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Authors: Mordecai Richler

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BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
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Something else. Jock’s first weeks as Jane were characterized by failure.

The first Tuesday, for instance, all Jock could report to the Colonel was the name and badge number of a metro policewoman who had tried to seduce him. The next Tuesday – hopeful, excited, proud – Jock told the Colonel how he had encountered the famous Seymour Bone in a bar, slyly led him on, and got the ruffian to admit that there was much to admire in Russia.

‘Hm.’ The Colonel went to the cabinet marked
and dug out the Bone dossier. ‘Did he tell you that he can’t get into the States? They’re afraid to let him in?’

Jock nodded.

‘They’d let him in all right. Truth is he’s afraid to go there. Here he’s Mr Big, there he’s unknown. Too much competition for him there, I suppose.’

Next week’s revelation didn’t come to much, either.

‘It’s not merely that Snipes got fresh with me, I’m getting used to that, even from married men,’ Jock said, tugging at his skirt, ‘but he wanted me to try a pill. Morphine. And he showed me the needle he always carries with him, if and when he wants to main-line it.’

‘Oh, Snipes. A very publicity–conscious little fellow. The pills are really aspirins and, as for the needle, well the poor man’s a diabetic.’

Then it happened, the worst, Jock fell, as they say, head over heels in love.

One gloriously sunny afternoon he thought that he would go for a stroll on the University of Toronto campus and perhaps investigate a student or two. It was not only that these youngsters were less likely to be bald, shorter than he was, and suffer from bad breath, but he had heard that some of the lads had come under the influence of a particularly odious pinko professor. Norman Gore. Anyway that’s where Jock first saw him … the boy.

He sat alone on a bench, creamy-faced, cheeks flushed, eyes radiating innocence and melancholy. Jock, heart thumping, resorted to the oldest ploy: he dropped his handkerchief.


So they fell to talking. The boy, called Jim, was surprisingly full of sharp questions. He wanted to know all about Jane and, again and again, Jock had to fend him off with coy, evasive answers. Finally, mindful of his duty to be done, Jock said,
‘See you have a book there. Have you ever, I wonder, read anything by … em, Howard Fast?’

Please, no, he thought. Not this innocent lad.


‘Do you admire the singing of … em, Paul Robeson?’

‘Yes. You?’

‘Immensely,’ Jock said, ashamed that it was his mission to lead the lad on; stricken, because it was his duty to probe, discover, and, ultimately, report. So upset, in fact, that no sooner did Jock open the door to his apartment than he burst into tears. He had arranged to meet the lad again, the following day, and one part of Jock planned not to turn up (he had, as yet, filed no report on Jim), but another, older Jock reminded him that it was his duty. Something else. He simply couldn’t wait to see Jim again. He’d wear his little Simonetta number. Just the thing.

Yes it was.

For the next afternoon, even as they chatted heatedly about Marx, Mao, and others, Jock and Jim held hands. The following evening in the park they kissed for the first time.

On Tuesday Col Smith-Williams asked, ‘Anything to report, dear?’

‘Nothing,’ Jock said, lowering his eyes.

Again and again Jock struggled not to keep his daily rendezvous with Jim, but he was driven to the lad, he couldn’t keep away from him. Even more
horrifying to Jock was the realization that Jim had fallen for him: the lad was madly in love with – with Jane. ‘You’re lovely,’ he said, ‘so lovely, Jane. You ought to be in films.’

‘It was once my dream,’ Jock confessed. (Actually, he had hoped to be another Bogart, but how to explain it?)

‘You must give me your photograph,’ Jim said.


‘I have connections. Maybe I can do something for you.’

Oh, sweet lad. Jock was touched. He allowed himself to be kissed and caressed.

‘Jane. My darling Jane.’

Oh, God, forgive me.

That night as he shaved, that night as Sgt Jock Wilson looked his reflection full in the face, he thought, you swine, you unspeakable swine. Would his name end up on that infamous roll of those who had dishonoured the force? There were already many, too many, on the force who had, so to speak, been hoisted by their own petard. Conners, sent out to crack a heroin ring, had ended up as a pusher. Manley, once the intellectual pride of HQ, had decided to bone up on Marx before joining the CP under a cover-name: today he did that scandalous weekly broadcast to Canada from Moscow. And Seeley. Seeley had taken years, deliciously long years, to smash the white slave traffic in Vancouver. Damn it, Jock thought, it’s not
soul I’m worried
about – and it was true. It was Jim, his Jim, who concerned him so. The lad thinks he’s fallen for a luscious doll. (One must remain objective, Jock thought, I’m certainly not a bag.) What happens when he finds out what I am? Done for. His life ruined. I mustn’t see him again, Jock thought. Be it treason, I must avoid the lad.

Sometimes, Jock dared to think, a country can ask too much of a man.

And yet, and yet, he would see Jim once more. If only to persuade the lad to give up smoking. Jim favoured little cigars. Dutch they were. Schim-melpennincks.


Professor Gore seemed so upset Atuk could hardly refuse to see him. ‘Come in,’ he said. ‘Come in.’

‘I’m so glad you found time for me, Atuk, before …’ Gore had to chuckle. ‘… “before the sun sunk into the ice-blue …” ‘

Atuk recognized the quotation and winced. He replied, ‘… “and black sky was enemy to hunter hungering for home” …’

‘It’s still one of my favourites.’

‘Your translation was brilliant,’ Atuk said.

‘Atuk, I’m glad to hear your heart is still with the Muse. I came to see you because I’ve heard so many nasty rumours recently.’


‘This office of yours. Rory Peel … Snipes …’

‘A man has to earn a living,’ Atuk said.

‘But can it be true you’re lending your name to products for Twentyman? Esky-Products. I mean you know that he is one of the biggest shareholders in the company that exploits your people.’

‘I do not know.’

A pause.

‘Men with greased words come here and ask me to sign little papers. I am grateful for Toronto’s goodness to me. They give me money. I sign. I am able to send money to the Bay to fight my people’s hunger and sickness. Is that bad, Professor?’

‘They are shrewd schemers, Atuk, and you must beware of them.’

‘Oh. Good you tell me so.’

‘To these men you are not a noble savage, a thing of beauty, but something else to exploit and murder. Maybe we can still do something about it. Bring the papers you’ve signed to my house. We’ll go over them together.’

‘As you say, Professor. For I loathe the Twentyman, enemy of our people.’

Gore left at last.

I wish that square would stop bugging me, Atuk thought.

Gore was too upset to attend today’s faculty meeting at Eglinton. So he phoned, offering his apologies, and went straight home instead.


No answer.


‘Cripes!’ Nancy hurried into the living-room in her kimono. ‘I wasn’t expecting you back until this evening.’

‘I decided to cut the faculty meeting. I’m not feeling well. I –
Good God, who are you?’

‘Him, dearest?’

‘Amos de winda cleana, boss.’

‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’

‘No suh,’ the tall, muscular Negro said. ‘Well, dat will be all of five fishbacks, m’am.’

Gore gave him the money. He went into the bedroom, sat down on the bed, and took off his shoes. Everywhere he turned he was greeted by variations of his own image.

‘I had him polish all the mirrors while he was here,’ Nancy said. ‘You’d think he might have put them back in place, wouldn’t you?’

‘I’m sure I’ve seen that fellow before.’

‘You couldn’t have.’

‘Oh, I know. He cleans windows for the Bones too. That’s where I saw him.’

‘Ruthy Bone? He certainly does not.’

‘Sorry, dearest. That’s where I saw him.’

Nancy had begun to sob. ‘It’s not true,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t clean windows for Ruthy too.’

Gore stared down at her thoughtfully, troubled. ‘I would have thought,’ he said, ‘you’d be
pleased that a coloured man was getting so much work.’

But Nancy was inconsolable.


‘Old One.’ Atuk loathed addressing him like that, but ever since his father had figured in that prize-winning National Film Board short he had insisted on it. ‘Old One,’ Atuk continued, ‘I have found the girl I want to marry.’

‘Is she a nice Eskimo girl?’

Atuk scratched the back of his neck.

‘Speak no more. Atuk, my son, I remember when your eyes were deep and true as the blue spring sea. I recall when your soul was pure and white as the noon iceberg. This is no more. Today—’

‘For Christ’s sake, will you cut out that crazy talk. You sound like you were auditioning for Disney again or something.’

‘If not for the fact that I was taller than John Mills—’

‘All right. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have had the part. But—’

‘I do not wish to hear of marriage with a non-Eskimo girl.’

‘You know something, Old One. You’re a bigot. You’ve never overcome your igloo mentality.’

‘I’m proud of my heritage.’

‘So am I. Only I refuse to be imprisoned by it.’

‘Tell me, Atuk. What would you do about the children?’

He didn’t reply.

‘How would it be for me to sit your little half-breed on my lap and he wouldn’t be able to speak an Eskimo word?’

‘We’ve discussed the question of children. We intend to give them a modern type education.’

‘Ha! But will his friends at school let him forget he is an Eskimo? Atuk. Atuk, harken to me.’

‘Won’t you even meet the girl? I love her.’

‘Shall I go to their home. To be stared at. An Eskimo. Would I feel relaxed there, Atuk? I’d have to wash and eat with cutlery. Do they know the joys of smoked deer meat? Minced seal pancakes? No. I’d be expected to eat condemned foods. Like filet mignon.’

‘So you’d make a few adjustments. A big deal.’

The Old One gave Atuk a savage look. He sighed deeply. ‘It all begins with taking a bath. It seems a little compromise, I know. But one day you take a bath and the next you have turned your back on your own people. Now I suppose,’ he added contemptuously, ‘it is nothing for you to eat fish that has been cooked?’

‘There are other problems besides the Eskimo problem, Old One. I am a man who just happens to be an Eskimo.’

‘You can stand there and tell me that when you
know as I do that before the great ice-sheet drew back this land was ours from sea to sea.’

‘Let’s face the facts. We’re never getting the land back.’

‘Atuk, you have a good Eskimo head on your shoulders. Think. They believe in pills and
frozen foods. How could you ever feel at home in such a background?’

‘I’m not marrying a background. I’m marrying the girl I love.’

‘Ignak is right. An Eskimo who lives away from his land is no Eskimo.’

‘Ignak is an Eskimo fascist. OK. Don’t say it. It all starts with taking a bath.’

‘Go, marry. But you have not got your father’s blessing.’

‘She’s a fine girl, Old One. Very fat and oily. Stinky too. Like one of ours. Won’t you even meet her?’

‘Tell me, what would she say, for instance, if you wanted to hunt next Saturday?’

‘Well, as a matter of fact, Saturday wouldn’t do. It’s their day of rest.’

The Old One looked baffled.

‘You see, their God … em, created the world in six days,’ Atuk said in a faltering voice, ‘and on the seventh day, Saturday, he rested.’

‘Oh,’ the Old One said, slapping his knee, ‘it’s one of those one-God religions, is it?’

‘So what?’

‘Through all the ages, from the time of the great ice-sheet, what has held our people together? Speak!’

‘Our belief in plenty of gods.’

‘We are the chosen pagans, my son. We have a message for the world.’

‘You live in the past, Old One. The ice is never coming back. Our people will never again hunt the white bear in the Bay of San Francisco or run dogsled races in Miami.’

‘It is written that—’

‘I don’t care what’s written.’

‘No. You think it’s poetry, that’s all. Good reading.’ The Old One paused for breath. ‘What would she say, Atuk, if you wanted to eat smoked caribou? Remember the caribou sandwiches after the hunt at Benny’s? With blubber on the side?’

Atuk grinned.

‘Well, what would she say?’

‘Deer is out. It’s unclean.’


‘You see, in this particular branch of one-god religions—’

‘What is it called?’

‘It’s called the Jews. The Hebrews.’

‘Are they Jews or Hebrews?’

‘It depends on their income. The poor ones are Jews.’

‘Jews, Christians, Hebrews. I’m not concerned with nuances. They’re all white. Atuk, it’s hard to
be an Eskimo. I told you so long ago. But you must hold your head high. Why, in this country when it comes to culture what is there besides the Eskimo? Our sculpture is acclaimed the world over. Our poetry too. And one day we shall rise again and claim the land that is rightly ours … from sea to sea, as it is written …’

Atuk lowered his head.

‘Return with me to Baffin Bay. Tonight.’

‘No. Never. What is there for me at the Bay? Disney shoots about one picture every two years and the Film Board pays nigger wages. Shall I be like Kupi? Can you see me building a block of igloos with inferior ice and soaking my tribe for it? I’m going to marry the girl and settle here.’

‘You think you’ve been accepted, don’t you? Ha!’ The Old One grinned spitefully. ‘Tell me, Atuk, will you be obliged to use the missionary position?’

‘That’s none of your goddam business!’

‘For the rest of your life—’ he gasped, shaking with laughter. ‘For – the miss—’ Again, it was too much. ‘The miss – missionary position.’

BOOK: The Incomparable Atuk
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