Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

by Wayne Johnston

In Joey Smallwood’s lifetime, the world fought 84 wars and 210 revolutions. Nine kings, four queens, and two princes were assassinated, along with 16 presidents, 18 premiers, six ministers, and two governors. Some would say the world should have seen it all coming: in 1900, the year Smallwood was born, 10 all-out wars were under-way around the world, from South Africa to Manchuria. There was more sporadic bloodshed in a further 10 countries, and revolutions in 12 others still. In the Congo, meanwhile, “700 natives had their hands cut off.”

Smallwood himself wrote that last line; it’s in the preface to his 1973 memoirs, I Chose Canada, along with the preceding tallies of global mayhem. Kind of sounds like he’s gearing up for a confession, doesn’t it, the way he links himself to all that calamity. Reading it, I was ready for a coming-clean, a full disclosure of Smallwood’s responsibility for, say, six of the wars and three of the presidents.

It never comes, of course. It’s just that Smallwood, the man who brought Newfoundland into Canada in 1949, the man who ruled the Rock from 1948 until 1972, had a mania for lists and inventories. Elsewhere in I Chose Canada, Smallwood indexes the ages in 1900 of some notable “revolutionaries” (Thomas A. Edison was 53, Adolf Hitler 11, Mao Tse-tung just seven); notes that by the age of 50, he’d read about 12,000 books; and offers up a ledger of “fascinating people” he met over the years,including Richard Nixon, Pandit Nehru, Maria Callas, and Queen Salote of Tonga.

After 528 pages, he even helpfully jots down a quick bluffer’s guide to his “experiences and memories,” under the headings “Wounds,” “Gladness,” “Emotion,” and “Elation.” What’s nice to know is that he was a man more easily gladdened and elated than wounded. He counts but five Wounds (one of them was the death of Lord Beaverbrook) against 24 Elations and Gladnesses (including the Trans-Canada Highway and Smallwood Lake). Emotionally? He rates watching with his grandchildren TV coverage of the first men on the moon right up there with “Jane Cowl as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet” and “signing the terms of Confederation with Canada.”

Get me started and I’ll argue that I Chose Canada is one of the great comic works of Canadian literature. But I may also tell you that it was a mistake to get Smallwood off the shelf last month. What happened was I was reading Wayne Johnston’s new novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. It’s an ambitious piece of work, one in which Johnston, a native of St. John’s and the author of four previous novels, seeks to take the remarkable Smallwood for his own, to fire him and his Newfoundland from within, by way of fiction.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a telling of the first half of Smallwood’s epic life. For most of the novel, it’s told in Smallwood’s voice. Johnston also borrows basic biography, like the facts of what Smallwood biographer Harold Horwood called his “poison poor” childhood, some school days, an early stint in New York, and the incredible pilgrimage Smallwood made on foot in 1925 across Newfoundland.

But Johnston’s Smallwood is also his own – he’s not bound to the facts, he detours and concocts, puts words in people’s mouths. All of which is conduct entirely becoming to a novelist, who’s charged with seizing any part of the world he wants, with expanding it, rendering it transparent and candescent. He can do as he pleases, I say, so long as the expectations he raises don’t go unrequited.

So here’s my mistake: once I picked up I Chose Canada – and, later, Smallwood’s six-volume Book of Newfoundland – The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was doomed. The thing is, Smallwood’s Smallwood is at every turn a far more compelling character than Johnston’s. If I’d never picked up Smallwood – well, who knows whether I’d have been so much disappointed by Johnston. All I know is that I’m seriously considering adding I Chose Canada to my own list of all-time Gladnesses.

It’s not that Johnston’s novel is poorly written. No, in strictly mechanical terms, it’s well enough wrought. It’s full of incident and intrigue. There are some lovely reflections of Newfoundland’s lives and lands. The narrative arc rises smoothly, showing no strains. And in Sheilagh Fielding, the leg-lame, alcoholic journalist who acts the demanding part of Smallwood’s conscience, foil, and object of desire, Johnston has invented a vigorous character indeed.

And yet for all these virtues, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams lacks a soul. There’s a hole at its centre and it’s precisely the size and shape of the main character. Why is Johnston’s Smallwood so unaccountably inert? Oh, like the industrious newspaperman he was, he gets the story out. You can count on him as a witness, it’s just that he’s mortally short of, well, life. That’s a shortcoming for any character, of course, but maybe all the more so for one whose ascent is so dramatic, whose ambition so titanic. Johnston’s Smallwood is a disembodied voice – I was only rarely convinced that the character speaking to me from these pages was deeply connected to the life he was describing. You hear about unreliable narrators – Johnston’s Smallwood is, alas, one who’s unimplicated in his own life.

That’s the trouble with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams within its own frontiers. Once you venture outside of them, you start to understand just how wide the gap is between Johnston’s Smallwood and Smallwood’s. Again, there’s nothing – no bylaws, no bailiffs – to bind Johnston to biography. He’s under no obligation to match up fiction and life. What’s so strange is that he should have chosen such a scrappy, blusterous, obsessional, auto-important figure, a man another biographer, Richard Gwyn, called a “folk hero, part rustic savant, part licensed national jester,” and then have made him so phlegmatic, so pedestrian.

By all accounts, Smallwood was a dreamer, a self-deluder, a frequent failure, a visionary, a chancer, and a sharper. He was a joker who once sent a boatload of fish to aid India’s starved accompanied by a message to the prime minister that read, “Nehru, my cod to thee.” To read I Chose Canada is to be absorbed into the glorious excess of the man. By my rough calculation, Johnston’s Smallwood is, on the other hand, not even a third as fascinating as Queen Salote of Tonga.