Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Using the vantage point of a dystopian future in a reconstructed Montreal, renamed as Metro, Hugh MacLennan reflects on the personal effects of significant phases of the twentieth century, especially the consequences of war. The futility of the numerous large-scale military actions is played out in the repressive society that engulfs the characters. The idea of the personal quest for meaning as well as an explanation of how things went so wrong is embodied in the character of John Wellfleet who, along with André Gervais, combs through the Wellfleet and Dehmel family papers.
While the families are connected through Stephanie Wellfleet's marriage to Conrad Dehmel, the separation between them becomes crucial to the plot. Conrad, despite working to distance himself from Germany's malevolent past, is tainted by Nazism, which his brother, Siegfried, had embraced but their father ultimately left behind. MacLennan shows how both misunderstandings and deliberate manipulations of voices from the past can have devastating consequences, ultimately costing Conrad his life.
John, now an elderly man, must come to terms with the involvement of his cousin Timothy in Conrad's destruction. The author shows how a combination of ambition and good intentions can generate a perfect storm of destruction. Because Timothy's self-styling as an investigative journalist was not matched with the necessary diligent fact-finding, he destroyed not only Conrad but his own beloved stepmother.
Although John understands that, sixty years after the fact, he has no responsibility in the matter, he seems to suffer from a combination of survivor's guilt and the sense that, as the messenger, he should be blamed for the bad tidings. Confronting the horrors of the past not only frees him from the grip of the present, as he leaves the stifling retirement community, but also helps him forge new relationships and offers him faith in the future. The character of Andre represents these qualities not only for John but also for contemporary Canada.