Serge Bouchard is an anthropologist, radio personality, and prolific author of over 15 books of non-fiction and personal essays, including the recent collection C’était au temps des mammouths laineux (Boréal, 2012). The only of Bouchard’s books to appear in English so far is Caribou Hunter: A Song of a Vanished Innu Life, co-authored with Mathieu Mestokosho and translated from the French by Wayne Grady (Greystone Books, 2006).
The King’s Bungalow
by Serge Bouchard
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
P eople need shelter. Since time immemorial housing has loomed large in our dreams; this roof over our heads is no slight concern. Consider the bungalow. Half-baked, facile criticisms often reach my ears. People mock it, say it lacks ambition. It’s the same story you hear about the suburbs, but these critics are selling the bungalow short.
Bungalow: the consonance of this English word reminds us it was borrowed from Hindi. “A small house with a yard”: that about sums it up. The bungalow speaks to our deep-seated desire to taste the privileged lives of royalty.
The bungalow is a dream come true. And isn’t that what we all wish, for ourselves and for others? As it turns out the moment dreams come true is often when they cease to be. Therein lies the rub, I think we can agree. Yes, the bungalow is what we’ve been dreaming of: comely shelter, independence, a yard, a family retreat. We put down roots, build walls and fences, consecrate the borders of our private kingdoms. In the bungalow the sovereign discovers domesticity and the domestic reigns sovereign. The palaces sprawl forth, row on row. Property is private, life becomes private, and private life is sacred, in our bungalows as in our cars. In America you don’t enter another man’s bungalow after dark. And in this republic every citizen possesses palace, land, and carriage. The bungalow may miniaturize freedom, but it only came to praise it.
At the end of the day these small castles are cells foreclosing the freedom we sold below asking. In an economy as heavily mortgaged as ours we all know this weight. Millions of tiny Versailles with perfect lawns, and each is aware of its ancestor’s fate. They soon become an affectation and a burden, isolating and removing us from the common weal and public space. A harbinger of hard times, the bungalow is pro-family but anti-community. The children who grow up in them soon come to see them as prisons. The sons and daughters fail to keep it in the family. They sell the furniture; they sell the house.
An expansive checkerboard devouring space as it sprawls outwards from the city, the bungalowsphere is home to manifold dramas and disappointments. Even in its glorious heyday, just after World War II, a thoughtful observer could have foreseen the coming cul-de-sac. Each bungalow then had to outdo its neighbours. The split-level was coveted, basements finished, status measured in length of driveway and number of garage doors. But it seems the project failed. Like a dream wearing out in fast forward, nothing ages more quickly than a bungalow. Happiness is short-lived here. The only way to remain content would be to never go outside. As Pascal said, humankind is unhappy because we can’t sit quietly in our bungalows.
But it would be an error to contrast this failed grand dream with some triumphant downtown paradise. If the bungalow lets us down, so too does the city. The wellspring of human disappointment may run deeper than we think. Humanity advances ever so slowly, like a turtle, slower even than the aged turtle that carries its bungalow on its back.
Freedom isn’t straightforward. We’re all looking for the path back to the home we never seem to find. Under the circumstances, it’s best to hold nothing sacred and avoid getting attached to your memories; wisest to hold the fort, look after your family home for the generations to come, care for it as you would the apple of your eye. These two impulses clash. Alas, our society is no housing cooperative. The ranks of the lost and the homeless are swelling. We may have acquired the right to private life and found the way to easy street but we have lost our sense of home and household. You can’t really heat a soulless house or a heartless condo. Comfortable, overly insulated, we end up wanting for air. The problem is loneliness, not faulty construction. Our plans are too heavily mortgaged. The bungalow is a beautiful dream, a great achievement. But you still have to bring it to life. Despite the range of available distractions and all our hard-won comfort, being a king just isn’t enough. ≈