BOOK REVIEW / In brief

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The Independent Culture
Oh Canada] Oh Quebec] by Mordecai Richler, Chatto pounds 13.99. Lampooning the language laws of Quebec has made novelist Mordecai Richler a sort of Salman Rushdie figure in Canada. Oh Canada] Oh Quebec] is billed as a 'requiem for a divided country', but so many Canadians see his polemic as hate literature that Richler has lately been escorted to speaking engagements by discreet bodyguards.

It now looks more likely than ever that Quebec may actually follow through on years of threats and choose independence, and separatists in la belle province are quick to take offence. Richler gives them plenty of reasons. Whereas the accepted wisdom is that Anglophones are bent on castrating French Canadian culture, he argues that the Quebecois themselves are childishly anti- English, virulently anti-Semitic and altogether more intolerant.

To prove his point, he catalogues the absurdities of the legislation governing commercial signs in Quebec. To ensure superiority of French, English words are not allowed on exterior signs; even on interior signs their size, colour and placement is strictly regulated. Vigilantes known as 'tongue-troopers' patrol the streets with cameras, searching for blasphemies like 'Today's Special: Ploughman's Lunch'. Meanwhile, 'the zealots who run the Commission de toponymie have been rushing about renaming towns, mountains, rivers and lakes' to eradicate Anglicisms. Thus, the Queen Elizabeth Hotel has been reborn as La Reine Elizabeth.

The main consequence of these policies, according to Richler, is not cultural protection but economic disaster. English-speaking Quebeckers have fled en masse, immigrants choose more hospitable parts of Canada, and the best and brightest Francophones are beginning to leave.

But despite lambasting the opportunism and venality of Quebec politicians in often tiresome detail, Richler believes they may yet be stopped from wrecking the country. In his view, the result of the province's referendum in October will not be independence, but further concessions from a federal government anxious to keep the peace.

If he's right, it will not be because of this book. Although Richler claims repeatedly that he wouldn't want to live anywhere but Quebec, he never does say why. Rather, in tones more caustic than droll, he dismisses his Francophone neighbours as 'still doggedly fighting against injustices that no longer exist'. This is incendiary, particularly from a man who does not speak French; Richler seems more intent on humiliation than conciliation.

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