An elephant trainer in Italy, a writer-in-residence for an archaeological dig in Belize, and a theatre reviewer in Key West, Byron Rempel gets around. In his new book Truth is Naked, All Others Pay Cash, he reaches beyond established literary genres into uncharted territory. Whereas many novels are thinly disguised autobiography, Rempel believes it is much more interesting when we fictionalize our own lives. As proof he offers a post-modernist memoir, even though he isn’t sure what post-modernism means, never mind his own life. Whether searching for the origins of pacifist Mennonites among murderers and polygamists, shovelling elephant droppings, or confronting the slow evaporation of his father’s brain, Rempel addresses the questions that haunt all of us: Where are we going, why, and what will it cost us, not including airport tax? The result is a collection of stories that are quite hilarious, often poignant and occasionally believable.
- A 2006 Globe & Mail Book of the Year pick
- Finalist Quebec Writers’ Federation Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction
EXCERPT FROM TRUTH IS NAKED
“THE COMPLETE WATER DEAL”
I like to say My People, with capital letters and a fanfare if possible, since it gives me the aura of coming from a rare tribe lost in the wilderness, when in fact they were just a simple gang of farmers and merchants, who thought they might make a better living if God was on their side.
God was readily available back in the medieval day, not like today. You try getting a hold of God now and you have to punch an infinite number of buttons before you get to talk to a real human being. But back then, some parts of God had splintered off the standard model. The standard model had proved faulty, as evidenced by the appearance of two Popes at the same time, the invention of money, and the fact that He was late for supper. And so people began taking on the task of building utopias themselves, which a bit later led to the French Revolution, Socialism, Marxist communism, Zionism, Nazism, California, and the Mennonites.
My People — the latter, a gang clinging to the Nordsee by their skinny fingers — decided that the most important thing in this whole debate was water. So they began their own start-up since the God stocks were going through the roof, and sold it as the Complete Water Deal.
At least, that’s how their competition saw it. Other start-ups — including the guy who got in on the ground floor, Mr. Luther — thought the whole thing was going too far.
Originally, as far back as Luther could remember, people had to have a shower when they were babies in order to get into the church club. In those days, water was as well-liked as witches, and most serfs and princes and priests and harlots avoided the stuff like the plague. The church club at the time thought that one shower a lifetime should be enough for everyone, just as Bill Gates once thought that 64K would be about all anybody would ever need.
My People wanted everyone to take a bath.
They said that Jesus took a bath and John the Baptist took a bath before they were allowed in the club, so why shouldn’t we? Of course, My People had a stronger than medievally normal odor about them because they were farmers in a marsh, and bathing may have had its practical applications as well. Plus being dike makers, they were used to getting soaked.
Unfortunately, there was a name mix-up that started at this point when My People didn’t know they’d last this long, thinking it was perhaps a fad, and so didn’t register a name. Because of this, they got mixed up with every other protesting club in the 1500s, which was quite easy since everyone was confused anyway, having just come out of the Dark Ages. But at the beginning, they simply called themselves The Brothers. Unfortunately, it was kind of a secret name and nobody else knew what to call them, so they were alternately labeled the Doopsgesindes (Those With Water on the Brain), Anabaptists (The Re-sprinklers), or simply the Double-Dipping Brudders.
But no matter what name was used, the Holy Roman Church Club could only equate this radical concept of bathing with the equally reprehensible idea of sharing; and then My People really got carried away and decided that bathing and sharing at the same time would be a neat idea, kind of like the 1970s fad of showering with a friend.
The ramifications of this apparently scared the bejesus out of the Emperor Charles V, the Pope and Mr. Luther and his friends. They began killing the stinky farmers whenever they could. As this was the end of the Dark Ages, killing and torturing was done with modern inventions. A popular method was the public barbeque, where My People were the main course; nifty barbeque tools were used too, with the application of hot coals or glowing pincers to pull out tongues. Fire has always been popular for execution as it purifies the soul, much as barbequing steak insures there are no bacteria. However, Anabaptists who recanted were shown mercy and had their heads cut off instead; women were often tied up in a hemp bag, and then given a bath. Also, the homes of Anabaptists or their sympathizers were burned to the ground or razed. Today it may be difficult to understand why these methods of helping people with their religious choices were used, except for the razing of homes, which is currently enjoying a renaissance in Palestine.
To fully comprehend those times, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a medieval peasant, much as you may find them ill-fitting and smelly. Your whole life is centered on one goal: not dying. To reach this goal, however, there are numerous things you have to do. You have to be a slave and pay the Prince taxes, which are currently about 99 percent of your income. You have to find enough food to eat, although you don’t have any money left and the Prince regularly takes your harvest, never mind your daughters. On top of that, in 1523-24 you experience two crop failures. With the money that’s left over from your dry stalks of grass, you now have to pay the church club a hefty tithe to support a priest living high on your hog. Even God is apparently also trading in cash, and willing to take down payments on purgatory to erect magnificent cathedrals where you can go and not understand anything. If you try to hunt an animal you are hunted in turn, since the Prince needs the animals for his amusement, and the animals stink less than you. The firewood that keeps you alive during the winter must be bought at double the going price, while forests grow untouched behind you—the Prince, again. And the land you held together—sharing it with the community—is bought up by Princes and, worst of all crimes, is subdivided and given names like Forestview Place.
This is essentially the list of grievances proclaimed during the Peasant’s Revolt. In 1525, up to 75,000 peasants were murdered for the crime of wanting a better life. Do these people never learn?
“His historical and sociological forays, which resemble the New Yorker pieces by the early, funny Woody Allen, show a real talent for comic writing… After a series of whimsical and seemingly unrelated digressions…Rempel’s tale turns into something moving, emotionally complex and maybe even beautiful. The feckless ‘Byron Rempel’ character turns out to be a literary creation who grabs the reader’s heart”
– Winnipeg Free Press
“Rempel delivers (one hopes) an accurate, detailed, altogether delicious account of (his forefather’s) origins and rather bizarre evolution.”
– Globe And Mail
“Byron Rempel could write for stand-up comedy. He’s funny, entertaining, offensive, and best of all, a little weird…Whoever thought that being raised in a religion that forbids drinking and dancing would be such a gas?”
– Montreal Review of Books
“Quite brilliant… In light of the sordid James Frey affair, [Truth is Naked] makes him seem prescient, if not somewhat genius. And honest, despite his best efforts.”
– National Post