Mordecai Richler's penultimate novel, and certainly his most ambitious, Solomon Gursky Was Here is a yarn spun around the Gursky brothers - Bernard, Morrie, and Solomon - kings of a whiskey empire forged from bootlegging, millionaires many times over, and based on Canada's Bronfman family. The brood constitute the grandchildren of one Ephraim Gursky, a Jew and sole survivor of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, an 1846 attempt at unmasking the Northwest Passage.
Ephraim cuts a trickster figure; a Holy man and polyglot who has been self-employed as both thief and forger. In the Arctic, confronted by the Inuit, he calls forth an "eclipse," thus saving his hide and catapulting to the echelon of deity. He establishes a Jewish sect whose offspring sport parkas with Orthodox markings. He learns Latin, and, in one of the book's more bizarre, and irrelevant, sections, gives the business to the instructor's rigidly Christian wife. Glimpses of Ephraim's life come to us via Solomon, which come to us via Moses Berger, a scholarly alcoholic and philanderer who becomes obsessed with Solomon Gursky after he's killed in a plane crash in the North, perhaps because of some mechanical tampering at the hands of his brother, Bernard.
But is Solomon really dead? We're not certain, and the complex, time-skipping narrative, interlaced with snippets of Yiddish, machinations of bootlegging on the Prairies, Inuit myth, Judaism, a palm-greasing scene set against the backdrop of a fishing expedition in northern New Brunswick, references to Carl Jung, descriptions of nineteenth century London, analyses of human greed, perversion, and corruption, and a thousand other subjects, themes, connections, symbols, asides, etc., takes on a sort of mystery element. Through Berger's research (he is connected to the Gurkys through his father, a failed poet hired by the liquor barons as a speech writer cum cultural advisor, like the Bronfman's hired the poet A.M. Klein), we catch glimpses of Solomon at the Long March, Watergate, Nairobi, Israel, and, of course, the Canadian arctic. Or perhaps it's not really him. Or perhaps his sprit now resides in an arctic raven, a trickster figure in Native myth, playing games on mankind and watching on in amusement. You imagine a plot chalked out on about four dozen blackboards and you wish the first chapter were preceded by a genealogical chart. Solomon Gursky Was Here is outstandingly complex, and you wonder, more than once, in spite of the brainy detail and impressive intellectual workouts, if the narrator knows where he's going.
Many consider this to be Richler's finest novel, and although I would say it's the most remarkable (you can't help but marvel at how much the author knows, and the enormity of the task he's taken on), I enjoyed Barney's Version and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz better, even though, stylistically, Duddy Kravitz isn't even in the same league as Solomon Gursky. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book; I did, but alongside the sections that shone, there were sections unnecessary. Still, I'm giving the book four stars. It took Richler a decade to complete, and he remains, for me, Canada's best and most important writer. Technically, there are others who write as well (Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies), but there is no one more compelling. Although this book is often compared to Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the analogy is fragile; yes, it's generational; yes, it delves into magical realism. But Solomon Gursky Was Here remains unique.
Troy Parfitt, author of Why China Will Never Rule the World