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Authors: Mordecai Richler

The Incomparable Atuk

BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
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The Author

MORDECAI RICHLER was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1931. Raised there in the working-class Jewish neighbourhood around St. Urbain Street, he attended Sir George Williams College (now a part of Concordia University). In 1951 he left Canada for Europe, settling in London, England, in 1954. Eighteen years later, he moved back to Montreal.

Novelist and journalist, screenwriter and editor, Richler, one of the most acclaimed writers, spent much of his career chronicling, celebrating, and criticizing the Montreal and the Canada of his youth. Whether the settings of his fiction are St. Urbain Street or European capitals, his major characters never forsake the Montreal world that shaped them. His most frequent voice is that of the satirist, rendering an honest account of his times with care and humour.

Richler’s many honours included two Governor General’s Awards and innumerable other awards for fiction, journalism, and screenwriting.

Mordecai Richler died in Montreal in 2001.


General Editor: David Staines

Alice Munro
W. H. New
Guy Vanderhaeghe

This book was first published in Canada by
McClelland and Stewart in 1963.
Copyright © 1963 by Mordecai Richler
Afterword copyright © 1989 by Peter Gzowski

This New Canadian Library edition 1989

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data

Richler, Mordecai, 1931–2001
The Incomparable Atuk

(New Canadian library)
Bibliography: p.
eISBN: 978-1-55199-565-6

I. Title. II. Series.

PS8535.134A92 1989  C813’.54  C89-094602-7
PR9199.3.R5A92  1989

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9


The following dedication appeared in the original edition:
For My Father


“What would happen in Canada if full sovereignty were invoked and the southern border were sealed tight against American mass culture – if the air-waves were jammed, if all our comic books were embargoed, if only the purest and most uplifting of American cultural commodities were allowed entry? Native industries would take over, obviously. Cut off from American junk, Canada would have to produce her own.”

Richard H. Rovere,
, Nov. 5, 1960

Part 1  What You Dare to
             Dream, Dare to Do

Twentyman’s dreadful equipment was unloaded at a dock in Montreal on a cold wet Wednesday. As reporters pressed forward, uniformed security men wheeled the crate into a private railway car that had been held in readiness on a nearby siding. There were in fact many crates, each a different size or shape, all but one empty. A typically cunning Twentyman manæuvre calculated to frustrate the curious, watchful crowd assembled on the dockside. If the manæuvre was typical of Twentyman it was also, as usual, wholly successful. Even Jean–Paul McEwen, the most astute journalist in Canada, couldn’t find out what, if anything, was in which crate. She had to return to Toronto empty–handed. Worse. Her chartered aeroplane was ordered to circle the field until another one had landed safely.

‘Who in the hell’s in that other plane?’ McEwen demanded, outraged.

‘Some Eskimo. Wait.’ The pilot listened in on his radio. ‘His name’s Atuk ‘

McEwen lit up another Schimmelpenninck as her plane was obliged to circle the field for a further ten minutes. ‘I’m going to remember that name,’ she said.


Atuk, the incomparable, came to Toronto from Baffin Bay in 1960. As every Canadian schoolboy now knows it was out there on the tundra that the young Eskimo had been befriended by a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman who had fed and clothed him and taught him English. At first Sgt Jock Wilson, generous to a fault but no man of letters, had discouraged Atuk from writing poetry. He had pointed out to the lad that verses would not get him the bigger, better igloo he craved and, what’s more, his writing was ungrammatical. But when Atuk persisted Sgt Wilson showed his poems around to the fellows at the local trading post. The clerks, as he expected, could not detect even a feeble talent, but a visiting advertising executive, Rory Peel, was impressed. ‘It’s a gasser,’ he said. ‘A real gasser.’

The Twentyman Fur Co, a vastly misunderstood enterprise, was, at the time, suffering from a run of foul newspaper publicity and questions in parliament because, it was claimed, the Eskimo was dying of consumption, malnutrition, and even frost-bite, all because of what the white man had done to make his
accustomed way of life unfeasible. Peel, the brightest young advertising man in Toronto, was flown north to see if he could come up with an idea. And so, to the everlasting consternation of Sgt Wilson, he gave Atuk two electric blankets, a sack of flour, his cigarette lighter, and twelve bars of chocolate in exchange for a sheaf of his verse. The poems, as everybody knows, later ran in a series of advertisements in magazines all across Canada. A professor from Eglinton University, Norman Gore, sought out Atuk at Baffin Bay, and came back with the ingredients of the now famous volume of poems.

The success of Atuk’s book was such that he was flown to Toronto for a literary party at the Park Plaza Hotel. His thoughtful publisher laid in a supply of chocolate bars and put some raw salmon on ice. A press conference was arranged. Atuk was interviewed on television. He was taken to see a midget wrestling match, a striperama, Rabbi Glenn Seigal’s Temple, and other wonders of Toronto. Afterwards Atuk simply refused to return to the Bay. Instead he turned to Professor Norman Gore for help.

The front door to Gore’s house was ajar and Atuk, following a native practice, walked right in.


A scuffle in the living-room. Sounded like a lamp being knocked over. Atuk entered just in time to find Nancy Gore, the professor’s nicely plump wife,
doing up the top two buttons of her blouse. Her face was flushed.

‘Sorry to intrude. I seek the professor.’

A tall, muscular Negro began hastily to dust a table.

‘Ah, that will be all, Joseph.’

‘Thank you, m’am,’ the Negro said; and he fled.

‘The professor will be home, ah, shortly … if you care to wait. Em, excuse me.’

When Gore turned up an hour later Atuk came right to the point.

‘I wish to stay in Toronto,’ Atuk said.

‘You’ve had a quick
succès d’éstime,’
Gore said, ‘so you think it’s easy. Actually, the writer’s path in this country is a thorny one.’

‘Maybe I will be lucky.’

But Gore was troubled. Though he adored the chunky little primitive, he was not blind to the sly side of his nature. A certain un-Presbyterian shiftiness. It would be enlightening, he thought, to see what might come of a savage innocent in Toronto. No—too cruel.

‘Go back to the Bay, Atuk. You will only be corrupted here.’

‘No. I stay. Maybe I’ll be lucky.’

So Gore, although still apprehensive, sent Atuk to see Harry Snipes.

Harry Snipes was a protégé of Buck Twentyman’s. Always interested in
, he had recently accepted
the editorship of
Metro, the magazine for cool canucks
, and in fact wrote most of that immensely popular journal under such pseudonyms as Hilda Styles (Why Women From Halifax to Vancouver Menstruate Monthly), Hank Steele, Jr (I Married An Intellectual Cockroach in Calgary), Sir Horace Simcoe-Taylor, Our Correspondent to the Royal Court (Tony-Lucky Chump or Plucky Champ), and so forth.

Atuk was shown into Snipes’s office.

‘Well, well, lemme see,’ Snipes consulted a typewritten sheet on his desk. ‘Uh-huh … mm … Gore says you’re quite a poet.’

Atuk lowered his eyes modestly.

‘Well, I’ve read your stuff, old chap. It’s Georgian. Cornpoke.’ Snipes reached quickly into his desk, brought out a copy of his own most recent book of poems,
Ejaculations, Epiphanies, et etc
, signed it, and handed it to Atuk. ‘You want to get with it. You want to make your poetry more gutsy.’

Atuk promised he would try.

‘That’ll be three seventy-five, please.’

Atuk paid up immediately.

‘Good. Now lemme see … Are you familiar with the


‘We’re fighting for our life here. We stand for a Canadian national identity and the American mags are trying to drive us out of business. Like fiction?’


‘Good. Now lemme see.’ Snipes lifted a copy of the Aug. 4, 1940 issue of
off a stack of old magazines and neatly razored out a short story. ‘Here’s a good one. I want you to re-set it in Moose Jaw 1850. We haven’t any Western yarns for the May issue. But please remember to change more than the names. Play around with the physical descriptions and details. Use your imagination, Atuk. That’s what we’re paying you for.’

If Atuk failed at his first magazine assignment, he did extremely well in his exams at Eglinton Evening College.

‘Attention, class.
Moby Dick
is a sea novel by one, Nicholas Monsarrat; two, Herman Melville; three, C. S. Forester.’

All the heads bent dutifully forward; the pencils began to scratch.

‘But this is a two-part question.’

A collective moan.

‘How would you categorize this novel? One, adventure; two, animal lore; three, symbolical.’

Atuk and the others were allowed a bit more time for that one.

‘Next question. Hamlet’s girl friend was called, one, Madame Bovary; two, Franny; three, Ophelia.’

After the exam Atuk ran into Professor Gore in the hall. The Professor, obviously enjoying himself immensely, was deep in conversation with a tubby, middle-aged man; he gestured for Atuk to join
him. ‘You must meet my friend Panofsky,’ he said.

Panofsky’s smile was radiant with good nature.

‘But do continue,’ Professor Gore said.

‘Well, it’s not that I’m an anti-Gentile,’ Panofsky said, ‘but look at it this way. The greatest Jewish politicos of our age were Trotsky and Ben-Gurion.
apogee. Eisenhower.’

‘So what,’ Professor Gore said, nudging Atuk.

‘Can you imagine them shouting in the Red Square “I Like Leon”?’

Gore had to yield there.

‘Or can you see us in the streets of Tel Aviv wearing buttons that say “I Dig Dave”?’

‘You’re a treasure. A real treasure, Mr Panofsky,’ Gore said. Once Panofsky had excused himself, Gore turned to Atuk. ‘That fellow gives me more pleasure …’ Gore linked arms with Atuk. ‘This Panofsky, you know, is one of our more promising sociology students. He’s been collecting data for years for a paper on heredity and environment in Protestant society. Oh, but I keep forgetting. You know his son.’

‘Do I?’

‘Rory Peel. The very fellow who brought your first poems out of the North.’


Bad day. Rory Peel’s life was ordered by omens and he had only been up briefly when he realized that all the signs were negative. Twentyman Communications down a point and a quarter. Kosher Beef-Frye burnt. His father wanted to see him. Constipation. First licence plate he saw ended with an odd number. Then Michele summoned him back to the kitchen and handed him the foul-smelling parcel.

BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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