On the day before the Conservative government fell, some of my Hotroom colleagues and I were discussing the comparative literary oeuvres of Michael Ignatieff and his rival, Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Until then, I hadn’t realized Ignatieff had been short-listed for the Booker Prize, for his novel Scar Tissue, published in 1993.
As far as I know, he is the only person to seek the top political job in Canada who has also come so close to winning the world’s most coveted prize for fiction.
On the way up from his scrum after his confidence motion toppled the government, I popped in on the Library of Parliament to see if they had a copy. They did. A paperback that has been signed out only once, in 2009, it appears.
I took a peek at the first page, which begins:
I don’t want to remember her last hour. I do not want to be eternally condemned to think of her as she was in those final moments, when we held her hands, my brother and I, and she fought for life and lost, her mouth stretched open, gasping for breath, her eyes staring sightlessly up into the lights. That scene goes on and on, as if it will never end, as if some unreconciled part of me still denies that it actually occurred. I still have days when everything she ever was, everything she ever meant to me, is entirely erased by the memory of those great agonising breaths, that frail body wracked with spasms, those lips wet with blood. There must be some way to redeem this, some way to believe that the banal heartlessness of it all was not for nothing.
I found the passage profoundly moving, not just because it’s beautiful writing, but also because I went through exactly the same death bed scene — familiar to so many, I’m sure — in a hospital room in Toronto last October.
I’m not sure how to resolve the author of this passage with the person I just saw in the scrum: rehearsed, media trained, groomed and trying to evade — rather poorly — journalists’ questions about whether he’d form a coalition government with the other opposition parties.
None of this says anything about what kind of prime minister Ignatieff would make. Writing ability has never been a job requirement, nor should it. And a comparison to Harper, an economist by training who is writing a book about hockey, is unfair. Harper has other personal talents. Remember how we all swooned over him playing a Beatles song at the National Arts Centre and, later, signing at the Conservative Christmas party.
Given the popularity bump the prime minister seemed to enjoy after his performances, I’d guess we’ll see him at the keyboard a few more time before the campaign is finished. But I wouldn’t count on any readings from Ignatieff.
Still, I wonder why we haven’t seen and heard more about his fiction. Do his handlers see it as a liability in the face of Conservative allegations he is an elitist and self-interested arriviste who is out of touch with Canadians? Have they decided he looks aloof, writing books instead of singing Jumpin’ Jack Flash? I hope not.
NOTE: For the duration of the election, I’ll be posting on another blog, Talking Points, an election notebook that you can also read in the Citizen.