Quebec-born Richler (Solomon Gursky Was Here, 1990, etc.) undertakes a backgrounder to that province's independence movement, with several large flashes of illuminating absurdity about the passionate Quebecois. A referendum will be held this October to determine whether Quebec should ask for independence from Canada. The province has already added a raft of debatable laws to its books, such as one that forbids English-language or bilingual commercial signs on Montreal's streets. Today, Richler tells us, wary shopkeepers welcome customers ""in a fail-safe combination of English and French, singing out, 'Hi, bonjour.' "" Moreover, zealots who run Montreal's French Catholic school board shocked even separatists ""with a demand that immigrant students who were caught shooting the breeze in English in the schoolyards should be severely punished."" And so it goes, with even intellectual Francophones as blinkered and narrow-minded as peasants in a Marcel Pagnol comedy. Actually, Richler explains, 40 percent of Canadians are of neither French nor English extraction; they are of Polish, Greek, Ukrainian, and Italian descent, with growing Chinese, Sikh, African, and Central American enclaves, who will soon form a majority of Canada's populace. Richler also laments Canada's ""functional but nondescript"" cities, the demolition of its oldest buildings and their replacement by entrenched ugliness of ""the utmost banality."" He offers a lively description of the Mohawk Indians' uprising against the incursion of a golf course into their burial grounds--an uprising that forced a mortified Quebec to call in the Canadian army--and he sees independence as diminishing Quebec into ""being a folkloric society. A place that people come from. Ireland without that country's genius or terrible beauty."" Unlike most of Richler, largely for Canadians; for a look at Canada that's more accessible to those south of the border, try Jan Morris's O Canada (p. 307).