Mordecai Richler's gazebo splendid, says widow

Mordecai Richler's widow says the Canadian literary giant would have been delighted to have a gazebo named in his honour in his hometown of Montreal — graffiti and all.

The gazebo's decaying shingles are curling to the sky, its rust spots are partially covered by graffiti, and its floorboards were being used Wednesday as a makeshift motel by a scruffy-looking man.

This dilapidated Montreal structure has been designated in honour of Mordecai Richler, one of Canada's literary giants.

The famed, yet frequently controversial, author's hometown is planning to refurbish the Mont Royal Park gazebo and convert it to a speaker's corner by next summer.

'Were the graffiti to be left, I think somehow that would have delighted Mordecai because ... it would be critical and that was his nature'—Florence Richler

Richler's widow believes even the gazebo's current state of disrepair would have appealed to her late husband — spray-paint and all.

"Were the graffiti to be left, I think somehow that would have delighted Mordecai because ... it would be critical and that was his nature," Florence Richler said Wednesday after a ceremony at Montreal City Hall.

The gazebo idea drew criticism in the city and outside, in English Canada, by people who deemed it an inadequate tribute for the acclaimed writer. But Richler's family is proud his name will live on in a leafy park not far from his old neighbourhood, which was made famous in some of his books.

"Once it's refurbished, I think it will be splendid," Florence Richler said. "I'm very pleased."

Asked if she would have preferred to see a street or lane named in his honour, she said the gazebo makes the most sense because of the writer's modest roots.

"He wasn't born in Westmount or Outremont, so this is quite appropriate," she said, naming two of Montreal's wealthiest areas.

"It was a very poor area filled with immigrants — he wrote about it, he brought it to life, he made it memorable for all of us."

Montreal will honour Mordecai Richler on the 10th anniversary of his death by refurbishing a run-down gazebo and renaming it for him. (Andy Blatchford/Canadian Press)

Richler, the author of such books as St. Urbain's Horseman, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Barney's Version, died of cancer on July 3, 2001. His works have attracted international acclaim and many credit him with helping put Montreal on the world map.

The city is paying homage to him to mark the 10th anniversary of his death by designating the structure, at the foot of Mount Royal, the Pavillon Mordecai-Richler.

Richler's son said the location is perfect because his father's gravesite further up the mountain practically overlooks the gazebo from above.

"It's right by Fletcher's Field, it's right by the area that he made so much of in Duddy Kravitz," Noah Richler said Wednesday.

He said the tribute is even better than renaming a street, a place where people get stuck in traffic. By comparison, the gazebo sits in an often-teeming park with impressive views of the city's skyline.

Noah Richler also noted that locals know the gazebo as the place where they smoked their first cigarettes and gulped back their first illicit beers — two vices his father frequently enjoyed.

"So, in a way it's very fitting," he said. "In truth, artistic memory in the public's mind can fade pretty rapidly, so it's great that the city is actually making a gesture."

Predictable critics

But not everyone has welcomed the tribute for the curmudgeonly Richler, an outspoken foe of Quebec's independence movement. As word spread last year about the city's intention to honour him, the Société St-Jean Baptiste pro-independence group called him "an anti-Quebec racist" because he "denigrated French Quebecers."

But Noah Richler defended his father's legacy Wednesday; he insisted there isn't as much opposition as the news media lead the public to believe.

He said the English media rush for a sound bite from the Société St-Jean Baptiste every time his father's name comes up. The longtime journalist suggests that's just a case of reporters courting controversy, of fishing for comments that are easy to foresee.

"That's as predictable a response as phoning up the Ku Klux Klan and asking for a response on a racial question. It's ridiculous," he said, adding that the vocal minority's argument is amplified by the media.

"The cultural memory of a place remembers the whole fabric and my father is one of a number of great artists that the city has spawned. And to deny one is just, as I say, silly, parochial." 

Florence Richler doesn't expect her husband's critics to forget and predicts vandals will strike almost immediately after the gazebo has been renovated. But that's OK with her.

"I would give it 24 hours before there were a few derogatory remarks and that can only entertain us," she said.

"It can always be erased, one can paint over it, but somebody else will come along. I see nothing wrong with graffiti, I quite enjoy it."