The examined life

By Amy Reiswig, April 2011

Michael Elcock on the hiding and finding of old things, the concealing and revealing of information.

Installed by the fireplace with a cup of tea, a tortoiseshell cat in my lap and the meandering magic of Philip Glass filling the room, I can’t imagine how Michael Elcock gets any of his many branches of work done. 

Elcock, who grew up in both Scotland and West Africa, is a man of curiosity and action. With degrees in history and education, he has been Athletic Director at UVic (he describes cutting  jogging trails with a machete back in the ’70s), taught mountain survival in the Scottish Highlands, headed Tourism Victoria, lived with his wife and daughter in Andalusia to work on Spain’s Expo ’92, travelled and published widely. 

Now living near Sooke, he consults on children’s character education for clients in New Zealand, on tourism (recently on the island of St Helena) for the British government, gets invited to teach courses for the Arvon Foundation, writes short pieces for The Scottish Review and has managed to write three books (so far) from his office at the self-built home he shares with poet Marilyn Bowering, their two cats and the insistently affectionate dog, Tess. All of which explains the delay in bringing his long-lying novel to life. 

The Gate is a historical military novel set mostly at the end of World War Two, and was initially researched and written during Elcock’s postgraduate years in the 1980s after he found a bullet-holed US Army helmet at the side of a house in Montmédy, France. Scheduled for mid-April release with Oolichan Books, it’s Elcock’s first novel but not his first major publication. Elcock’s previous books with Oolichan—A Perfectly Beautiful Place (2004) and Writing on Stone (2006, considered for Scotland’s prestigious Saltire Prize)—are both non-fiction, dealing with similar themes of travel, history, memory and identity. 

Most of The Gate is set between June and December 1944 in the Belgium-France border region; however, it’s the 1984 sections that lead us there. These are narrated by Etienne, a 40-year-old Vancouverite of indeterminate career who is summoned to his grandmother’s deathbed at her farmstead near Whistler. Things are revealed that change everything; they strip Etienne of a comfortable identity and replace certainty with a starfield of questions. In a simple understated style, Etienne says, reflecting his physical and psychological state, “I sit out in the night for a long time.” 

Etienne’s present—his job, personal relationship—is kept vague compared to his past and the past before he was even born, and Elcock explains the very specific purpose of this omission. “Etienne is a metaphor for...business people who cruise through life,” he tells me. “We’re skating across the surface most of the time. We don’t examine our lives. We’re told things and we accept them. Here is something elemental that Etienne never asked about.” Elcock then disappears to print out a quote from H.G. Wells which he says informed this aspect of the book: “You can go through contemporary life fudging and evading, indulging and slacking, never really hungry nor frightened nor passionately stirred.”

Elcock makes sure Etienne can no longer evade, and leads him to Europe and to stories of the war about his parents, about himself. The book is ultimately about the hiding and finding of old things, the concealing and revealing of information—who you are to others and to yourself. It is also about how the aging of places, people and objects in our lives should not be seen as threatening. Rather, it presents the opportunity and impetus to discover: to be curious, to ask questions and, always, to learn.

Elcock is a meticulous researcher, providing not only historically accurate events but small sensory details of war and life in the Maquis (guerrilla bands of the French Resistance): the “bitter, almond smell of the plastique;” coffee made from acorns; how to cook a hedgehog in a campfire. The Gate is also bursting with colour, and Elcock is surprised when I ask if he paints. The intensely visual style is comfortably grounding in a story that whirlwinds the reader across unfamiliar countryside, full of place names and militaria. No matter where one may be in these border regions, the description of farmland with sheep “moving about the field beyond the gate, small cloud-puffs of breath hanging about their heads; their fleeces spiky with frost” is recognizable. 

However, Elcock’s war story is not primarily about place or the business of battlefields, but of human relationships. “It fascinates me to learn what people are capable of,” Elcock says over a hearty lunch of homemade soup and buttery toast. While we inevitably see Nazi atrocities, one of The Gate’s main lessons is: don’t only look at what people do to each other, see what people can do for each other. 

That focus on relationships shows Elcock’s dedication to understanding beyond the surface. For example, early in Etienne’s European travels he encounters an old, destitute and clearly mentally disturbed chalk artist in the Domplatz of Cologne. Later he is told: “there are still quite a few of them…the old [German] soldiers who are still left.” The encounter is a sad one in which Elcock reminds us of war’s cost to all. “It’s a human tragedy,” he says. “We know damn well that we’re capable of doing the same things. Take waterboarding. It was one of the main techniques of the Gestapo.” 

The Gate is a very involved and involving story, and the only frustrating thing is that it just…ends. I wanted to see Etienne embark on one more return, this time back to Canada to reintegrate his new knowledge. I wanted to see the effect of his having been passionately stirred. When I ask Elcock about this he smiles, replying cagily in his lovely Scottish accent, “There might be a sequel to it. You never know.”

I would welcome that return. Hopefully it won’t take Elcock another 40 years for another story, but knowing all the other things that interest him and how comfy that chair is by the fire, I wouldn’t judge him if it did.

Having worked at a Holocaust documentation archive, been to Mauthausen and felt the ghosts there, writer and editor Amy Reiswig greatly respects the power of return, of memory and of those who have the guts to delve into and write about it.