Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Young Trudeau is one of the most interesting biographies I've ever read, if only because its aims are nothing short of monumental: to subvert all that we know, or think we know, of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and how he came to be, and to do so merely by examining the notes he made on the writers he loved (and loathed) during his early twenties.

Covering the first twenty-five years of his life, the book seeks to disrupt everything that makes Trudeau, well, Trudeau. The eternal iconoclast, rebelling from a young age at the rigid French-Canadian, Catholic hierarchy he'd been born into; the constant rebel, determined to do and think as he pleased, when he pleased.

Well, no.

Not according to husband-and-wife authors Max and Monique Nemni (and French-to-English translator William Johnson) who convincly detail that Trudeau was, in fact, typical of his time and place in pre and post-World War II Quebec: fiercely Catholic, intensely Quebecois, even, somewhat astonishingly, a fairly intense segrationist who believed in the future of an independent Quebec separate from Canada, and was planning a revolution to achieve that unlikely goal. (A goal he would end up vigorously battling in his later years as Prime Minister.)

There are a few revealing interviews with friends and family members (including his sister, Suzette), but the majority of the books' conclusions stem from the authors' perusal of the texts he wrote (in term papers, school newspapers, magazine articles, etc.) and notations found in the margins of his favorite authors.

It's an interesting way to examine an extraordinarily well-lived life, and possible only because Trudeau gave them complete and total access to his private papers. (Initially, the authors intended to write the biography ten years ago, but they ended up taking over the editorial reigns of Cite Libre, the French-Canadian political publication that Trudeau himself founded -- and Trudeau's own passing a few years ago prevented any further, personal collaboration between the pair and their fallen friend.)

Their descent into his private collection reveals Trudeau to be a prolific, prodigious reader, in both French and English, examining works of philosophy and economy, French-Canadian nationalism and Catholic history, English literature and modern social theory. He read widely and deeply, and his notes and essays do indeed show a restless, independent, firecely driven intelligence.

However, this keen insight and raging intellectualism, so startling for someone barely into his twenties, was very much rooted in who he was -- French Canadian first, and Catholic, second. (Though some may dispute that order and its importance.) Based on his report cards, he was a diligent student all through school; based on his writings, he not only advocated a fierce form of French-Canadian patriotism, but he also endorsed, and was planning, nothing less than a full-on revolution, the revelation of which is nothing short of amazing, considering Trudeau's legacy as a Prime Minister: the leader who finally allowed Canada to break free of her monarchal chains and defended, indeed demanded Quebec's role within it; the man who gave us, at last, our own constitution, and hence our pride, not to mention our nation.

Vigorously researched, yes, but there is a fault to the authors' methods. Is it truly reliable, or really dependable, to rely for psychological insight on pencilled notations in textbook margins? To be sure, these reveal Trudeau's thoughts, but that's just it -- they are thoughts, nothing more. Speculations, disagreements, hyperbolic assertions of assent or dismissal, made by someone not far removed from his teenage years. To rely only on these markings as a means by which to examine the formation of a personality, let alone a future political leader, is limiting, to say the least. Intriguing, certainly, but more than a few times the authors speculate and extrapolate when they should be keeping their lips zipped, letting us make up own minds.

Still, this is, for fans of Trudeau (or even enemies), a riveting work. Trudeau, the ladies' man, dating Margot Kidder, engaged to Streisand; Trudeau the fierce defender of Quebec's role within Canada; Trudeau the confident, vigorous world-traveller, the engimatic mystic -- this Trudeau is nowhere to be found in these pages.

And yet, he is there, remarkably so: between the pages, waiting to be born. Trudeau -- as a man, as a legend, as a myth -- now begins to make sense. We see where he came from, and how far he had to go. We see what he thought and why he thought it; we see, before our eyes, the evolution of a political consciousness that will, in turn, undergo amazing metamorphoses in the months and years and decades ahead.

Indeed, perhaps the most startling revision of Trudeau's much-explored life-saga is saved for the final pages, where Trudeau's entrance-letter to Harvard University is reprinted, and where we see, from a young age, no more than twenty-five, that Trudeau had in mind a career in politics, a goal as a statesman.

Trudeau, the reluctant politician; Trudeau, the independent, who joined the Liberal party only his late forties, and even then, hesitatingly. Trudeau, in his twenties, after much contemplation and deliberation, declaring the necessity of politics as a means of social change and thus his intention to serve the world in the political realm --wherever that might lead.


The book is subtitled 'Son of Quebec, Father of Canada', and Volume I does, indeed, show us the boy who was raised and redeemed by his native province;Volume II of this work will explore the intervening years, when he developed the world-view that enabled him to compose the Canadian framework he envisioned: Trudeau at Harvard, Trudeau in England, Trudeau coming back to the Canada and Quebec he left beind, and finding much in the society's social framework to be desired.

And, as if that weren't enough, there's another new, mammoth biography of Trudeau by John English out in stores right now, volume one of which is entitled Citizen Of The World, which covers similar ground, I'm sure, as Young Trudeau, and which also benefits from the author's access to Trudeau's personal papers.

If you want to understand Canada, you have to understand Trudeau, and Young Trudeau is a good place to start. Despite the book's inevitable scholarly limitations, the authors are still able to slowly reveal a young, determined mind as it develops and shifts, as our playful protagonist slowly commits himself to a physical, spiritual, psychological transformation that will take him further and deeper than he or any of his countrymen could have possibly imagined.

No comments: