There’s a thesis to be written, if it hasn’t been already, on the theme of fascism in recent Canadian fiction. Several Timothy Findley novels, most notably Famous Last Words, dealt powerfully with the subject. Michael Ondaatje, in The English Patient, gave us a controversially sympathetic portrait of Count Laszlo d’Almasy, a famous real-life Nazi. And Mavis Gallant’s stories have looked insistently at humanity’s fascist impulse, both as a political movement and as a subtext to human relationships in the private realm.
It’s Gallant’s work that comes immediately to mind as a precursor to Claudia Casper’s second novel, an honest and powerful new addition to reading lists on the topic of the fascist impulse. Like Gallant’s work, The Continuation of Love by Other Means forces us to explore the continuities between fascism, both literal and metaphorical, and everyday life in the postwar West. Casper’s narrative flips between the lives of the troubled Alfred, a globe-trotting German expatriate, and his comparatively well-adjusted Canadian daughter, Carmen.
Alfred is a boozing womanizer, a man ruined by his awful childhood in Hitler’s Germany. A misogynist who thinks all females are out to get him, he jumps from marriage to marriage, and from country to country, leaving a trail of broken relationships and half-forgotten children wherever he goes.
Carmen is the oldest of these carelessly sired offspring. Although Alfred left Canada when she was still a young child, he has made some effort to keep in contact. A few years later, at the age of nine, she begins a series of visits to her difficult and mysterious father in whatever exotic locale he is currently calling home.
In 1976 Alfred finally settles down in fascist Argentina and aligns himself with the country’s murderous military junta. Carmen, now in her twenties and firmly democratic in her values, is shocked and furious. How could Alfred, who witnessed the catastrophe of German fascism, buy into the same old deranged ideology?
It’s to Casper’s credit that Alfred never comes across as a flatly stereotypical “bad man,” despite that fact that he’s a rather nasty piece of work. Instead, she gives a nuanced portrait, showing us good as well as evil, inviting us at times to like and even sympathize with this wounded person, full of love and life despite his deep flaws.
Casper’s depiction of Alfred’s lifelong passion, cave exploration, is a deft move. The literary device – using a character’s hobby or vocation as a window into their interior psychology – is not new. But Alfred’s journeys to the world’s dark, subterranean places (in addition to being interesting in their own right) provide a revealing counterpoint to his refusal to delve into his own interior depths.
Some of the novel’s most disturbing moments occur during Carmen’s visits to her father in Buenos Aires. Aware of the horrible crimes being committed by her dad’s friends and allies, she nonetheless finds herself lulled by the exotic opulence of his lifestyle. As the reader is seduced along with Carmen by the surface normality of it all, we realize what a brave, subtle writer Casper is.
Casper’s clean, direct prose style sometimes feels dully clinical rather than richly deadpan. And at times the novel sags under the weight of long, peripheral scenes or rambling interior monologues that don’t offer enough insight into the story or characters. These issues aside, The Continuation of Love by Other Means is a moving and mature piece of work, successfully achieving a rare melding of brutal realism and quiet hopefulness. It’s also a timely reminder that fascism is not some distant reality with no bearing on our innocent Canadian lives, but is a subtler and more seductive force than we might think.