War explored in Linden MacIntyre’s ‘The Only Cafe’

TORONTO — It has been more than three decades since Linden MacIntyre reported on the atrocities of the Lebanese Civil War, but the veteran journalist says one haunting image has remained with him.

MacIntyre was on the ground after the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen. He vividly remembers seeing a child’s forearm perfectly intact — with no body attached to it.

“It fell out of the front end of a machine that was digging the bodies of a family out of a house where they’d all been murdered,” MacIntyre recalls.

A group of preteen boys observed MacIntyre’s reaction to the grim scene, which was deeply affecting for the award-winning broadcaster, who spent 24 years as co-host of the CBC newsmagazine show “The Fifth Estate.”

“The looks on their faces were indescribable. They had this old look you don’t often see on young people. It was a mature form of rage in their faces, and it just struck me that this moment is forever,” says MacIntyre.

“This horrifying day is being witnessed by little guys that will become bigger guys, and they will all have been changed and transfigured by this…. That’s the kind of stuff that stays with me.”

The Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author channelled the horrors of war and its haunting aftermath into “The Only Cafe” (Randon House Canada).

The novel centres on Pierre Cormier, a Lebanese man who arrives in Canada as a refugee but can’t escape his mysterious and violent past.

In flashbacks, readers explore the fictional Pierre’s connections to real-life figures like Elie Hobeika, the former Lebanese Christian warlord whose Israeli-backed gunmen were implicated in the 1982 massacre. The pair share a common history having both lost family in the 1976 massacre in the Lebanese town of Damour.

“I’m channelling a lot of that stuff through Pierre, who was a man with an obvious conscience who found himself into it by virtue of almost happenstance, where he and his dad are walking home one evening and dad gets murdered, and Pierre almost gets murdered. And then he discovers later his whole family is gone,” says MacIntyre.

“He kind of found himself in it and he allowed himself to be swept up by the hatred and violence until one small moment in six years of violence in his life caused him to be repelled.”

“The Only Cafe” opens with the reading of Pierre’s will, five years after his disappearance and presumed death. A wharfside explosion in a remote location on Cape Breton Island has left behind a shattered, sunken boat — but the body is missing.

“I decided a key location will be where he dies and how he dies,” says MacIntyre, who was born in St. Lawrence, N.L., and grew up in Port Hastings, N.S.

“I know this place intimately and I don’t have to invent anything. There’s Little Harbour and it’s very remote, and it would be a place that you could hide out for decades and nobody could think of looking for you there.”

Pierre’s last request is to have a roast organized in his honour at The Only Cafe, an east-end Toronto haunt. A man named Ari is invited to attend.

Pierre’s estranged adult son, Cyril, is a national newsroom intern assisting on reporting a homegrown terror story. As Cyril sets out to unravel the mystery of his father’s death, he seeks out Ari. As it turns out, the elusive one-named man is an Israeli who knew Pierre in Lebanon in the 1980s.

“We are in a continuum of history,” says MacIntyre. “Even though he cannot know him any more physically, he begins to discover that the history that Pierre represents — the story that Pierre was a part of — is an ongoing story.

“He’s starting to find out who his dad was, and in the course of it, he’s discovering the Lebanese Civil War; and in his own life, he’s starting to figure out for professional purposes about homegrown terrorists and radicalization.

“At a certain point you can see these two things coming together, and they come together in the person of Ari.”

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