Michael Ignatieff, True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009.
Reviewed by Reg Whitaker
Shortly after he fell into the leadership of the Liberal Party – by a curious acclamation in the midst of what was supposed to be a leadership contest – Michael Ignatieff disappeared for a time from public view. He was, his spokespersons indicated, completing a book, about himself and his Canadian family roots.
This news was greeted with snorts of derision from the boys and girls of the Ottawa press corps and the party hacks and flacks. “Iggy,” it seemed, was another inept intellectual like his predecessor, Stéphane Dion. Real politicians don’t write books; they should be out slapping backs, kissing babies and rousing the rank and file. The Conservatives swung into action with their negative ads: Ignatieff, the effete, elitist, espresso-drinking snob adored by the international jet set and the New York media, was “just in it for himself.” He was “just visiting” – an alien in Tim Horton’s Canada.
The picture of Ignatieff that emerges in True Patriot Love is far from the Tory caricature, but it is a bit fuzzy and unfocused in its presentation of self. While Ignatieff is not what his partisan enemies paint him as, we remain uncertain about what he is. Coming from a newly crowned leader of the opposition and potential prime minister, the book is an unusual production. Other political leaders have attracted campaign biographies written by journalists of varying degrees of sympathy and servitude toward their subject. But this is Ignatieff’s book, Ignatieff’s words, unfiltered except by whatever inner censor may now reside in the mind of the intellectual-turned-politician. The last PM with serious writing on his CV was Pierre Trudeau, but his independent writing was already behind him by the time he won the Liberal leadership. In becoming a practising politician, Ignatieff does not want to give up his academic credentials and his intellectual aura, even if it scores few points at the local Tim’s. The Toronto Liberals who engineered his rise to the top of the party must believe that the spirit of Trudeau can still move Canadians.
But True Patriot Love is also a hybrid product, falling short of the intellectual substance of earlier books like Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (1994); The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror (2004); The Rights Revolution (2000); or – going way back to the 1970s – the scholarly A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850. It is also an attempt to project himself to wider audiences than those that have attended to his earlier books and articles, to humanize (and politicize?) his image. In this he is at least partially successful.
It is not his first foray into first-person-plural autobiography. His earlier book of family recollections, The Russian Album (1987), looked at his paternal ancestors through his father George Ignatieff, a distinguished Canadian diplomat. The Ignatieffs were Czarist Russian émigrés, and The Russian Album examined Michael’s non-WASP roots in that other vast, snowy – but much more tortured and psychologically murky – northern country. The Russian Album won the Governor General’s Award. True Patriot Love will not win any literary awards, although it is not altogether lacking in literary merit. Ignatieff wrote about his Russian roots as an independent writer with literary licence. When he turns to his Canadian roots, it is as leader of the Liberal Party and contender for the prime ministerial throne. His “Canadian Album” is not just a family scrapbook; it is also a campaign kickoff. Hence the pointedly political, if not self-promoting, title.
Many will see this as a campaign pamphlet for the next election, and depending on the reader’s political perspective, quite different views have already appeared. Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail has offered a panegyric, but Valpy is an embedded journalist in the Ignatieff inner circle. On the other hand, a brutally hostile review by Ron Graham, wittily entitled “Intellectual Sleight of Hand,” has appeared in the Literary Review of Canada.