Solomon Gursky Was Here is an epic novel spanning nearly a century and a half, from the mid 1800’s to 1980’s. It is the story of the obsession of Moses Berger, a Rhodes scholar turned alcoholic, with Solomon Gursky, the charismatic son of a poor immigrant. Solomon, with his brother Bernard and Morrie, built the massive liquor empire of McTavish industries. Moses is attempting to write a biography of Solomon, which becomes his life’s work. Through his investigations the complex story of five generations of Gurskys is revealed.
The eldest is Ephraim, Solomon’scriminal, perpetually scheming grandfather. Ephraim, is constantly associated with the raven, he escaped imprisonment in England in the mid 1800’s by forging documents, also allowing him to join a crew searching for the Northwest passage, called the Franklin Epedition. The expedition turned into a total disaster, Ephraim, the sole survivor. The youngest Gursky appearing in this story is Isaac, Solomon’s grandson. This complex tale unravels, as Moses recalls, all of the events in his life which pertain to it.
Ever present in this Canadian cultural satire is the theme of filial relationships and the exploration of Solomon and his re-incarnation as Sir Hyman Kaplansky, in conjunction with his family and their exploits. Every character in this novel is in some way corrupt or failure. Moses is an alcoholic who did not live up to his potential; Bernard is a greedy self-centered bastard; Solomon is a cheat, when it comes to gambling, women and anything else you can think of. Richler, through this exaggeration of corruption and failure, is satirizing the idea that Canada is a second rate nation.
One character, in conversation with Moses, once said: Canada is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples. The French-Canadians consumed by self-pity; the descendants of Scots who fled the Duke of Chamberlain; Irish the famine; and Jews the black hundreds. Then there are the peasants from the Ukraine, Poland , Italy and Greece, convenient to grow wheat and dig out ore and swing the hammers and run the restaurants, but otherwise to be kept in their place .
Most of us are still huddled tight to the border, looking into the candy store window, scared by the Americans on one side and the bush on the other. “(P. s398-399) This says, in no uncertain terms, that Canada is compromised of people not worthy of other countries. The satirical nature of this statement is alluded to by harsh words, such as “holding tank” and “scared”. Also by impersonal words, such as “progeny”. Most Canadians do not, as this says, envy the Americans and think of America as a “candy store”. Richler is attacking some typical stereotypes of Canada and Canadians by exemplifying them.
Moses, who is Richler’s voice in the novel, exhibits many autobiographical characteristics: English speaking resident of Montreal, raised on Jean Mance street. He has a strong religious backround (Jewish), smokes a cigars, writes professionally and lived in London, England for a period. Moses and his father L. B. do not get along well. L. B. , a failed poet, is resentful of his son’s literary talent. This leads to leads to L. B. treating his son with contempt. On one occasion, Moses, home from school at Balliol, tells LB that he submitted a short story, which LB said “showed promise”(p. 29), to “the New Yorker.
L. B. belittled Moses for his attempt which he suspected to fail and demanded that he be given the mail upon it’s arrival, to open it in private. When the package from “the New Yorker” arrived, L. B. opened and read it in private, then later invited Moses into the room. L. B. proceeded to tell Moses that he also had been rejected by “editors who print crap, so long as it is written by their friends, but who couldn’t tell Pushkin from Ogden Nash. “(P. 132). Moses later learned that the magazine had accepted his story and had sent it back requesting a few small revisions.
He, supposedly, ha d written back saying “‘the New Yorker’ regularly prints crap so long as it is written by their friends, they couldn’t tell Pushkin from Ogd….. n Nash, and he was withdrawing his story. ” (P. 309). This filial relationship is typical of all others in this novel. All are full of anomosity and dislike. Many times they escalate of cruelty as seen in this instance. Solomon Gursky led a prolific life consisting of gambling, traveling, bootlegging, military service(WWI) and many women.
Through his teenage gambling exploits, the first in a chain of hotels, which would lay the foundation for the Gursky empire, was acquired in a high stakes poker match, in which he risked the deed to his fathers store. A character in the novel once said that “without Solomon that bastard would have ended up like he started. Sweeping up in a warehouse. “(P. 253). This was stated in reference to Bernard who had been left as the sole man in charge of then Gursky empire, after the apparent death of Solomon in an airplane crash. Evidence exists, though, which shows that Solomon is actually alive.
For example, soon after the death of Bernard, “a raven skewered and harpooned” (P. 257) was found on his grave. Upon further examination. The harpoon was declared to “clearly be an Eskimo artifact” (P. 158). Also caved into the harpoon was a gimle (a Hebrew symbol). This evidence points to Solomon because he, as his grandfather was, is continually associated with the raven. Solomon as a child was hand-picked by his grandfather Ephraim, as the chosen one of the three brothers and was taken to the arctic to learn the Inuit way of life.
Solomon’s ability to make and use this Inuit harpoon, strengthens his association with the desecration of his brother’s grave. Moses discovers Solomon’s most used alias after his apparent death as Sir Hyman Kaplansky. Sir Hyman is a rich well-traveled Jewish Englishman, who is intelligent and witty. He is a good piano player, an aviation buff and a good impressionist. He is always carrying a malacca cain and is associated with the raven. He shares all these characteristics and mannerisms with Solomon.
Moses, while at school in England, meets Sir Hyman, who becomes a father figure to him. Sir Hyman was responsible for Moses looking towards the Franklin Expedition and the arctic for information about Ephraim and the Gursky beginnings in Canada. After being constantly fed a wealth of information pertaining to the Gursky’s. Moses realizes who Sir Hyman really is. Moses finds a portrait of a lady with “one eye brown, one eye blue. ” (P. 498). This lady, Moses knew, was Solomon’s one true love. Sir Hyman confirmed this fact to Moses when asked.
The next day he was reported to have drowned. Moses was given a package which contained Solomon’s journals and a letter from Sir Hyman which stated that Moses would receive $30 000 a year. Sir Hyman’s clue and money donation shows that he wants Moses to learn more about his life and of the Gursky family. On occasion Solomon, who did not actually drown, contacts Moses with small clues as to his whereabouts. Moses, constantly trying to track him down, seems to be, being led on a wild goose chase.
Solomon enjoys Moses’ obsession and encourages it, although no matter what he will always stay one step ahead of Moses, not allowing him to learn everything. Richler, through his complex tale of Moses Berger and his obsession with Solomon Gursky, is able to paint a picture of Canadian culture. The Gursky family and their diverse interests, life-styles and undertakings allows Richlers readers to grasp many parts of Canada in many different time frames. This in turn allows him to satirize the stereotypes of Canada, its people and their culture.
Adding to idea of corruption, which enhances this satire, are the filial relationships occurring in this novel. The fact that all these relationships are unsuccessful and non-cordial, enhances the idea that all Canadians roots are in some way corrupt or failures. Richler, shows how these traits are passed through generation after generation. There can be no doubt that Solomon, one of the most corrupt characters in the book, becomes Sir Hyman after his staged death. Richler has tiedhis complex story of Solomon Gursky, his family and their exploits together with his cultural messages.