Tanner's Tiger Page 6

All changed, changed utterly. I lifted a glass of red wine in a silent pledge to Québec Libre. I ordered a second glass of wine and looked at the mob of convivial drinkers around me. Two hundred years of subjection had not altered them. Generations had come and gone, yet all of my fellow drinkers not only spoke French – they looked French. Obviously the Canadian Confederation had to be torn apart. Obviously these men deserved their freedom. Obviously-

I left the bar without having a third glass of wine. This was probably a good thing. Already inflammatory slogans were sloshing around in my brain, and another glass of the dry red wine might easily have moved them to my lips. I was not even supposed to be in the damned country, and the reason for my presence had nothing whatsoever to do with the heroic struggle for a free Quebec, and the last thing I wanted to do was call attention to myself.

Further downtown it became easier to resist the siren’s song. In the heart of the commercial district the aura of French culture was far less prevalent. Everything down there was incredibly new, with the great majority of the buildings less than five years old. Skyscrapers, all glass and steel, thrust themselves geometrically into the air. Movie theaters and strip clubs and restaurants and bars were far more reminiscent of Broadway than of anything French. I had another smoked meat sandwich – it’s like pastrami – and drank innumerable cups of coffee.

At least it was cool out, cooler than New York. I still didn’t want to be in Montreal, and I still couldn’t believe that the fair was going to be much fun, and I didn’t even want to think about my reconnaissance mission at the Cuban Pavilion. But there were no race riots going on, and no air pollution, and my landlord was 400 miles away, as in fact was all of New York. And, by God, it was cooler.

I hoped it would stay that way. Because our sad excuse for a room wasn’t air-conditioned.

By the time I got back to the room, the sun was up and Minna wasn’t. She had managed to sprawl diagonally across the double bed. I had to rearrange her in order to stretch out next to her. She didn’t even stir. I lay flat on my back and closed my eyes and went through the Yoga routine of relaxing each group of muscles in turn, then turning my mind off by thinking of nothing, which is harder than it sounds. I stayed that way for some twenty minutes. When I yawned and stretched and got out of bed, I didn’t feel tired anymore. I selected clean clothes and climbed a flight of stairs to the bathroom. There was no shower, just a disreputable tub. First I washed the tub, and then I filled it and entered it and washed me. I returned to our room and woke Minna and sent her up for a bath. She was back again in less than ten minutes, desperately anxious to get to the fair before they closed it. I told her they hadn’t even opened it yet.

We had breakfast, then took a cab to the fairgrounds. The Expo was situated on a pair of islands in the St. Lawrence River. We bought seven-day passports, had something stamped on them, passed through a turnstile, and rode something called the Expo Express out to the actual Expo site. The train was completely automated and as tightly packed with fairgoers as a rush-hour subway.

Minna kept oohing at things through the window. We passed Habitat, a new approach to urban renewal featuring little concrete cubicles piled tipsily upon one another. We crossed part of the river, stopped at the Ile de Ste. Helene, crossed another part of the river to the Ile de Notre Dame, and left the train.

Notre Dame was the location of most of the national pavilions, Cuba included. I managed to establish this by referring to the official Expo map, which someone had sold me for a dollar near the turnstiles. We left the train and climbed down a long wooden staircase and found a bench to sit on, and I studied the map while Minna pointed at buildings, and before very long I gave up and threw the map into a concrete trashbin. It was utterly unintelligible. The site had been divided into four sections, each of which was given a folding map, with numbers all over the maps to indicate what everything was, and with the numerical keys buried on the back of other maps, to the point where it became quite impossible to determine where we were, much less where anything else was. Once I had thrown the thing away, I was able to look around at the great extent of fairgrounds. I still didn’t know quite where we were or quite where the Cuban Pavilion was, but now it didn’t much matter.

I had not been prepared for the sheer size of everything. There were massive buildings everywhere, brightly colored structures that clashed dissonantly with one another, extreme architectural excesses, triangles and spheres and palaces and tents, most of them pointing up the stated theme of the fair by suggesting that Man and His World were mutually incompatible. The pavilions dominated the scene like dinosaurs astride a prehistoric landscape. Beneath them, scattered among their feet, were the lesser mammals of the age, not nearly as glorious but better suited to survival – the boutiques and souvenir shops and hot dog stands and soda bars that raked in dollars while the pavilions offered themselves free of charge.

Overhead, little blue trains zipped along on the Minirail. Helicopters buzzed here and there. Boats of sight-seers cruised the canals. A pedicab rushed by us, the cyclist pedaling furiously in the rear while an old lady sat in the chair and fanned herself with a folded Expo map. At least she had discovered a use for the thing.

There were people everywhere, great mobs of them. They stood patiently in lines stretching out in front of some of the larger pavilions or walked furiously from one place to another. They bought hot dogs and hamburgers and soft drinks and cigarettes and propellor beanies and floppy hats with their names on them and souvenir pennants and many other things that nobody in his right mind would want. They wore sport shirts and slacks, bermuda shorts, bathing suits, miniskirts. They carried cameras and umbrellas and cameras and infants and cameras and shopping bags and cameras. God must have loved the fairgoers; he certainly made enough of them. An average of nearly a quarter of a million visited the fairgrounds every day, and at least that many passed in front of us in less than ten minutes.

“It’s cool here,” I said.

“It is getting warm in the sun, Evan.”

“It’s cooler than New York.”

“Yes, it is.”

“That’s something.”

“Is it not beautiful, Evan?”

“I suppose so.”

She stood up, waving her arms ecstatically. “I am so glad we are finally here,” she said. “What shall we do first? Do you want to ride on the Minirail? What pavilions shall we go to? Can I have something to drink?”

We went everywhere, we did everything. We rode on the Minirail and took a ride on the boat, which was called the Hovercraft. We went to more pavilions than either of us could keep track of, passing up the ones with lines in front of them – probably the best ones, naturally – and wandering through endless exhibits, most of which concentrated on depicting the economic progress and industrial potential of the country whose pavilion it was. A little of this goes rather a long way. I saw at least twenty different jars of coffee beans, each with a little signboard explaining that the coffee of this particular country was the best in the world, and, while it may be a flaw in my character, coffee beans tend to look alike to me. So do chunks of polished wood – each African nation displayed at least twenty different specimens of polished wood, for example, testing even Minna’s capacity for boundless enthusiasm.

By noon it was as hot as New York. We had lunch at the Algerian Pavilion, a particularly lovely building with a magnificent tiled floor and native tapestries on the walls. The restaurant was on a glassed-in patio. We had couscous with minced lamb, and it was good but very expensive.

At the Jamaican Pavilion we had banana chips, which look like potato chips and taste like buffalo chips. At the Uganda Pavilion I had a cup of Ugandan coffee (“The best in all the world!”), which tasted like any other cup of coffee. Across the road from the Mauritian Pavilion we saw a young boy fall out of the Hovercraft and into the water. Someone jumped in and dragged him out.

Around three in the afternoon, finally, we stumbled upon the Cuban Pavilion.

I think we must have already passed it several times without noticing it. There was a line in front of it but a short one. We queued up and waited while the uniformed attendant admitted groups of twenty-odd people at a time. Eventually it got to be our turn.

It was different, anyway. You had to say that for it. While all of the other nations were boasting about their progress in catching up with Western civilization, the Cubans bragged of having ripped out the existing social order by the roots. The walls were covered with blown-up photographs of Cuban revolutionary activity, firing squads and submachine guns and sugarcane workers on parade, and everywhere the stern visage of Fidel himself, looking like an unlikely cross between Christ and a bird of prey. An electrified map on one wall provided a year-by-year account of revolutionary activity around the world from the close of World War II to the present day. Slogans and Fidelista oratory covered the walls. It was, all in all, an incredible display.

But what really endowed the entire affair with an aura of surrealistic lunacy was the crowd that walked through those rude hallways. Here marched the American bourgeoisie in full flower, wearing their bermuda shorts and toting their inevitable cameras, walking and pointing and nodding and smiling, taking pictures, chatting, reacting to the Cuban incendiary barrage much as they had reacted in turn to Ugandan coffee beans and Jamaican banana chips and Greek statues, swallowing and digesting and moving ever onward, quite unaffected by what they saw.

I had the sudden certain feeling that each batch of twenty tourists would emerge from the building into an interior court, where a group of bearded men in fatigues would stand men and women and children against the wall. And the women would say that their feet hurt, and the children would ask for hot dogs, and the men would point cameras and click shutters while the bearded khaki-clad heroes of the revolution set up a machine gun and mowed them all down. Then the next group would come in, and the next-

I shook my head to banish madness. The Chief, I decided, had sent me on the trail of the wildest goose in history. The Cuban Pavilion was subversive, to be sure. Whoever planned it would have been insulted if one said otherwise. It was preaching revolution, but for all the effect it seemed to be having upon its audience, it might as well have been preaching flight to ostriches.

According to the rumors the Chief had heard, the pavilion was being used as a front for some unspecified operation. I couldn’t imagine how; it would have made no more sense than using a whorehouse as a front for the sale of dirty pictures. The place was constantly crowded with tourists and very sparsely supplied with attendants. It couldn’t have been less suited to clandestine subversive activity had the walls been made of glass.

I went on walking. Minna’s hand had come loose from mine somewhere in the course of things. I glanced around and couldn’t see her in the crowd. I let a few people push past me and still didn’t see her, then decided she must have gone on ahead while I stopped to read some of the more colorful bits of propaganda. I didn’t blame her. I followed the crowd to the door and out into the sunshine.

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