Profile: Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is strikingly optimistic. In his 2007 Massey Lectures, published as The City of Words (House of Anansi, $18.95), the anthologist, essayist, and translator argues that in stories we can find our salvation.

"This is the great richness and difficulty of literature," he writes in the first lecture, "The Voice of Cassandra", which he delivers Friday (October 12) in Halifax. "That it is not dogma. It declares facts, but gives no definitive answers, declares no absolute postulates, demands no unarguable assumptions, offers no labeling identities." In the final essay, "The Screen of Hal", he argues: "A literary text lies constantly open to other readings, to other interpretations, perhaps because literature, unlike dogma, allows both for freedom of thought and for freedom of expression."

On the phone from his home in western France, Manguel speaks movingly and convincingly about the power of literature to counter the reductive forces of nationalism, to bridge divides, to heal rifts, and to liberate citizens from mere consumerhood. For concrete examples, he points to two of the countries he calls home.

"In the case of [conservative French president Nicolas] Sarkozy, he wants to invent a story to define what is national, what is French. And as I try to describe in my fourth lecture, the one of Don Quixote ["The Books of Don Quixote"], you can't do that without fatal consequences. You cannot invent what a country is and stands for; the story has to come from a layer of truth. And he is very deliberately not doing that by setting up something like the Ministry for National Identity, which is a monstrosity itself, which he couples with immigration, so now it's called the Ministry for Immigration and National Identity."

In his essay about (among other things) 16th-century Spain, the erudite Manguel writes about the willful imagination of a country that believed it could ban anyone it considered "other": "To deny its Arab and Jewish past," he writes, "to wish for itself a Western purity of 'untainted' blood and 'immaculate' Christian faith, was for the Spain of Cervantes to admit that reality could be created out of illusions, erected like a stage set merely to oblige the ambitions and beliefs of those in power." This is why he writes "Literature can build a reality more durable than flesh and stone."

By contrast, a multicultural country like ours strengthens itself through stories of immigration and plurality. "Which is why I'm still proud to call myself Canadian, in spite of [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper," he says, having spent many years in Toronto. "I think that the structure of our country is such that it will resist even the destructive impulses of Harper."

In opposition are the citizens, especially the storytellers. Says Manguel: "The role of the artist is not as much a role as a vocation, and it is something certain people who are artists are compelled to do, which is to tell the real stories–what Jean Cocteau called a lie that tells the truth; that is to say, a fiction that reveals the true story. That will carry on. And centuries of persecutions and book burnings have not silenced that voice or lessened that impulse. That is why I optimistically believe that it is at the root of what makes us human, this impulse to tell stories."

However, reducing our differences and our drive to dominate to a mere good-versus-bad, us-versus-them narrative is itself just a story. "We would like the good to be good and the bad to be bad," Manguel says, "and know exactly where we stand, but that is never the case. Everything is more complex than that, and we are forced to stand constantly in the tension between two questions that are only resolved by going on to other questions.”¦But to talk about a Nazi officer, well, the Nazi officer is not a monster. The terrible, the horrible thing, the unbearable thing is that he was a person like you and me, doing the same things or thinking the same things or living the same experiences. And then going beyond what we would allow ourselves–but the possibility of horror is common to us all."

The trick, he seems to suggest, is to understand both our best and our worst. And then to imagine an ending in which the former, even if barely, prevails.

Alberto Manguel is the guest of the next CBC Radio Studio One Book Club, airing October 27 on CBC Radio One 690. The Massey Lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio One's Ideas nightly from November 5 to 9 at 9 p.m.