Truth is Relative

Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler ★★★★

Barney Panofsky is an aging Jewish businessman from Montreal who’s made the bulk of his fortune producing schlock Canadian television programs. He decides to write a memoir relating his own version of events when an old acquaintance from his time spent in Paris as a young man publishes a book which features unflattering mentions about him. What’s clear from the beginning is that Barney is an unpleasant old coot who takes pride in offending people and their various sensibilities, and also that he has a faltering memory (he calls one of his sons in London when he needs help remembering the names of the seven dwarves), which makes him a delightfully unreliable narrator. We also quickly learn that Barney is a heavy drinker who enjoys his Macallan single malt scotch with plenty of cigars, morning, noon and night. The novel is divided into three parts which are ostensibly dedicated to his three former wives, and we eventually learn the details of how he came to be married to them and how the marriages have ended, although Barney’s storytelling is far from linear and tends to jump all over the place, so there are anecdotes aplenty. Barney may or may not have killed his best friend, the talented writer Bernard “Boogie” Moscovitch, who has disappeared without a trace, and he aims to redeem himself and come clean once and for all about the events which led to his arrest for that alleged murder, but as he progresses in his storytelling, his lapses in memory become more and more frequent until he can no longer be certain of what had taken place on that fateful day.

I must admit it took me a good 100 pages or so before I began to enjoy this book and very nearly decided to drop it because Barney jumps into a bunch of jumbled-up stories, naming places and individuals and incidents big and small and skipping through time willy-nilly from the very beginning, which made it hard to figure out what was going on. But as I progressed, I began to see that there was some kind of method in the madness and the story that does emerge is well-worth the initial confusion. All told, a great way to start the year with a masterful novel that doesn’t lack in originality. The book was a Christmas present from my dad and we’ve already agreed to go see the movie adaptation together, which is due out in cinemas on January 14th.

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6 thoughts on “Truth is Relative

    • Yes, keep it in mind. Don’t know if you’d enjoy Regeneration as much as I did, but it’s worth looking up. I’m distilling a bit and will review it soon. xx

  1. It sounds like an interesting concept but I can well understand your initial consternation. I really must try and read more books but have very little spare time as it is.

    Happy New Year! I hope this is a good one for you : )

    • Pam: it’s true that one has to have time for reading. But then… don’t you have an iPad? Don’t you spend time travelling?? As for me, it’s a necessary escape these days. Coping mechanism, really.

      Wishing you a great 2011 with much health, happiness and… time to do things you like to do!

      • Unfortunately I spend less time travelling than I used to and when I do I am invariably driving, more’s the pity. A big problem for me is learning to enjoy reading again rather than see it as a task that needs to be fitted in. I think a holiday away from home would provide the perfect opportunity :) Reading is good for the soul, no matter the reason and so I couldn’t think of a better coping mechanism.

  2. You know Pam, I’ve joined a community of readers or LibraryThing and we call ourselves ‘The 75ers’ since the full name is ’75 Book Challenge’, the idea being that we ostensibly aim to read that many books in the year. Some people don’t get anywhere near that figure while others manage to read HUNDREDS of books (as in, several), so the numbers aren’t important but the idea is everybody discusses what they’ve read and quite a lot of people post excellent reviews (those I post here are all posted to the group as well, but I don’t put ALL my reviews on the blog when they’re not that good).

    Anyway, long story short, there are quite a lot of people in the group (around 800 members strong) that listen to audio books quite a lot who are exactly in your position of not having the availability or concentration available to sit down with a book. I haven’t tried it myself yet, mainly because I really enjoy taking the time to read visually and I sometimes have trouble hearing (and also the audio versions a almost double the price of paperbacks), but I just thought I’d suggest it to you in case you feel like trying it.

    I also understand if you feel like your mind isn’t disposed to books one way or another. I sometimes go through long periods when reading is not at all appealing to me. But yes, reading IS good for the soul, I do agree with you there and as a coping mechanism, beats sleeping all day or shooting heroin (not that I ever would) or drinking booze or being a sexoholic or whatever it is people do to cope in less healthy ways, right?

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