Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Where The Path May Lead

The Program quote intrigued me—Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice is this: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." The evening's introduction to the three acclaimed authors and the ensuing lively discussion among them will leave more than "a trail" in my and many other listeners' minds.


Sandra Ridley, Ottawa-based award winning poet, added her own personal touch to this session. She became very much part of the discussion. She was especially interested in exploring, with the authors, the secrets and puzzles they built into their stories. But first the introductions to the three authors and their books. All three are acclaimed, award-winning authors, currently living in Toronto.


The Search for Heinrich Schlögel by Martha Baillie is the story of a young man who has escaped the claustrophobia of small-town Germany by travelling to Canada, where he sets out on a long solo hike into the interior of Baffin Island. For some reason time begins to play tricks on him and he moves from some time in the 20th century, without realizing it himself, into the 21st. As a result Heinrich returns to the place of departure disoriented and confused. Gina Ochsner wrote that "The Search for Heinrich Schlögel is a hymn to brooding memory, the enduring need to inhabit story, and a haunting insistence upon endless possibilities within possibility. That is to say, hope.”


The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, tells the story of one momentous day in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician. When he refuses to back down from a contrarian but principled stand regarding the West Bank settlements, his political opponents expose his affair with a mistress decades his junior. He and the fierce young Leora flee the scandal for Yalta, where he comes face to face with the former friend who denounced him to the KGB almost forty years earlier. In a mere twenty-four hours, Kotler must face the ultimate reckoning, both with those who have betrayed him and with those whom he has betrayed.


Love Enough by poet, essayist and novelist Dionne Brand, draws us into the intersecting stories of characters caught in the middle of choices, apprehensions and fears. Each of the tales here opens a different window on the city they all live in, mostly in parallel, but occasionally, delicately, touching and crossing one another. Each story radiates other stories. In these pages, the urban landscape cannot be untangled from the emotional one; they mingle, shift and cleave to one another.  


Sandra Ridley opened the discussion by reflecting on the common themes or elements in the novels despite the very different central characters and their circumstances: how did the authors move through the paths of puzzles and secrets? It seemed to Sandra that as she progressed through each novel she was discovering ever more secrets. What is the truth of someone's story? What traces do leave people behind?


Martha's story begins with a picture that motivates a researcher to find information about Heinrich, the central character. Martha is interested in the conflict between generations, but also the shifting landscapes over time. Another interest is Canadian history, especially in the North and the different perspectives on that history that we have lived with. Dionne is interested in exploring how paths of individuals cross and leave impressions. Often we don't realize when we cross them until afterwards. What is going on when paths cross? She described her writing here as operating on three planes: they can run in parallel or they can suddenly take a different turn and cross in surprising ways. David's novel centers on two men where one betrays the other. He started with writing the novel from one person's voice only, but while writing changed his mind. Betrayal becomes a central theme. As does the question of identity. Both characters have to ask themselves who they are. Both had to reassess themselves because of politics, painful changes as a result of how the country had changed. Martha explained her postcard project, the Schlögel Archive. Close to finalizing her novel, she had the sense that something was missing. So she embarked on a project writing parts of the novel onto hundreds of postcards, with old and new, but relevant images, and sent them to friends far and wide. What happened since is a fascinating story that you can read here.


Another theme engaged the authors and the host: what is the difference between being a witness to being a voyeur? Is it relevant in a historical context? Is being a witness important? In contrast to the other two novels, Dionne's central character is not interested in the past of the people she meets, nor is she revealing her own past. She lives (and loves) in the present and refuses to explain why.


How do authors transfer ideas to the page? For Dionne the story could go one way or the other. She loves the side stories, collecting bits and bringing them together. Martha adds that she often finds herself "stealing" bits of information or observation that she weaves into the story. David compares his writing to putting together fragments. He knew from the beginning where his story was going to end. But, like watching through Google maps, you can only get close to a certain point. Then there are barriers. His story's source is based in real people. His interest is the moral question. He is concerned about Israel as a country and its future.


The discussion left the audience at Knox Church in attentive silence. There is much more to say, much more to explore with the three novels. They may not all be as familiar to us as one or the other, but all three promise to be an intellectual and emotional feast.