On the Path of an Immigrant Child
by Akos Verboczy
translated by Casey Roberts
Baraka Books, 2017
It seems appropriate to begin a review of such an introspective, insightful account with a confession of my own: I have very little interest in what happens in other people’s lives. Biography, autobiography, detailed accounts of how one’s parents made a fresh start in a new country (or even survived the Holocaust)—they’re just not for me. Not even Roddy Doyle, a writer I adore, could convince me to read Rory and Ita, the story of his parents’ lives.
There are, of course exceptions to this rule. I can’t get enough of Eric Dupont’s magical, fictionalized childhood memoir Life in the Court of Matane and I especially enjoyed the early childhood chapters of Bitter Rose.
I picked up Rhapsody in Quebec hoping it was going to be one of these exceptions. The success of this type of books depends, in my eyes, on having a story worth telling. The secret sauce is having a way with words, the literary talent to make that story worth reading. For the most part, Verboczy has both, adeptly relating the personal to the universal, in this case uniquely painting his own experiences against the backdrop of a new life in Quebec and the province’s vision of its future.
Verboczy is “one among the million who have come to Quebec over the three decades since [he] came, attracted by the promise of a better life.”
Memories of childhood and a “not-always-so-tender youth” are on point, rooted in world history and life-changing events. The story behind his mother’s decision to move from Hungary to Montreal, for instance, is quickly set in a broader immigration context:
“I’m not making this up. My mother really did decide to emigrate upon discovering that in Montreal women were willing to pay an astronomical sum to have hot wax poured on their legs before having their hair brutally yanked out. […] My mother practiced a profession for which no college equivalence or license was demanded. She didn’t need advanced language proficiency and she could get a job anywhere in the world and possibly even open her own business.”
Like any prospective immigrant, improving her lot was key. And, like any prospective immigrant, she was lost in her dreams, oblivious to the foghorn’s warning:
“Warning! It isn’t easy to learn a new language; it’ll take years, even more to learn two. You may never find a paying job that lives up to your expectations. Your resume, whether populated by truths or lies, won’t open all doors. […] There is unemployment, long waits in emergency rooms, bed bugs, really stupid TV shows, buses that decide not to show up at twenty below and policy debates that you can’t understand a word of.”
Verboczy’s (self-)analysis is probing, sharp, and thoughtful. The book is sophisticated and very accessible, awash with culture and cultural references, some familiar and low-brow (E.T., Crocodile Dundee, Rocky), some more exotic and high-brow (The Boys of Paul Street and Dany Laferrière). More often than not, these cultural references are tied in to a satisfying image that wraps everything up nicely before moving on to a separate issue in the next chapter. When weighing up the immigrant’s tendency to look backward, for example, Verboczy concludes:
“On a daily basis we were confronted with the distance between ourselves and what we had left behind. […] We had not migrated to the futuristic America foreshadowed by Back to the Future, but to a scene out of post-war Hungary, filmed in black and white.”
Language is naturally one of the book’s most lively preoccupations. It is obviously something the author has spent a great many years thinking over and his thoughts on its impact on social status are especially interesting. Verboczy arrives in Montreal as a child, “at a time when each French word that replaced an English word, be it in the media, in commerce or on the job, was seen as a step towards equality, a concrete advance that would finally lift those who spoke French from the bottom of the social ladder where they had been historically relegated.” It’s ironic then that, in the wake of Bill 101, the upwardly mobile immigrant class to which Verboczy belongs finds itself rejecting the province’s majority language in favour of English at high school:
“Through the magic of power relations, it was English that conveyed authority and was the language of winners, although in fact more students could speak French than English. […] We peppered our French sentences and phrases with English words and expressions, drawing from a language which also wasn’t our mother tongue, but whose use sustained the illusion that we were both cool and cosmopolitan.”
In his mother’s opinion, social success—”the success of our immigration”—meant going to McGill or Concordia, and the author’s decision to study at a French CEGEP “inevitably raised the eyebows that my mother was trying to pluck.”
“A French CEGEP in a French neighbourhood with French students and professors wasn’t very prestigious or promising,” Verboczy explains.
“At least he doesn’t take drugs,” the pitying clients reply to his mother.
“Maybe not, but he reads Le Devoir,” comes the reply.
The author has a knack for turning a situation on its head, helping readers consider an issue from a new perspective. “There is a misconception that the host country learns to live with diversity thanks to its immigrants,” he points out, “but it is often the opposite. Immigrants tend to come from towns and villages with homogenous populations or from regions where hatred of a neighbouring community is acceptable. When they arrive here, they have to learn to deal with ‘differences’ for the first time in their lives. The culture shock is a lot milder for someone from Abitibi who comes to Montreal than it is for a Jamaican.”
Short chapters help prevent the thinking from becoming muddled and move on before the argument begins turning in circles. The chapters are also wittily titled (“The Words of a Man of His Word,” “A Day in the Life of a Deputy Returning Officer”), reeling readers in and seldom falling flat.
Translator Casey Roberts pins the voice down nicely, showing remarkable consistency of tone over the course of 250 pages. Useful footnotes decode cultural references and explain household names in Quebec, everything from Rodger Brulotte and Passe-Partout to the Centre Claude-Robillard and CEGEP. One quibble would be that all quotations from cultural references are retranslated by Casey Roberts himself, even when the “official” English version (of Dany Laferrière’s The Enigma of the Return and Michèle Lalonde’s “Speak White,” for example) are readily available.
“Reading Akos Verboczy’s book left me entertained, moved, on my toes, occasionally aggravated, and more than once questioning and reassessing a few things I previously took for granted,” Toula Drimonis writes in the book’s foreword. This, I suspect, will be a typical critical response to Verboczy’s ruminations. Those who agree with him (particularly when it comes to the merits of Quebec sovereignty) will nod their heads; those who disagree will shake theirs in frustration. Few minds will be changed. Which is a shame. Because this is an astute and witty contribution to a conversation in which beliefs tend to remain unshaken, and in which both sides feel most at home on familiar ground.