Ottawa Writers Festival: Linden MacIntyre digs deeply into the morass of the Lebanese civil war

Linden MacIntyre. Photo: Joe Passaretti

There are things that mark you … that fester in your memory until one day they just have to come out. For the former CBC-TV journalist Linden MacIntyre, his time spent in Lebanon covering the brutal civil war in the 1980s is such a memory.

It forms the basis for his new novel, The Only Café.

“I had an idea and I have had this idea for a long time about the consequences of violence. I have done it in various shades and shapes,” he said in a phone interview from his hotel room in Winnipeg before his appearance at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Monday.

“I had an idea about memory, violence, shame, embarrassment and secrets. And how secrets will sometimes cause rifts between the generations between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.”

Soon MacIntyre was musing about what might happen when a parent with secrets disappears.

“There is a kind of hopelessness that falls over the survivor. They think, ‘Now I’m never going to know.’ It is a painful thing for a young person to grow up not knowing who or what caused their estrangement.”

The Only Café tells the story of Pierre Cormier and his son Cyril, who are estranged from each other by failed marriages and the father’s secrecy. After the father is killed in violent and mysterious circumstances, Cyril sets out to find out more about his father and why he died the way he did.

The young man, who is a budding journalist working for a TV station in Toronto (read CBC here), makes his way to a place that his father had frequented, a small bar hidden away in the big city, where a mysterious, somewhat sinister man named Ari may hold the truth in his hands. It’s the kind of place that lures in characters that, in another time, might have inhabited Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

It turns out Pierre was a combatant in the Lebanese Civil War and did things that caused the violent deaths of innocents. Many will remember the massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 by Christian militiamen, 35 years ago. MacIntyre sure does.

“I do believe these estrangements are based on fact that the parent survived some horrifying crisis. The reality is that we frequently survive these crises with behaviours that we aren’t really proud of later. We talk of survivor’s guilt; I think we frequently have survivor’s shame.

“I spent 50 years in the field and 38 very intensively as a TV reporter. I covered a lot of conflicts in different parts of the world, especially the Lebanese civil war. I saw a lot of it up close and it was probably the Lebanon story that most shaped my ideas about the consequences of violence and the origins of personal guilt and shame and embarrassment.

“So I started with an idea and I realized that in my memory bank I had an awful lot of unused stuff. I had stuff that would actually usefully contribute to the telling of this story and maybe it would be a healthy thing for me too to revisit and get out.”

Canada has become a haven for many peoples who have fled hardship and violence, MacIntyre says.

“You might argue that the whole country is dealing with PTSD in some way. I do believe an awful lot of the Canadian character is formed in response to some sort of post traumatic stress. I think a lot of the better aspects of the Canadian character are shaped by this. We do history through the memories of people who survived exile oppression and violence.” As opposed to other countries where history is defined by a ruling elite, he added.

That population mix means Canadians need to understand the world to understand their own country, he believes. The Canadian media, facing a massive crunch right now, doesn’t always ave the ability to do this as well today, he says, as it might have 30 years ago when objectivity was one of the principles governing a journalist’s working life.

“We had objectivity hammered into us and that’s not a bad thing.” But, he says, “we have developed a more nuanced view of what it means to be objective.” Reporters nowadays, however, seem to get more deeply immersed in a particular situation, he says.

“It takes a lot of guts and character to get down and deep inside something and get really close to the main players and then to step out again and tell the story as an outsider. This will inevitably lead you to accusations of manipulation and betrayal. But that is the burden of the journalist. You are never going to tell a story exactly as the person in the story would tell it.”

He believes that Pierre would probably not really like the way MacIntryre has told his story.

“Pierre would say my story is incomplete and it suffers from the fact that while you parachuted in to Lebanon a couple of times, you didn’t live it. You didn’t face a situation where you rushed into a room with a gun and started shooting everything that moves. You can’t understand the feeling that occurs when you realize there was nothing dangerous in the room, just innocent people.”

MacIntyre wouldn’t apologize to Pierre though.

“I can get up close to someone and I can say to myself ‘This guy is a liar, but he deserves to be listened to because I don’t think he is deliberately being misleading. His lies are based on a twisted understanding and a self interest that informs how he sees something.

“My problem is going to be after I leave I’m going to say here is what this guy says and here’s why it’s a lie.”

The consequence of that means some people tell MacIntyre he is too easy on bad people.

“I met a woman in the railway station in Kingston after The Bishop’s Man (his Giller Prize winning novel about a priest who helps cover up scandals) came out. She said ‘I hated that book. I hated that priest, I hated the main character. I hated the women. You were too easy on them.”

He’s been accused of moral ambiguity, but he’s not apologizing for that either.

“I think personally that the only way you can make an honest evaluation about someone or something is to listen to them. There is a guy The Only Café, Ari, it would have been so easy to paint him in lurid colours as a bad person doing bad things.

“I got know this fellow and I began to hear him inside my head. He came across as an individual with some perceptions, some deep understanding about the world. He’s doing a nasty job that he believes in.”

Life is ambiguous, MacIntyre says. He also does not believe in innately evil people.

“I have even come to the potentially controversial notion that you cannot morally define another person. You cannot say that another person is evil.

“It’s pointless trying to figure out if someone is evil or good. You have to look at what they do. A lot of people do both evil things and good things.

“Once you have decided someone is evil, it’s pointless trying to pursue who they are … just get them off the planet. If you decide this person has done bad things but he’s just a person, that means we are all capable of doing bad things so we better find out what the circumstances were that caused this person to do evil things, so that we might be able to prevent others and ourselves from doing it.

“That’s a hard undertaking. You have to admit your own capacity for wickedness.”

We are flawed creatures, MacIntyre concludes.

“Fiction gives me a place to deeply explore things that in journalism you don’t have enough time to do.”

He’s both blessed an cursed by the fact that he doesn’t forget things. But those memories have caused  dreams and anxieties.

“I don’t sleep much. I don’t use fiction as therapy. It’s a compulsion that might be therapeutic in the end.”

He seems about to return to journalism because of this latest novel.

“It caused me to dig out books of non-fiction by others who covered that war more intensively. That research reminded me of the importance of journalism.” So he’s now in the early stages of a non-fiction about misdeeds in Atlantic Canada.

“It is heavy on research, documents, controversial issues and talking to real people about real lives. Now I know why did this for so long. It’s because I liked it.”

Interestingly his partner, Carol Off, who hosts CBC Radio’s As It Happens, has her own book, All We Leave Behind, up for discussion at the writers festival on Sunday at 4 p.m. It relates her relationship with a source of hers in Afghanistan with whom she became personally involved. MacIntyre says he watched this book closely.

“I was there when she was making phone calls to Pakistan and when she returned from Afghanistan talking about these people.”

The book considers when does a reporter’s responsibility to a source begin and end.

“It’s an important book from that point of view. It addresses the humanity of what journalists do when they are doing it. And how we should work harder at continuing a human response about the situations we find ourselves in.”

The Only Cafe
Linden MacIntyre (Random House Canada)
In town: The author is on a panel at Christ Church Cathedral on Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and  information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.