Field Notes from a Fulbright Scholar: The Eye

On a Fulbright to Montréal, fiction writer Cam Terwilliger will be reporting, expounding, fulminating, and otherwise commenting on his adventures in Canada. While he’s there, he’ll be writing a novel set on the border between the warring colonies of Québec and New York in the year 1757.

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A few weeks ago, I arrived in Montréal with nothing but what I could carry. I’ll be living here for a year on a Fulbright Scholarship, working on a novel about the French and Indian War (a book I half-jokingly refer to as a rewrite of The Last of the Mohicans). Given all the time I’ve spent studying the history of British, American, French, and native culture mingling (and fighting) in the area, it was a bit of a shock to actually arrive to Montréal — you know — in the present. In the span of an hour, I was rocketed out of the past: a sudden fast-forward, a look at how the whole messy, brutal, convoluted story turned out. There’s a lot to say about a place as complicated as Montréal (both past and present). But let’s start with first impressions. One thing, in particular, made a deep impression — to put it mildly.

Outside Montréal’s Museum of Fine Arts stands a deformed angel. You wouldn’t think a bronze statue could give you the sense of melting flesh. But this one does. The angel’s pose is surprisingly casual given the fact that there’s a hole in its chest and that its wings are draped with what appear to be tumors. Should I mention there’s also a pair of human hands clawing their way out of the hole in its chest? And that its face is covered by a writhing mass of still more human hands? The whole thing is terrifying. But, also, it’s difficult to look away.

I discovered the statue on my first day in Montréal and it burned itself into my mind instantaneously. I kept wondering: what kind of city puts this in front of its museum of fine arts? As it turns out, the statue is a product of Montréal native David Altmejd, a piece he calls “The Eye,” which only makes things more unsettlingly mysterious since — of all the bodily matter featured — there is not one eye. Yet, somehow, the statue suits the place.

A hint of mystery and confusion appears to be sown into the fabric of life here.

Montréal is a city that embraces the protean, the heterogenous, the strange.

The most obvious example of this is the language issue. Even something as banal as standing in line at the post office becomes an exercise in controlled chaos as the clerks respond to one person in French then, a split second later, jump into English for the next in the queue. Of course most Americans think of this duality whenever they think of Montréal, a town that makes the list of the world’s most bilingual cities (Miami, Barcelona etc.). But what many forget is that in Montréal these two languages are only the start. Wandering through downtown, you’re just as likely to hear Chinese, Arabic, Italian, or Haitian Creole. And immediately outside the city you’ll find not one but two reservations of the Mohawk people, a group reinvigorating their own language with regular classes on how to speak Kanien’kéha. Really: it’s the Tower of Babel up here.

Perhaps this tolerance for — even craving for — plurality has its roots in the province’s start. In this way, what I’ve learned about Québec’s history in my novel research seems to make Montréal understandable — a little bit, anyway. Unlike most North American colonies Québec was never dictated by a single culture. The initial colonists lived in concert with the natives, often intermarrying, a situation that lead to interdependence. Then, after England lost America to revolution, things got even stranger when British loyalists streamed into Québec, a colony they’d conquered just twenty years before. Though these transplants were technically “in charge” they were also just a tiny minority with limited control over day-to-day issues. To me, it seems like this initial three-way impasse gave birth to a country that had no choice but to embrace tolerance. In the coming centuries, the situation allowed more, and more, and more cultures to take root, begetting dizzying complexity, like mirrors reflecting mirrors reflecting mirrors.

Naturally there’s been plenty of tension between these groups. But the city that’s been produced is — without exaggeration — stunning.

As you might guess from the prominence of the deformed angel, the unfamiliar is not only tolerated, but celebrated.

Just about anything goes in Montréal’s public space, a fact attested to by the countless (and still multiplying) festivals, extolling everything from the Arab world to African and Creole cinema to fringe theater and heavy metal.

A few hours after discovering “The Eye,” I took a walk in the forested mountain at the center of Montréal, its famous park, Mont Royal. I wanted to escape the city’s activity for a time, but what I found there was even more bizarre. There were packs of people of all ages and ethnicities, many of them running up and down the steps built into the face of the mountain for exercise, some even bear-crawling (a form of extreme workout it seemed). Yet further up the slope, another man gleefully launched himself down a flight of 200 steps on his mountain bike. Finally, when I arrived at the top, I found still more people, dozens of teenagers parked at a scenic overlook, the doors of their cars thrown open to blast hip-hop, a haze of weed smoke in the air. Amid it all, three raccoons weaved through the crowd, eliciting laughs, garbage dangling from the animals’ mouths. Perhaps this frenzy was only the craving for life that comes in the last days of summer, when the grip of winter can already be seen in the blushing leaves. But it seems to me that it was more than that, too. It was the joyful, laissez-faire character of the city rising to the top.

From the edge of Mont Royal, I looked to the cityscape spreading below, skyscrapers and fieldstone row houses side by side. Somewhere inside it was “The Eye.” I imagined the thousands of people jostling into each other throughout the neighborhoods surrounding it, a shifting human mosaic. Then I thought of the hands climbing from the angel’s chest. It occurred to me for the first time that the image was like the birth of something. Perhaps the angel wasn’t disintegrating after all. Perhaps it was transforming, an endless rebirth in a city forever in flux.

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