Francois Mai’s Truth
By Rita Button
You’d think, after practicing medicine in the field of psychiatry, being Director of the Department of Psychiatry at the Ottawa General Hospital, and advising the federal government on medical issues, as well as being a professor at Queen’s University, Professor Francois Mai might have earned a retirement in which he might sit back and reflect on a wonderful life. But that’s not what happened. Instead, he began to write. Professor Mai has written two books—one analyzes Beethoven’s health challenges, and the other is a novel, a total departure from the kind of writing that Professor Mai did as a doctor when his articles were published in numerous well-respected medical journals.
One Friday in March, Francois talked to me about writing and how his latest book, the novel Father, Unknown was born. The idea stayed in his subconscious for fifty years before it bubbled to the surface and demanded action. What happened is that Francois believes he was misled by his grandfather when he recounted the story of the family. The records, Francois was told, had been lost during World War I, a credible story since the family had lived around Vimy at the time. But something told the young Francois that this was not exactly the truth, that there was some untold story about his great great great great grandfather that his grandfather was unwilling to tell. The whiff of a skeleton in the family’s history stayed with Francois, and fifty years later, he returned to Vimy where the municipal clerk hauled down the tome that recorded births and deaths. That’s where Francois saw the two words written by the magistrate who recorded his great great great great grandfather’s death: “father, unknown” and that became the title of his first novel because it was the motivation that led to the uncovering of the truth and the need to write it in the form of fiction. However, fiction exposes many truths.
And so, Francois began the writing from a point of not knowing—writing teachers will tell you to write about what you know, but Francois’s starting point was something he didn’t know—and yet, of course, he did write about what he knows and what he learned in his quest to create a fictional account of the unknown father in an historical time—around the French Revolution of 1789 and the battle for the new world’s being won by Great Britain after the Battle at the Plains of Abraham in 1759.
What intrigued Francois was the name. What is the origin of the name, Mai? As well, who was the unknown father and what was he like?
The eighteenth century in France was a time of turmoil and change—hard for the living, but interesting for the writer whose source of information seems endless in such well-reported events. After the initial finding in France, Francois turned to the genealogical records stored by the Mormons in Utah’s perfect caves. They sent him the information on micro-fiche.
Ancestors’ surnames were listed as “Pierre” in the archives, but Francois’ surname is Mai: how could this have occurred? One ancestor listed as Martin Pierre had five children whose surnames changed during the terror of the French Revolution. His first two children are listed with the surname of Pierre while the last three are listed with the surname of Mai. The first of the three was born in May in France, and the name was changed to Mai.
Francois uses a similar technique in his novel. A fan of the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, Francois used some of the names from his best-loved Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd—of course, it’s the psychiatrist’s favourite—and used Gabriel Oak’s name translated into French as one of the main characters in his novel Father, Unknown. As well, he uses some of the plot events.
Francois’ love of history becomes apparent in the novel. Robespierre and Joseph Le Bon, both actual people who lived and influenced the events of the French Revolution and its aftermath, are a part of the work. The violence of the revolution, the ways in which the characters respond to its horrors are told from the truth of medical history. Francois’s analytical eye sees what the illnesses are and knows how they would have been treated in that time. As well, he sees the psychological ramifications of being falsely accused of a crime—in this case a theft—and knows the feelings of the one accused.
The characters are influenced by what occurs not only in France but also in England and Canada. The relationship between France and Canada becomes a part of the novel. The conflicts and its resulting search for truth amid the chaos become international. And horses are a big part of the novel since they were a big part of people’s lives—transportation, power and status—similar to the car today.
It becomes obvious that a story like this would take six years to write. The issues Francois exposes and dramatizes connect with contemporary lives: illegitimacy, family secrets, parenting, sin and forgiveness are woven into the plot. While he was writing, he kept a notebook beside his bed to record ideas that came to him during the night!
I have not read the novel since being published in London, UK, in 2017, it is currently available only on-line at Amazon.ca through the publisher Austin Macauley. However, because Francois gave me a copy, I will read it and write a review for the next issue of The Beacon. I know I will enjoy it because its writer showed the joy he had in its creation, omitting no detail necessary for our understanding and connections to the plot.
Francois Mai and his wife Sarie live in James Bay during the winter, and return to Ottawa for the summer—true Canadian snowbirds.