Oh dear. Is Michael Ignatieff the most naive politician to ever come down the pike? Or the most insulting, presumptive sort of animal to travel the same route?
The obvious question comes apparent with last week’s publishing of his 17th “book” bearing the astonishing/embarrassing title of True Patriot Love. This coming from an author who has spent half his life, most all of his adult life, living outside Canada? Give us a frigging break.
He opens with: True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
And then adds: FROM “O CANADA!,” THE NATIONAL ANTHEM OF CANADA—as if he is addressing a foreign audience. Yes, Michael, we know our own anthem. Do you?
The subtitle is equally puzzling: Four Generations in Search of Canada. As if the poor soul, from the fastness of the academic halls of Harvard and Cambridge, couldn’t find an atlas to discover where the land of his birth was.
There is an air of panic to this project. Penguin Group (Canada) announced in 2005 that it had signed Ignatieff to a book contract, just as he first indicated he was venturing into Canadian politics after nearly 30 years abroad. Now, of course, most pundits predict Stephen Harper’s shaky minority government will likely have to go to the polls this fall as the three opposition parties can win a confidence vote whenever they choose.
Ignatieff finally started to deliver his manuscript in “chunks” by last August. The final chunk was delivered on Jan. 5. The publisher admits to having to put “extra care and extra people onto the copy editing and the proof-reading” to make an unusually fast turnaround for the April 21 publication.
There are some peculiar aspects to this publication. It is advertised at $30 for its modest “224 pages.” But it’s actually only a slim 177 pages—the rest is larded out with “Notes, Primary Sources and Acknowledgments, Secondary Sources and Index.”
Now we all know how brainy the author is. A few years ago, a survey conducted by Foreign Policy magazine and Prospect, a British journal, ranked Mr. Ignatieff as the 37th-most “public intellectual” in the world. The author writes in a note here that he began writing this book in 2000 and finished it in 2009. Is he in fact a slow typist? (Perhaps he does his composing in longhand?)
Even more disturbing is his listings under “Secondary Sources”—61 books, their authors, publishers and dates of publication. Does it really take 61 books of reference to produce 177 pages? It is a bit of an insult to Ordinary Reader.
He writes, “My mother used to go about the house humming a Judy Garland song with a line about how, if you haven’t played the Palace, you might as well be dead. The Palace Theatre was elsewhere—not in Ottawa, where I grew up, but in the big bright world beyond. So the family question wormed its way into how I thought of my life, and the answer I gave myself was to get out of here, to go out into the bright world beyond and play the palace. I played the palace in London for 20 years, as a journalist and writer, and for five years at Harvard as a professor.”
A wise editor might have suggested leaving that passage out. But at least he was being honest. Canada was too dull for someone so talented.
The hero of this small tome turns out to be George Monro Grant, the writer’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side. He was famous for setting out in 1872 with Sir Sandford Fleming to map out a route across Canada that would become the Canadian Pacific Railway and supposedly bind this difficult country together. Ignatieff was so taken with his relative that he devotes 37 of his precious 177 pages to him, including the sabbatical he was awarded after a decade at Queen’s University that gave him a world tour of the British Empire.
In all, the small book goes on to the longest descriptions of Grant’s oldest son, William Lawson Grant (1872-1935), who was a principal of Canada’s most famous private school, Upper Canada College. Not to mention Ignatieff’s uncle, George Parkin Grant (1918-1988), the renowned philosopher and author of the controversial Lament for a Nation.
Throughout, there is the overwhelming desire to convince us of the brilliant, educational gift of the Anglo-Saxon mind—while leaving unspoken the heritage of where he came from. We all know the dazzling background, that both his great-grandfather and his grandfather were Russian counts who served as cabinet ministers in the czar governments.
In the index, the actual word “Ignatieff” is mentioned only four times. The Grant family makes it to 66. What we have here, one cynically suspects, is a desire—an election coming up—to appeal most of all to that rich, decades-old Ontario base of Anglo-Saxon vote that, thanks to its population, can decide most of all our elections.
Ignatieff writes that this book was devised in 2000 when he and his second wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, a Hungarian, set out in a rented Ford to retrace the 1872 route of his distant relative, George Monro Grant.
The book is going to have to survive without the backing of Canada’s natural ruling party. Penguin’s Diane Turbide has confessed, “We can’t use Liberal party lists or any apparatus of the Liberal party to promote the book. They have been very clear about that.”
The party realized this was a turkey. Too bad the author didn’t.