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The hellaciously happy life of Marq de Villiers

The world-beating, Nova Scotian journalist and author has another book out. It’s about the afterlife. And, as usual, it’s a helluva read 

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Marq de Villiers – who grew up in 1940s Apartheid South Africa, who became a Reuters news agency reporter covering the revolutionary bonfires of mid-20th Century Latin America, who moved to the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow bureau during the iciest days of late-60s Cold War mongering, who assumed the editorship of Canada’s most successful metropolitan magazine only to be slapped with a $102-million libel suit in the 1980s, and who has lived, since 1997, with his wife along a storm-lashed stretch of Nova Scotia’s South Shore – has been thinking a lot about hell lately.

Of course, that’s what you get when you write a book called Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, his latest and 18th released to generally warm reviews in March. People tend to ask questions, like: What is hell, anyway?

He could say something portentous. He could muse, for example, about hell as metaphor for the awful state of human affairs (which, he thinks, it is). He could talk about its many manifestations in the collective imaginations of civilizations through the centuries (which, in the book, he does).

But, in conversation, he’s more likely to confess he doesn’t really have a clue. The odd time, though, he does have fun with the question, as he does today during lunch at The Port Grocer Café in Port Medway, about six kilometres from his home at Eagle Head.

“Buddhists don’t have a god,” he says before tucking into a sandwich. “On the other hand, they sure do have plenty of hells.”

In fact, he notes, some historical texts portray ancient monks ardently embracing the notion of a supernatural that tortures the dead essentially by numbing them to death (again) with bureaucracy – perdition as a cosmic joke without a punch line but plenty of folding chairs.

This is how he puts it in his book: “In Chinese Buddhism, hells were ever more pedantic and ever more frustrating. More impressive than even the punishments are the lists of sins. . .Here we find people who keep other people’s books, pretending to have lost them, people who lie about their ages when they get married, people who throw broken pottery over fences, those who write anonymous placards, those who allow their mules to be a nuisance, and people who complain about the weather. Hell often seems to consist of endlessly waiting in anterooms.”

He takes a sip of wine. “Now that,” he smiles, “is what I call hell.”

Of course, that might only mean that de Villiers – born 79 years ago, the son of Rene and Moira de Villiers, in Bloemfontein, a small city in the South African province of Free State – has never really gotten the hang of the whole “waiting in anterooms” thing.

Even as a kid, boredom not brimstone was the real adversary. Avoiding it is what first drew him to writing – eventually about everything from the turbulent history and politics of his native country to modern life along the storied Volga River, from the fate of the world’s supply of water to fermenting the perfect glass of wine, from the clipped beauty of the schooner Bluenose to tips for surviving a post-apocalyptic future – more than 60 years ago.

“I had just finished high school and I was waiting to start college at the University of Cape Town,” he recounts. “I had seven or eight months on my hands, so I walked into the local newspaper where the news editor told me to go into town and come back with a story. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I talked to a few people, and went back to write the thing. ‘That’s great’, the editor said. I remember thinking: ‘People get paid to do this?’”

That’s not to say his writing life has always been hell-free. Learning how to cover the turbulent politics of South America from his London-bound desk at Reuters in the early 1960s wasn’t much fun. (“That was about the worst job I ever had,” he says flatly.)

Similarly, covering Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon’s delicate dance during the breaking days of international détente as the Toronto Telegram’s Moscow correspondent in the early 1970s could be tricky. And there was almost nothing uplifting about being sued, along with writer Elaine Dewar and his bosses, over a 50,000-word piece he authorized as Editor of Toronto Life magazine in late 1980s that cut a tad too close to the bone for the powerful Reichmann family’s liking. (The suit was later settled out of court. “That was not the funnest part of my career,” he grimaces”)

Still, he has to admit, he’s led a pretty charmed life: A decent education at the University of Cape Town and London School of Economics; generally good and interesting gigs on three continents; a truckload of prizes, including a Governor General’s Award for non-fiction; a happy and lasting marriage to journalist Sheila Hirtle, his sometimes writing partner; and a wildly beautiful spot in Nova Scotia, where he and his wife have made a cozy home since 1997.

Mostly, though, he’s been free to write pretty much whatever and whenever he chooses – a liberty that his fans, friends and colleagues appreciate almost as much as he does. “He’s a fascinating blend of the down-to-earth Canadian and the exotic,” says Nova Scotia journalist and author Silver Donald Cameron, who in the 1970s shared contributing editor duties with de Villiers at Weekend Magazine in Toronto. “He’s rooted here, but he writes hauntingly about Africa, where he was raised, and he writes with great authority because of the depth and accuracy of his research.”

So, then, given his broadly rewarding circumstances, here’s the other question he gets concerning Hell and Damnation (University of Regina Press): Why’d you write it?

The closest he comes to a public explanation is in his own blog: “This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain scepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics.”

Privately, the explanation is even simpler: Hell is damn funny.

“I was reading this piece in The Economist back in 2012,” he says. “It was called ‘Hell: A very rough guide’.”

That article began: “Hell is steadily losing adherents. The Infernal Tourist Board) has therefore produced a promotional flyer.” It ended: “To sum up: ‘Hell: Your first resort, and your last!’”

De Villiers deadpans: “I found the piece very interesting. . .well, that and the fact that Galileo once pegged the centre of hell at a place 422 kilometres straight down from the surface of the Earth, because that’s where Satan’s naval was indisputably located.”

He pauses, and digs for his wallet. Apparently, it’s time to blow this particular anteroom.

“You know, I have an idea for another book,” he says absently.

Is this one about heaven, perchance?

He pretends not to hear.

“I’m thinking about calling it The Longbow, the Schooner, and the Violin.

That seems benign.

“It’s about wood.”

He rises to leave.

“Actually it’s about wood, commerce and art.”

He steps towards the Café’s exit.

“And war.”

Then, he’s gone into the salt smell of sea air where, far short of eternal damnation, he goes to think a lot about whatever the hell he wants.

For: Halifax Magazine, October 2019

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