Friday, May 7, 2010


For the third time in my life as an ageing child of the sixties, I am reading Beautiful Losers.

The pyrotechnics of this much-acclaimed, maniacally experimental novel obscure the shocking truths it is woven around.

A hidden holocaust
MKULTRA mind control
Nazi experiments on human beings, in particular children

Cohen peppers the novel with references to this tragic story, but uses these horrors as comic triggers. The reader zigzags between heaven and hell, as the amphetamine-gulping narrator gropes for a missing moral centre in a world that has exploded.

When we read it in the sixties, we were shocked, thrilled and titillated. But, as Bob Dylan says, "Things have changed."

Read in the light of what we know now about the classified goings-on at McGill during the years preceding the writing of this bizarre roman-a-clef, it tends to seem tragic.

Maybe there was even comedy at Auschwitz. I wouldn't be surprised there were clowns in the barracks, loved for their ability to get a laugh out of the dying and soon-to-be-dead.

Human soap turns up several times in Beautiful Losers, as well. It's one of those standards of holocaust humour, I guess.

Human soap is really the lighter side of Mengele's experiments. Almost a euphemism for crimes so unspeakable they are never discussed. Thus the truth slips into the yawning abyss of amnesia, and a whole new generation of mind-controlled patriots are preparing to follow their leaders into Armageddon.

Still -- in the light of the documents sitting in Washington, and all that has appeared on the internet and elsewhere over the last few years, as child victims recover their memories and voices and begin to publish their accounts of CIA torture, funded by our governments -- Beautiful Losers seems strangely relevant today.

Part of it is set in a Montreal mental hospital, after all, during the days when MKULTRA was running amok in that city.

Other parts are set in the past, when Jesuit missionaries ran equally amok among the Hurons and Montagnais in Quebec. The absent heroine of Beautiful Losers is Katherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk saint, who survived the smallpox that killed off most of her tribe, and ended up dying as a result of her conversion to Catholicism.

There are references to the orphanage where the narrator, and his mentor F., were raised, and introduced to various forms of rampant abuse.

Leonard was barely thirty when he penned this epic, fuelled by amphetamines and perhaps just a trace of rage, which he disguises behind comedy.

Reading it now, it's fairly obvious that Leonard knew quite a lot about Ewen Cameron and MKULTRA and the secret experiments on children, including First Nations children, at McGill. He also knew what happened to people who talked too openly about what they knew.

But how much did he know? Perhaps Beautiful Losers was written from bits and pieces of information Cohen heard, and cobbled together into a novel. Perhaps he did not directly witness these horrors, which he recounts in a hallucinatory stream of consciousness manner -- after all, it was 1966, he had done LSD, and read The Lamp of Albion Moonlight,by Kenneth Patchen, a novel some say inspired this one

But hallucinations alone -- even very well-informed hallucinations -- don't account for the parallels between the events described in Beautiful Losers, and the real, secret goings-on in behavioural labs at the Allan Memorial Institute, hub of secret CIA experiments on various hapless mental patients, and children.

The Nazi connection, which Cohen flirts with but does not develop, is plain to anyone, and now backed up by thousands of pages of declassified CIA documents. Not that those documents mention children, of course. If they did, my generation would have grown up a lot more quickly. We would have stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago.

There are no documents that survived past 1973, when CIA director Stansfield Turner ordered his staff to shred every piece of evidence relating to one of the ugliest research programs ever to grace the halls of learning.

But Leonard Cohen mentions them in BEAUTIFUL LOSERS. Oh, not too directly, of course, but he alludes to orphans and pedophile scientists and priests, and paints a picture of a world that, back in those days, seemed like the fantasy product of a mind wasted by drugs.

Cohen, the whistleblower, twanging his Jews' harp in the ruins of what used to be called The Free World.

Cohen the sly operative, shrewdly estimating the limits of what he could say in print. He knew if he told the simple truth, it would not be believed.

And he was right. Not ONE critic ever got the message. No one connected the obvious dots, or followed the trail of breadcrumbs that Leonard dropped for us in the woods. If they had, the trail would have led to the witch's door, and straight to the oven.

It's 40 years since Beautiful Losers was first published in 1996. And it's time for us to reread it, with a copy of John Marks' The Making of the Manchurian Candidate by our bedside, and our browsers poised to search for real, true stories of the orphans, children, First Nations children, pedophile priests, cynical politicians, and Nazi doctors... all of whom populate the pages of Beautiful Losers.

In mythic form, of course.
Is it surprising that I've tunnelled through libraries for news about victims?
Fictional victims! all the victims we ourselves do not murder of imprison..." p. 7
Still a brilliant literary diversion, this tour de force of style and showmanship is built on the bodies of the "fictional" victims whose graves Leonard graces with a book-length epitaph.

"I've poisoned the air, I've lost my erection.
Is it because I've stumbled on the truth about Canada?
City Fathers, kill me, for I have talked too much." p. 37

Recently in an interview, Cohen called Beautiful Losers a long "prayer." Strange, how religion tends to blur distinctions and wipe out memory: much like those drugs MKULTRA was giving out to all and sundry. I hope you'll go out and find an old copy, or buy the new edition, and decide for yourself.

Ann Diamond is a Montreal-based writer whose most recent book is MY COLD WAR, about growing up in the shadow of secret government experiments conducted on children.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010


I’m curious these days about subversive military themes that weave themselves through Canadian writing, especially novels. Throughout its history, Montreal has been the scene of overt and covert military operations: think Patriote Rebellion 1837. Think October Crisis 1970. Think Oka 1990. And it goes on...
So it happens that the first Montreal-based novel I picked up to read this week was Gwethalyn Graham’s EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN, which first appeared in 1942 to stunning acclaim. It won a Governor General's Award, topped the New York Times best seller list for 37 weeks, and was optioned by Samuel Goldwyn Mayer for the unheard of figure of $100,000 (but never made it to the silver screen).
Gwethalyn Graham moved to Montreal from Toronto, via Smith College. Set in Westmount, EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN a sober portrait of Montreal's Anglo elite viewed by an outsider. At times there's a claustrophobic sense of being trapped inside the four walls, and conversational routines of the Drake family home. Mr. Drake has lost his fortune in the crash of 1929, and given up all hope of ever gaining it back. His only son is off fighting in Europe, while eldest daughter Erica has a job as women’s editor of the Montreal Post. The distant war forms a dramatic backdrop to a personal story of two lovers held apart by family prejudice. It's Romeo and Juliet on Mount Royal, but the struggle is not between feuding French and English. In an era of widespread anti-semitism -- the polite variety found in Canada, contrasted with the kind that is ravaging Europe -- Erica falls in love with a young Jewish lawyer named Marc Reiser, and comes face to face with her family's deep-rooted prejudices.
What makes novels interesting is often what goes in the background of them. Not just subplots, but insights and asides not pursued or developed in a conscious way -- odd facts dropped into the narrative which illuminate a time and place.
Like Anne Marie MacDonald’s AS THE CROW FLIES, the plot of EARTH AND HIGH HEAVEN is dotted with references to a world secrets, and threads a path through the repressed wilderness that is Canada. For example, there are glimpses of the nepotistic world of Montreal newspaper publishing is almost an extension of Westmount, and Erica holds her job partly due to her father’s connections.
Montreal is a divided city without hope, according to Mark, who came to Quebec from a northern Ontario lumber town where his family own a business. He finds himself unwelcome in the cozy upper class enclave where Erica and her family live their insulated lives.
While Erica battles her convention-bound parents for the right to date Marc , the real dramas going on in the outside world sometimes surface in conversation, only to be dropped because they`re insoluble.
A French-Canadian friend has heard rumours the Nazis are creating “human robots” in the conquered lands of eastern Europe. Marc, who has lost relatives in the holocaust, resents the dominance of the Catholic Church in Quebec, “responsible to no one and nothing but itself.”
Canadian politeness, bordering on censorship, drives the plot, forcing characters to address each other awkwardly as they endlessly debate the issues that seem almost quaint. The couple’s romantic decision at the end leaves much unresolved – but that’s not a bad thing. Their relationship may really be doomed, or they may overcome the social odds. Graham chooses to end the story in Montreal’s Windsor Station, at the moment when Marc catches sight of Erica, and starts to run toward her. The outcome of the war in Europe, and the progress of the undeclared silent war going on between elites in Canada, are left up in the air. The book ends on a day in the fall of 1942, with Hitler`s armies on the ascent in Russia.
War has also invaded the lives of Westmount's WASP community, even while Canada remains remote and aloof from the upheaval going on in Europe. Marc enlists in the Air Force while Erica’s brother Anthony is already overseas. Out of desperation at her family’s rejection, and in revolt against Canadian hypocrisy, Erica (28) decides, in the end, to join the women’s army corps and follow Marc to Europe -- The novel ends before they get there there – instead they become engaged, almost a plot necessity in a women’s novel written in 1942.
Nevertheless it holds our attention – both as a period piece and also a reminder of how much, and how little, Montreal has changed.

And then I thought...

New book club: Reading Montreal

Reading Montreal: a new book club for people who read, write, and are interested in getting to know more about Montreal's long literary tradition through group reading, discussion, presentations. There are a number of possible ways such a group could operate, eg monthly meetings at which members review their favourite books by Montreal writers. Or we might focus on "the Montreal novel" (is there such a thing? what are some examples?), review a particular decade, or delve into issues that have inspired writers working in this city: such as the recurring theme of "two solitudes." How have different ethnic communities experienced and written about this city ... and the province and country it is part of? These are just a few suggestions. Next question: who is interested in becoming part of such a group? And what would you like to get out of it?

Email Ann Diamond with your ideas and preferences, and let's see if over the summer we can develop a reading list and start a whole new process of discovering this city, and ourselves, through Montreal writing.