, Reading Group Guide
, Fiction - General
, Psychological fiction
, World War
, War & Military
, War stories
, 1939-1945 - Fiction
, Jewish (1939-1945)
under the thick trusses of the Governors Road bridge. We weren’t alone. A couple of young boys carrying jars filled with cloudy pond water and a teenage boy with his dog gathered for shelter. No one spoke as we stood awkwardly listening to the sewers flash-flooding, the metal gutters of the bridge rushing with water, the great bone-snap of thunder. Then a screech tore the air, then another, like the cry of mammoth jays, and we saw the two boys blowing into their hands, grass pulled taut between their thumbs.
The older boy followed, the primitive reeds producing a squawking caterwaul that reverberated under the bridge. Then the sudden rain slowed, and one by one our companions fell silent and stepped out into the dripping haze as if in a trance. Not a word had been spoken.
Athos and I made up characters and stories during our Sunday walks, to practise my vocabulary. We invented a suspense serial involving two detectives, Peter Moss and Peter Bogg. In one episode, they trailed a villain who “took things for granite” (my most accomplished malapropism); he robbed museums and left, as his mark, a block of stone in the empty space. Athos created a complicated story involving a gang of British sailors who plundered dockside warehouses just so he’d have an excuse to use the title: “The Mystery of the Loch and Quay.”
Puns were a kind of core sample: they penetrated into the heart of comprehension, a real test of mastery of a new tongue. Each of my terrible puns represented a considerable achievement; I recited them at dinner for Athos’s praise. (What did the biologist say when he dropped his slides on the lab floor? Don’t step on mitosis.)
From puns I attempted poetry, hoping that in my sonnets the secret of English would crack open under my scrutiny. “Perhaps a sonnet,” suggested Athos, “is not dissimilar to the linguistic investigations of the kabbalists.” I copied out well-known poems, leaving space between each line where I wrote my own version or response. I wrote about plants, rocks, birds. I wrote lines without verbs. I wrote only using slang. Until suddenly a word seemed to become itself and a quick clarity penetrated; the difference between a Greek dog and a Canadian dog, between Polish snow and Canadian snow. Between resinous Greek pines and Polish pines. Between seas, the ancient myth-spell of the Mediterranean and the sharp Atlantic.
And later, when I began to write down the events of my childhood in a language foreign to their happening, it was a revelation. English could protect me; an alphabet without memory.
As if determined by historical accuracy, the Greek neighbourhood bordered the Jewish. When I first discovered the Jewish market, I felt a jolt of grief. Casually, out of the mouths of the cheese-seller and the baker came the ardent tongue of my childhood. Consonants and vowels: fear and love intertwined.
I listened, thin and ugly with feeling. I watched old men dip their numbered arms into barrels of brine, cut the heads off fish. How unreal it must have seemed to them to be surrounded by so much food.
From wooden cages, chickens stared with a look of snobby incomprehension, as though they were the only ones who understood English and therefore couldn’t make out the babble around them.
Athos’s backward glance gave me a backward hope. Redemption through cataclysm; what had once been transformed might be transformed again. I read about Toronto’s dried-up, rerouted rivers —now barely gutter streams — that once were abundant tributaries fished by torchlight. Salmon were speared and scooped from the quick vein; nets were dipped into live currents of silver. On maps, Athos outlined the regal paths of the ice ages as they surveyed the province and swept out again, gouging and strafing the land. “Their frozen robes trailed behind them, leaving a rocky wake of glacial till!” Before the city, Athos cried— showman, barker—there was a forest of conifer and hardwood, huge
Stefan Petrucha, Ryan Buell