Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

It's the Name, Stupid

Country names are personal

I explain Quebec to Slovenians. A difficult topic in a difficult language—each Slovenian adjective has fifty-four forms—but, franchement, my column for the Maribor Vecer is the best in the world on Quebec. Slovenians read me because Quebec reminds them of how they were for A Thousand Years, before independence. Members of those clubs carry all of history on their backs. “From the algae,” a poet of that seaside nation says, “up to my heart.”

Little Slovenia is closely studied in Quebec. When President Clinton visited Mont Tremblant in 1999, touting Canadian unity, there were the separatist provincial minister Joseph Facal and the federalist federal minister Stephane Dion, debating Slovenia. Go figure. Quebec separatists, before their recent defeat in the provincial elections, sent delegations to Slovenia like probes to Mars, to see how it had achieved and was handling independence. And when tiny Slovenia—whose flag has been likened to an outing club pennant—gets mentioned in the Big World, it’s a big deal for the Slovenians and material for me.

Slovenia’s stardom has little to do with the ease (said Facal) or difficulty (said Dion) of its accession to independence. Logistics are irrelevant because independence is not a political desire, but a real, personal, from-the-libido-up-to-my-heart desire. Insignif-icant Slovenia is a problem for Canadian federalists not because it was part of a federation and is now independent (and thus a bad example), but because it makes Quebec nationalists feel lousy. They are envious and think about Slovenia too much and inaccurately. Quebec, as a province of Canada, has more independence than Slovenia, now entering the European Union on its knees, could ever have. The separatists know that, but so what! I asked a separatist editorialist at Montreal’s Le Devoir if he was Slovenia-obsessed because he feared it had caught the last independence train. He wondered sadly how I knew; he said if his side lost the 1995 referendum, he would give up and become a farmer. It did lose, but by a mere thirty thousand votes. I wonder how his blueberries are.

I spent the autumn of the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence teaching Canadian literature in Ljubljana. As all good federalists eventually do, I tried selling my students on a united Canada, but they were natural little separatists. They had to explain things to their stupid Canadian teacher.

Young Woman: What I like about independence is we have a name now. When I was abroad, people would ask what I was and if I said, “Slovenian,” they said, “Is that a country?” When I said it was part of Yugoslavia, they said, “Oh, you’re Yugoslav.” You shouldn’t have to explain your name. If they ask and you say it, they should say, “That’s nice,” not “What is that?” Now we’re a country country.

Stupid Canadian: So all you’ve gained is the name, a nameplate at conferences?

YW: Just a name? Your name is Tom and somebody decrees it is Jack. You’d get used to it, but it wouldn’t be nice. Your name is Tom.

SC: (understanding more, after all my name wasn’t Tom, but Tomaz; Tom was the Canadianized version I was stuck with) Cute, but we’re talking country names, not personal names.

YW: Country names are personal. My family is from Gorica; the Italians changed it to Gorizia. Gorica was once half Slovenian. In the 1920s, the Fascists, before they came for the Jews, came for the Slovenians. A law made us Italianize our names: baptismal names, villages, grave markers, everything. A vodopivec (voda/water, pivec/drinker) became a bevilacqua. The Italians called it “the baptism of the century,” yuk yuk. So we’re allergic to names other than our own. I’m Slovenian, not Yugoslav. It’s what we’ve gained; there is no independence, everything is negotiable, but we have our name.

Ah! They want their name! No wonder we say of new countries that they are recognized. The Quebec nationalists are not nationalists for economic or political reasons, but because Great-Uncle Calixte or Grandma Yvette got snubbed in English once fifty years ago at Eaton’s (Canada’s flagship department store until its 1999 bankruptcy). And the story got told and sung and became a myth and had babies. All the debates are a cover-up for that original pain. And there they are hurting and the world doesn’t even know they exist, doesn’t even know their name. At the United Nations, even, nation stupidly means state. The hurt has nothing to do with constitutional imbalances. All politics is personal.

If the name is what the nationalists want, give it to them. Canada changed flags once; why not rename itself, too? Let’s try “Canada & Quebec.” “Where are you from?” “I’m from Canada & Quebec.” And suddenly a country Quebec nationalists can swear by exists. There it is on maps. Its true name! Nothing else changes. We go on behaving like a good little federation for the rest of our lives. Me, I would prefer to call it Four Canadas/Les Quatre Canadas (Aboriginal, French, English, and Immigrant), but it’s not me we’re trying to please.

Is my solution an anti-climax? You want a war, maybe? You want terrorists? Remember this: your nationalist is a fetishist. Think practically. The separatists are temporarily out of power, but someday another independence referendum will come. Vampires die sooner than these ideas. And here’s my trap of a referendum question under the new arrangement: “Do you want to separate from Canada & Quebec?” I can hear the conversation now: “Are you voting Yes, Pauline?” “Félix, how can I vote to separate from Canada & Quebec?”

After the First World War, Slovenians and the other Austro-Hungarian Southern Slavs formed, with Serbia, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. That wonderful portmanteau name—you should see the stamps—which should have been an example to all federations, to which other names could have been added as needed, as awareness grew, was eventually changed, by a dictator, to the ugly, unitary Yugoslavia. With that wrong name, the country began to die. You know the end of that story.