Look back in irony

BARNEY'S VERSION by Mordecai Richler, Chatto pounds 16.99

Aisling Foster
Saturday 27 September 1997 23:02

Reading this novel is an act of faith in a writer who has been deconstructing the absurdities of Canadian life and Jewishness for more than 40 years. Many of his familiar landmarks are in place: huge characters, crazy conversations, sudden swoops in time and direction. But whereas once we could depend on the narrator to steer us brilliantly through the confusion, this time we are in the hands of a madman, an aggressive, self- indulgent drunk who would pin us to a bar stool as he meanders through his own messy version of his life and a death.

Barney Panofsky is a 67-year-old "shrinking man with a cock that tickles", the director of a successful television film company. He was "born with a horseshoe up my ass", with the good luck to survive being tried for the murder of a friend before finding true love and a happy family life with his third wife, Miriam. In earlier years he may have won women and business with wit and chutzpah, but now he is alone, abandoned by that beloved lady for an academic "tree-hugger, refuser of non-biodegradable plastic bags". Unhappiness is compounded by the knowledge that Terry McIver, a famous Canadian writer and old enemy, will soon publish his memoirs. Fearful that McIver's speculations will scupper any last chance of winning back Miriam, Barney is trying to put the record straight.

The result is this meandering piece of prose, a product of varying stages of inebriation, depression, optimism and anger. Despite having read a great deal and attempted to write in Paris in his youth, there is little sign of promise in Barney's ragbag style; even the discipline which his work on cheap TV detective series should have taught seems to have abandoned him. Sometimes necessary words and references will not come to mind, and are added with pedantic footnotes by his son, Michael, after the father's death. Yet despite "piling digression upon digression", some lucid moments shine out: a scene from Barney's misspent youth on the Left Bank when a group of Letterists detonate a reading by McIver; intimate moments with "the Second Mrs Panofsky", a classic Jewish princess who sets about everything from sex to shopping with noisy professionalism; and a crisis with his student son, Saul, when Marxist-Leninist catch-phrases bounce between comic one-liners and the pomposity of the Canadian legal system.

When our narrator's Alzheimer's disease is eventually diagnosed, the comedy darkens and much about the infuriating illogicality in the writing and Barney's unpleasantness is explained. So too is the mystery of his guilt or innocence of murder, an answer kept dangling before the exhausted reader to the very last page. Yet for admirers of Mordecai Richler a puzzle remains: is what Barney calls his "doorstopper of a manuscript" also an ageing writer's slide into self-indulgence? Or are the blind alleys and tedious dialogue intentional, an assault course designed to make us experience the awfulness of our hero's illness both from inside and out? Certainly, readers who can make it to the bitter end may look back and see the vast distance they have covered: a ironic overview of post-war literature, art, fashion, Canadian politics and the media. But having got there, one can't help wishing the journey a little less hard.

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