By Mordecai Richler
Vintage Canada 1997
I picked up Barney’s Version on the way back to Montreal, Quebec. I had been away for about six months and so reading a book that was set in Montreal seemed like a good way to remind myself of the cultural milieu that made up the city. The first time I came across this book was actually in a Canadian Literature class that I took in the University of British Columbia when I was about 20. In six years my impressions of the book had vastly changed, and not just because I now live in Montreal full time.
The book Barney’s Verison is the fictional memoirs of an aging man. Barney’s life is dominated by four relationships: his three wives and Boogie, his best friend who he was accused of murdering. The main narrative is Barney trying to exonerate himself from the accusations of murder through the timeline of his three marriages. The story goes from when he was young with a group of “creatives” in Paris to Barney’s return to Montreal where he builds his career and family life. Throughout the meandering prose the story culminates in the trial where Barney was exonerated from Boogie’s murder and a revelation about Barney’s health.
The narrative is called into question many times by the unreliability of the narrator, Barney. He makes it clear from the beginning that he wants to dispel any rumors about his involvement in Boogie’s disappearance even while presenting himself as a known liar. In addition to this his memory is often flawed. This is highlighted by a number of footnotes that corrects and points out discrepancies in the narrative. Richler did an artful job of making you doubt the narrative integrity of the storyteller without totally discrediting him. While reading it, you want to believe in what Barney is saying but there is always doubts.
This book contains many thematic elements that are often attributed to Mordecai Richler. There are comments on the Jewish community in Canada, anti-Semitism, the growing Quebecois nationalism in Montreal, and how Canadian artists are seen in a international forum. In particular, what I found interesting was the alteration of Montreal from a more Anglo-speaking city to the militantly French one. While the majority of citizens in Montreal are bilingual, the radically French by-laws set in place to preserve the Quebecois language and culture can still be seen today. Reading about how that alteration took place in the last 50 years and the accompanying politics was an intriguing part of the book.
While I could appreciate the artistry that went into Barney’s Version, I was not especially captured by the book. In reality, I liked it much more the first time I read it. However, at that time of my life I was more accepting of listening to misogynist white men talking about how difficult it was to be an artist. The main character and narrator of this book fits that description to a T. Often belittling woman around him, he was condescending of all three of his wives, even the third, Miriam, who he purported to love dearly. He is a man who openly talks about how he didn’t want his wife to go back to work even though she was dissatisfied with being a mother and homemaker. Purely because it would be inconvenient for him. Obviously, Richler was working with this arch-type to create a main character that was severely flawed and familiar. Yet I still felt like it was another voice in this saturated field of white, male voices. There was no character growth where he was even attempting to overcome this, throughout he was more considerate of his own needs than any female character around him.
However, if you can get beyond that Barney’s Verison is a well articulated novel that exemplifies many of the causes that made Mordecai Richler a controversial and famous Canadian writer. While I didn’t find it an enjoyable read, I could recognize the craft that went into it and the appeal for other readers. So if you are interested in a Jewish Canadian voice from the mid to late 20th century, this is a book you should check out.