Moyes and Domenic Beneventi argue, the grand narratives tend to erase entire communities in their search for universality (Moyes “Adjacencies” 176; Beneventi 119), as can be seen when Guevara attempts to erase Rudy’s excess in his call for restraint, or when the male characters seek to control female behaviour. But the characters’ disputes are also caused by incomprehension. Sieur de Maisonneuve’s belief that “faith is our only weapon” (Majzels City 22) is met by contempt on Le Corbusier’s part, who asserts that “faith has nothing to do with it” (22). However, their disagreement is not exactly a theological one, since the two men are not discussing the same subject: de Maisonneuve sees faith as a weapon to fight the Indigenous opposition with which he has been met, while Le Corbusier’s answer concerns the need for “a clear head and a logical approach” (23) in science. De Maisonneuve’s comment is thus misunderstood, and the answer Le Corbusier provides only deepens this miscomprehension, since he then moves into an area of knowledge to which de Maisonneuve has no access because it belongs to a later historical period. The meeting between Ché Guevara and Karl Marx also highlights the problems that arise from historical separation. In this case, however, it is the stroke Marx has suffered that prevents him from understanding Guevara, and the incomprehensible answers Marx provides only heighten the sense of separation between the two versions of socialism the characters represent. A similar historical gap exists between the different incarnations of feminism that Clytemnestra and Lady Macbeth represent. The two women are incapable of reaching an agreement, mainly because they both view the other woman’s position as unacceptable. Lady Macbeth’s version of feminism seeks to empower women by leaving the patriarchal structure intact, since she places “a man before her as a shield” (Majzels City 110), while Clytemnestra’s conception of feminism involves a complete rejection of the rule of men. Their presence within the same space thus demonstrates the “heterogeneity of meaning” (Pratt 37) that the word “feminism” allows. That same multiplicity of meaning exists between the characters and contemporary Montreal, since de Maisonneuve, when faced with the statue meant to represent him at the Place d’Armes, does not recognize himself in the monument that glorifies him (75). History has thus misunderstood what kind of man he was, and chosen to represent him as a conqueror and the victor of “l’exploit de la Place d’Armes” (76), rather than as the simple religious man he imagines himself to be. His desire to “tear that monument down” (75) demonstrates that de Maisonneuve cannot understand what contemporary culture has made of him, as he recognizes that his actual missionary work does not live up to his contemporary status as “founder” of Montreal, and that these two versions of him cannot be reconciled. Since he hears the voices of the people whose place in the country he has usurped, de Maisonneuve deconstructs his position as “founding father” by proving that others inhabited the land before his arrival, even if the city does not acknowledge that fact in its narrative of foundation. The miscomprehensions and moments of incomprehension between the characters and with the historical moment in which they find themselves reflect the difficulty of communicating meaning effectively in a contact situation.

More positively, the appropriation of the conqueror’s language serves a subversive purpose in the novel, since it exposes that what some accept as universal might actually be construed as ridiculous by someone else. Suzy’s echolalia, which echoes the language of those who try to oppress her, functions as transculturation, since it transforms the oppressors’s arguments into parodic versions of their grand narratives. Le Corbusier’s “vast city in a continuous park” (Majzels City 28) becomes “a city . . .  in a parking lot” (28), while the Cadillac owner’s use the insult “hairless cunt” (86) to define and reduce Suzy is turned against him when she starts to scream the insult at him repeatedly until it is hewho is “frozen” (86). Using the language of the one attempting to be dominant not only allows Suzy to return “male aggression in kind” (Beneventi 115), but also to rearticulate those discourses by providing new contexts in which they can be applied: thus, men too can be attacked through misogyny. The voices de Maisonneuve attempts to suppress (Majzels “Interview” 127) also allow for a reworking of the dominant culture, since they articulate their own parodic interpretation of European culture. Their belief that the French mark the landscape with crosses because they are “unable to stand two sticks straight in the ground” (Majzels City 139) presents a different version of the colony, one in which it is the colonized who assume the role of educators to teach Europeans “how to fish and how to grow maize and store food for the winter” (139). Their interpretation contradicts the conventional Eurocentric perception which imagines that the colonizers were the educators. The contact between cultures thus leads to a subversion of dominant discourses in the novel, as the grand narratives the characters represent are challenged and questioned by the parodic versions created by the oppressed.

The copresence of discourses in City of Forgetting also allows them to be juxtaposed in a manner that would not have been possible had they continued to develop independently. According to Pratt, the contact zone allows for relations between the colonizers and the colonized to be examined “in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understanding and practices” (Pratt Imperial Eyes 7), which, in the novel, looks back to what Majzels identifies as his desire to present all discourses as layered within the same space (“Interview” 127). There is then a possibility for the grand narratives to occupy the same physical environment simultaneously, in a way that is most successfully embodied in the tango between Marx and Clytemnestra. While Marx can no longer express himself effectively, during the tango, he is capable of assuming Agamemnon’s identity while still maintaining his own. The result is a hybrid discourse that mixes the classical Greek myth with Marxism: “Power, merely the organized power of one class oppressing another. A father sacrificed his daughter, but against him—nothing” (Majzels City 120). Marx’s two identities clash, since identifying himself with an oppressive ruler, Agamemnon, aligns him with the discourse he is criticizing. This contradiction is emphasized further once he inserts Shakespearean language into his discourse: “the ruling class never vanquish’d be, until Great Birnham Wood to high Dunsinale Hill, sweep away by force the old conditions” (120). The discourses are then made to coexist in the same space, creating a Marxist reinterpretation of previous master literary forms which inscribes the fall of monarchical rules in the class struggle Marx describes. In the chapter “Black Moon Tattoo,” the narration also allows for the juxtaposition of discourses within the same narrative frame, moving seamlessly between characters without always specifying which character’s thoughts are being described. This chapter constitutes the sole moment in the novel where the discourses are presented simultaneously without being criticized or challenged by another character, since they are simply present and layered, their co-existence leading to the formation of a new version of those narratives that includes all of them at the same time. This chapter functions in the same manner as Pratt’s “joys of the contact zone” because it has created the one place where “no one is excluded,” even though this inclusiveness is no guarantor of safety (“Arts” 39). City of Forgetting then creates a space where all discourses are enabled to exist simultaneously, allowing them to morph into new narratives.

The presence of characters previously separated by historical, geographical, or fictional constraints in the same city thus enables Majzels’ novel to highlight the tensions and clashes that arise from cultural contact within a colonial space. The choice of Montreal as the setting for this novel links the characters to a colonial past, one that is still marked in the landscape they inhabit. The relations between the characters, as well as those between them and the dominant culture, are asymmetrical, often because the discourses they represent attempt to assert power over the powerless or erase those who do not fit into their hegemonic agenda. Montreal is thus a conflicted space in City of Forgetting, a city where miscomprehension prevents effective communication, while allowing for juxtaposition and subversion. In the end, Suzy might be the only survivor, but her discovery of the Jesuit Relations implies that she will learn about the beginnings of the colony in Montreal, and thus rework and challenge that discourse in relation to the post-disaster Montreal she now inhabits. While Suzy experiences the joys of researching inthe ruins of the library, de Maisonneuve’s dog Pilote is eating a corpse in order to survive. The novel thus refuses a totalizing closure, and chooses instead to remain torn between productivity and destruction.

Works Cited

  • Beneventi, Domenic. “Lost in the City: The Montreal Novels of Régine Robin and Robert Majzels. In Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities. Ed. Justin D. Edwards and Douglas Ivison. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005. 104-121.
  • Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard U P, 1997.
  • Majzels, Robert. City of Forgetting. Toronto: Mercury, 1997.
  • —. ” Interview by Lianne Moyes.” In The Matrix Interviews. Ed. R.E.N. Allen  and Angela Carr. Montreal: DC, 2001. 127
  • Moyes, Lianne. “Homelessness, Cosmopolitanism and Citizenship: Robert Majzels’City of Forgetting.” Études Canadiennes/Canadian Studies 64 (2008): 123-138.
  • —. “Unexpected Adjacencies: Robert Majzels’ City of Forgetting.” In Adjacencies: Minority Writing in Canada. Ed. Lianne Moyes, Licia Canton, and Domenic Beneventi. Montreal: Guernica, 2004. 168-189.
  • Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” In Profession 91. Ed. Phyllis Franklin. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991. 33-40.
  • —. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
  • Simon, Sherry. Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s U P, 2006. 195-203.