The ambiguities of sense and sensitivities
- Troy Parfitt
- 06 May 2012 09:10 (South Africa)
I am sitting next to a table piled with copies of my book in the City Market in Saint John, New Brunswick. It’s nearly May, but this morning is abnormally cold. I am positioned next to the front entrance, so when people push open the thickly-painted green doors, I am struck by a paralyzing bolt of frosty air, my rented table-cloth thrashes, and my promotional signs try to fly away. At around eleven, I see there are flurries outside and no indication of a warmer afternoon. I zip home, pile on the winter clothing, and zip back to my stand. Someone has nicked the Martin Amis novel I was about to read. Why couldn’t they have taken the Thomas Pynchon book I was reading? I would have gladly given it to them.
The Saint John City Market is Canada’s oldest farmers’ market, established in 1785. Housed in a sturdy, Second-Empire-style building, its floor slopes toward the Saint John Harbour, and its ceiling, wooden and whitewashed, calls to mind a ship’s keel. There is a distinctive maritime flavour to the foodstuffs and bric-a-brac in the bazaar’s stalls. If you’re looking to try “dulse”(dried sea-lettuce sold in brown-paper bags) or purchase a set of lobster-claw-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, this is the souk for you.
It’s now four o’clock and I’ve sold only three books. I am talking to a woman about an art exhibit she just attended, but there is a man standing alongside her, anxious to cut in.
“Hello, sir,” he begins, as the woman leaves. He jabs a crooked finger toward the creamy keel and says, “I have a serious question to ask you and I want you to give me an honest answer. When and where did you meet Henry Kissinger?”
He mispronounces ‘Kissinger’ and I guess that he’s Greek or maybe Iranian, but he’s Macedonian. He lives in Toronto and is in Saint John on business.
“I’ve never met Mr. Kissinger,” I reply.
“Then how did you come up with your idea?”
“That China will never rule the world.”
“I figured it out by myself.”
His eyes widen. “But I hear, heard, sorry, Henry Kissinger and Fareed Zakaria and... what’s his name? The English historian....”
“Scottish historian. Ferguson. I forget his first name.”
“Yes. Right. Ferguson. I heard them having a debate and Kissinger said China will not dominate in this century.”
He’s talking about last year’s edition of the Munk Debates. Be it resolved: the 21st century will belong to China. I say, “Yes, well, I don’t put too much stock in what Kissinger has to say.”
His eyes double in size, and he kneels down in front of me, on both knees, in his good pants on the grubby floor, looking as though he’s about to propose. “Tell me the truth,” he implores, patting my hand. “Did your book come out after Kissinger’s?” He means after Kissinger’s On China.
“A couple of months after.”
“Okay, okay,” he says, relieved. “But you agree with Kissinger?”
“I haven’t read his book yet,” I said, not adding that it was on my shelf gathering dust, or that I had read his Ending the Vietnam War (while in Vietnam) only to find he still believed America could have won that war had the American public allowed for it. Blurbs from Christopher Hitchens flitted through my mind, but I didn’t recite them. Hitchens, in his The Trial of Henry Kissinger, argues that the former secretary of state was a war criminal.
Getting out in public and selling your book is something every aspiring writer ought to do. You read and write at home, so you may as well read and write at a vendor’s table while selling autographed copies, handing out cards, chatting with people and observing their reactions. You learn a lot about how to talk to potential customers and how to sell books. You become expert at identifying what sort of person reads books and you learn not to say too much. People don’t want overviews or explanations. Rather, they want to tell you something they know about your topic. The imparted snippet is seldom correct, but you’re best off not saying so. You recognise, too, that many people are incapable of reading your book. If you happen to be from New Brunswick, that goes for most people. This province has a functional illiteracy rate of around 60%.
The market is an intriguing place. It is also a peculiar one.
The man is still on his knees. He stands up, then he kneels down again. He won’t stop talking. Assuming, incorrectly, my book is political, he wants to discuss politics, but first he wants to give me some marketing advice.
“You should contact the Rothmans.” He pronounces it Rat-mans. “They work with Noam Chomsky and other intellectuals pro bono. They promote books for free.”
“Yes. No! The Rat-childs.”
“The Rothschilds?” I have no idea what he’s talking about and a subsequent Google search yields no clues.
He talks about Vladimir Putin, oil, the Nazis, Stephen Harper, and the United States. He thinks Iran should have nuclear weapons “for balance”. He is a Muslim who claims, patting my leg, that he loves all humanity.“Dump on all religion!” he declares as a follow-up. “My religion includes the dinosaurs! It started, not with man, but at the beginning of time!” Some things he says make perfect sense: tribalism creates intolerance and conflict, but I suspect he is paraphrasing Deepak Chopra. Other assertions are outright loopy. He denigrates Israel in detail and I see that his political diatribe is disjointed preamble. What he’s been building up to, what he really wants to tell me, is that we are living under an international Jewish conspiracy. America is controlled by the Zionist lobby.
“But there are so many great Jewish-American writers,” I interject, after listening to his disorderly anti-Semitic rant.
“What writers?” he demands. “There is no writer I know who is Jewish and who is good besides Chomsky. And don’t tell me about Albert Einstein. He is the worst of them all!”
“It’s funny you say that because you look a little like Albert Einstein.”
“Please don’t tell me that, sir.”
Please stop feeling my knee.
“Philip Roth (or should I say Philip Rat?), Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow....”
“You never hear of them.”
“Sure you do. And Canada’s – in my opinion – greatest writer was a Jew.”
“Mordecai Richler. And he criticised Israel. Lots of Jewish intellectuals do.”
“I don’t believe.”
“It’s true. You can read Richler’s This Year in Jerusalem and find out for yourself. But anyway, look, I don’t know much about Middle Eastern politics or politics in general. I write about China... mainly....
Although I said this to signal an end to the conversation, or a change in its direction, I was glad of the man’s candour. Canadians born and raised in Canada (this man was an immigrant) seldom discuss politics or anything serious in public. There are practical reasons for this, but also cultural ones. Disputation is not “nice,” and, therefore, “un-Canadian” and propositions might ruffle delicate sensibilities. And Canada is a land brimful with delicate sensibilities. Expressing an opinion can land you in hot water in this country. Offend somebody and you could find yourself standing before one of the country’s perversely-named human rights commissions for violating Canada’s anti-hate laws. Freedom of expression – what the Americans call freedom of speech – does not exist in Canada. It is an illusion. Although enshrined in the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, expression is curtailed by kangaroo tribunals staffed by bureaucrats with big budgets, tiny minds and no background in law.
Citizens must be permitted to freely articulate ideas about international Jewish conspiracies, flying-saucer extraction points, and any other hare-brained ideas they might have. Only reactionaries think otherwise. Too many Canadians are out of touch with the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilisation, and what so-called liberals refer to as political correctness is just veiled censorship and an infringement on fundamental freedoms. For more on Canada’s restrictions on speech, borrowed, as they are, from the pages of Eric Arthur Blair, read Shakedown by Ezra Levant. That’s my little rant. At least I did it from a respectable distance.
I wouldn’t want you to think it was only newcomers who behaved strangely in the market. There is a local fellow who accosts me weekly, insinuating I am a fraud because I haven’t read the ancient Chinese text, The Book of Lord Shang. This morning, he asked, in a British accent, despite being a native Saint Johner, if I’d read Sun Tzu. “Sun Tzu,” I mused. “Sun Tzu. German writer?”
The contract I sign to vend at the Saint John City Market obliges me to be polite – and I am. Most people, after all, are in their right mind, and Saint Johners are friendly and gregarious.
The man finally gets off his knees and offers his hand. I shake it and ask his name. “Well, it was nice to meet you,” I say. He leaves and is replaced by another man who squints at one of my signs. “Why... China... Will Never... Rule...the World,” he says slowly. He fingers a book cover and asks the question I get most often: “What’s it about?” DM
Troy Parfitt is a writer and freelance journalist from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada