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Dispatch 2: A Man Without Land

These dispatches are…dispatches. Returning to Montreal after forty years away raises up ghosts and I’m trying to deal with them


A Man Without Land

Duddy Kravitz’s grandfather thought he had nailed it when he told the kid, “A man without land is nobody.” The old man slipped that pebble into Duddy’s shoe and it spurred him on for the rest of the book. Land equals respect. Acres will transform you from ghetto Jew into Canadian person. 

Duddy’s zayde owned little but self-respect, which is a lot, and something Duddy mostly lacked. The St. Urbain Street boy wants what he wants so badly, his desire has the power to humiliate him. Acres equals respect and he’ll corrupt himself to acquire them. Duddy cheats and steals to put together a parcel of land in the Laurentians, as glaciated, lake-raddled and sternly beautiful a country as the most besotted of Group of Seven groupies   could imagine.

Duddy hungers for ownership of ground and himself. He is convinced one is rooted in the other.  So he needs not just any ground, but a big patch of primal Canada. He’s not interested in picking up tenement buildings along St Urbain Street or rue Jeanne-Mance, which might have been a smarter buy--long-term, anyway--seeing how ferociously hot real estate in Montreal’s Mile End quartier is these days. 

Duddy doesn’t want to own his ghettoness, he wants to transcend it. He’ll throw lovers, loyal employees and French Canadian hill-country farmers under the bus if they get in his way. And from Duddy’s point of view, people are always getting in his way. 

A man without land is nobody.

The Laurentian Shield? To Duddy, it’s more than geology-- it’s armour. When he brings his zayde up north to show off the country he’s buying up, the old man turns away from the wondrous forest. Zayde has a pretty good idea what Duddy did to get this far and what it’s cost him. 

A man without land is nobody.

I’m still trying to get over growing up in the Montreal apartment my parents rented on for thirty-five years. It was a nice apartment, with a fireplace in the living room, and wasn’t anywhere near St Urbain Street. But we didn’t own any of the rooms we lived in. My father, Billy, would never  buy property, even when apartments, Laurentian farmhouses, and Maine beach cottages were offered by pals at insider prices that sound like a joke nowadays and even back then were no-brainers. Everyone else we knew lived in a house and my father's friends  were always after him to settle down, calm down, buy in--and wondering why he wouldn’t, or couldn’t.  

Coming of age in England, Ireland and Germany between 1914 and 1939, several worlds came crashing down around my father’s head, and his particular strand of deportee/refugee DNA presented symptoms different than Duddy’s. Montreal became his home but I think he never stopped worrying that he might have to leave. 

The St Lawrence Iroquoians held this land when Jacques Cartier sailed up the river and they used it, lived off its bounty, yet apparently never thought of themselves as owning it. They didn’t believe it was own-able. They held it by not holding it. Same with my old man. He leased the fireplace apartment and forty years later died in a hospital room with a wintery view of his snowed-in city, never having owned a square inch of it.

Billy was allergic to nationalism, all flavors-- that’s a part of it. Montreal in The Sixties wasn’t vengeful England during the Great War, wounded Ireland of The Troubles or hell-bent Germany of the 1930s. But it wasn’t middle America either. Plenty of Quebecois get all teary-eyed recalling the excitement in the schools and streets, the joyous reconfiguration of  French Canadian identity minus the heavy burden of ultramontane Catholicism. But masses of excitable youth, faces painted blue-and-white, parading under flags, reclaiming the city and proclaiming their own Quebecness, and bouncing my old man right back to Germany 1933-39. 

This was a misappreciation of what was going on, but not entirely. And we’re all wired by the history we have lived through. My father knew he didn’t, couldn’t, belong to this nation. 

A man without land may be nothing but he’s also free to leave, quickly if he has to.


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