Something fierce makes Canada Reads interesting, for once

February 8, 2012

Ottawa Citizen

One of the authors at the centre of a nasty fight over CBC’s Canada Reads contest is now in Ottawa, performing a play based on her contentious book.

Carmen Aguirre is performing her one-woman show, at the Great Canadian Theatre Company & to Feb. 12. The play is based, in part, on her memoir Something Fierce – Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, a memoir of her days as a teenaged member of the resistance movement in Chile. This week it brought unexpected and welcome excitement to CBC Radio’s otherwise tediously genteel book contest.

On Canada Reads, a handful of celebrities each champion one book that we all should read (because, you know, celebrities are, like, real smart, and best suited to tell the rest of us what we should read). Each celebrity challenges the other books, in the hope the book they represent will not be “voted off.”

One of the panelists is Anne-France Goldwater, a lawyer in Montreal who hosts a TV show named L’Arbitre. Goldwater savaged Aguirre’s book, and said, “Carmen Aguirre is a bloody terrorist. How we let her into Canada, I don’t understand.”

Well, sacre bleu! In the hypocritically polite world of Canadian literary chatter, such forthright opinion simply won’t do. The remarks prompted the usual outrage, demands for retraction, etc, with ominous suggestions of “libel” and “slander” (though, it must be noted, not from Aguirre, who to the best of my knowledge has not publicly commented on the fracas). Goldwater is, God bless her, unrepentant, and told The Globe and Mail, “That’s part of what life is in Canada. If you put your book out there, if it’s chosen to be in a debate – which is what this is, a literary debate, after all … you’re a free agent, withdraw your book. . . . In this country there is a tolerance for a difference of opinion, and if somebody just doesn’t buy your story, they don’t buy their story.”

I haven’t read Aguirre’s book, so I have no basis to gauge the verisimilitude of her memoir, and certainly no basis to decide if she is or is not a “terrorist.” But that’s not the point: the point is that Goldwater has read the book, and doing so has led her to her opinion, whether the sophists of Can-list like it or not.

Goldwater’s comments do not in any way harm Aguirre’s book, which, unquestionably, is now familiar to far more potential readers than it was before Goldwater injected a brief flicker of spark into the self-satisfied and clubby feel that defines Canada Reads. I’ll trust that Aguirre, having fought against and survived a violently oppressive government in her home country, understands the value of free speech, even if that free speech is not complimentary to her.

Ottawa theatre fans can see glimpses of her memoir and her life in Blue Box, which is part of GCTC’s Undercurrents festival, to Sun., Feb. 12. I called the box office at 11:25 a.m. Wednesday, and was told there are still tickets remaining for all performances – though sales have indeed picked up in the past couple of days as the Canada Reads scandal has played out. The play will move on to Vancouver, Toronto, Victoria and Calgary.

“It’s a story of terror, romance and abandon,” the GCTC web page says, breathlessly, “that takes us from the dangerous mountain passes of Chile to the perilous roller coasters of Hollywood; from an ardent love affair with a TV star, to a passionate love for a revolution that strove to change an entire nation.”

Sounds more like titillation than terrorism, but I don’t want to sound impolite.

Peter Simpson is arts-editor-at-large for The Ottawa Citizen, and he writes about visual arts, music, books, film and other arts and entertainment in Canada’s capital city.