Even those Quebeckers who have overlooked Roch Carrier’s seminal novella La Guerre, Yes Sir! abhor the image of the vendu, the bought-and-sold, unthinking type who goes off to fight a foreign war for les Anglais. There is a long-standing cultural distaste for interventionism in the affairs of those who are far away, and a firm skepticism of anglo annunciations. Perhaps that’s why Montreal saw 200,000 anti-war demonstrators one weekend this past March, while the anglo bastion of Toronto hosted a mere 5,000.
La Guerre, Yes Sir, first published 35 years ago, still speaks to Québécois culture, and merits revisiting in this time of war. Carrier’s tale (later turned into a play) tells of a young man named Corriveau, born in a small village somewhere in Quebec, who comes home in a coffin. This is the story of his wake. It is also a profane, brutal and downright unpleasant portrayal of life during the Second World War. This is a book to be enjoyed, but not to be liked. The anglos are one-dimensional sneers. The French peasants are just as nastily portrayed, even if they have well-developed personalities -- a true coup in a slim volume of 113 pages.
Carrier writes of a time of obscurantism, of a time Quebeckers have tried hard to leave behind. During the Great War, Quebec City saw riots to protest conscription, explained to the rest of Canada as a culturally-based reaction. There was a great fear in Ottawa of more of the same during the Second World War. But Carrier takes us to a rural area, a village of small huts much like the tiny Beauce town he grew up in (Carrier was himself born as the war began). There are no riots here; there are no cultural objectors to the war.
Instead, there are cowards (who desert or slice off a hand to avoid being drafted, in a shocking anecdote where fear inspires bravery). There are the outright vendus—Yes sir!—who go off to war for the anglo. And there are the inward-gazing average Québécois villagers, so ignorant of the outside world that the dead soldier’s mother cannot recognize the cloth that covers her son’s coffin as a flag. This Mother Earth figure is the vendu of the last generation, who allows the anglo to take her son, his life, and a part of hers, through her own kindly passivity. Carrier’s most shocking image has the English soldiers throwing the drunken Québécois out of their own home, leaving them to fend for themselves in the freezing snow.
The book was published in 1968, in the middle of the Quiet Revolution. La Guerre, Yes Sir is a blunt vision—Carrier is not a subtle writer—of French complicity under English control and contempt. Yet through all this, Carrier saw the promise of a modern people. The outside dribbles in, no matter how desperately we nail boards over the windows. But did the values and beliefs that came from this cultural background simply disappear as Quebeckers shed their naiveté and discovered the world?
Montreal’s anti-war demonstration in February was said to be the largest in Canada. The last protest, held just before the bombings began, was even bigger. I wish I could have faith that such large turnouts were based on a principled understanding of the issues.
Quebec’s history of turning its back on the world only makes me wonder whether the strength of the anti-war movement in this province is really based on principled belief, or the same old inward-looking passivity of old. Or is it simply the continued—and at times so valid—prejudice that the anglos must not be trusted?
The demonstrators no longer respond, “La guerre? Yes sir!” They say no outright. But is it for the right reasons? Each Quebecker must answer that question for him or her self. Roch Carrier’s book makes an invaluable contribution to an understanding of Quebeckers and war.