A modern day folktale: Baloney by Maxime Raymond Bock—my Rusty Toque review

baloneyOne of my favourite books of 2015 was Atavisms, a collection of short stories by Quebec writer, Maxime Raymond Bock. I was especially impressed by his ability to employ a wide range of styles and genres, from historical to speculative fiction, in a multi-faceted exploration of Québécois history, society, and identity. His newest release, Baloney,—now available from Coach House Books and translated, like Atavisms, by Pablo Strauss—offers further evidence of Bock’s versatility. This novella evokes the spirit of a traditional folktale, with its tragic-comic hero whose larger-than-life adventures are immortalized by a disillusioned young writer drawn to the aging, eccentric would-be poet. By turns funny, sad, and wise, this simple story is surprisingly moving and thoughtful, and stands as yet another fine example of a new generation of Quebec writers who deserve to be more widely read in English-speaking Canada and beyond.

My review of  Baloney can be found in the current issue of The Rusty Toque—my first contribution to this fine Canadian online literary and arts journal.

Theatre on the page: 50 Drawings to Murder Magic by Antonin Artaud

They are 50 drawings

taken from exercise books

containing notes

       literary

       poetic

       psychological

       Physiological

       magical

especially magical

magical first and foremost.

Thus ends the first page of Antonin Artaud’s last piece of writing, 50 Drawings to Murder Magic. Scrawled on notebook pages, this piece was written as a text to accompany a selection of sketches and fragmentary notations that he had been collecting for several years in small school exercise books. The sketches are frantic, the paper intentionally stabbed and tattered, the missives angry and disjointed. The ultimate design of this project, which was initiated at the request of art dealer Pierre Loeb, will never be known. It was interrupted by Artaud’s death in March 1948, two months after it was begun.

50drawingsArtaud was a poet, dramatist, actor and theoretician, best known for his notion of the “Theatre of Cruelty”—an approach to experimental theatre that envisioned the removal of the barrier of the stage between the audience and the performers, and the transformation of the theatrical experience into a primal, mythic spectacle involving groans, screams and verbal incantations. In her preface to the Seagull Books edition of 50 Drawings, the editor, Évelyne Grossman, suggests that his drawings reflect Artaud’s preference, in his later years, for the “restricted framework of the small format.” His feverish drawings of faces, torsos, hands, totems, spikes and other undefinable shapes and scratches may be seen as a form of dynamic performance on paper:

“This is not to say that his intention is to breach the frame of the page, to escape its confines; rather he is seeking to break out within the sheet: to raise the paper surface, to dig down into it, to lend it volume, to open up its unsuspected depths and thicknesses. The pages dimensions are thus exploded. Writing and drawing alike are set in motion.”

2016-10-25-02-39-30Originally associated with the Surrealist movement, Artaud had a deep interest in magic and the occult that extended far beyond that of his peers. He saw magic not only as a very powerful form of communication, but, he hoped, as a means to heal the deep rifts in his own troubled psyche. Plagued by mental health concerns, Artaud would spend much of his life in and out of asylums. Increasingly he was haunted by the demons of his own imagination and, as a result, it is intriguing to turn to his intense, often seemingly angry notebook drawings as an effort, as he puts it himself “to murder magic.”

2016-10-25-02-36-23In entering this gloriously reproduced edition of 50 Drawings to Murder Magic, I turned first to the facsimiles of the drawings themselves—selected from notebooks dating from 1946 to 1948, and presented in the order chosen by Artaud himself—before turning to the poetic introduction (also reproduced with the accompanying facsimile). That approach seemed to suit my mood at the moment and rendered an extra impact to his words. Even though I was only able to recognize and understand about half of the text accompanying the drawings, the intensity of the imagery is undeniable.

Artaud himself insists that his images:

…are not drawings

they figure nothing,

disfigure nothing,

are not there

to construct

build

institute

a world

even an abstract one.

He proposes an interactive engagement with the words he has captured and illuminated on the pages of these notebooks. In and of themselves, he claims that they have no meaning:

To understand these drawings

fully

       you must

       (1) leave the written page

             and enter

             the real

             but also

leave the real

             and enter

                         the surreal

                         the extra-real

                         the supernatural

                         the suprasensible

                         into which these drawings

                         continually

                         plunge

                         because they come from there

and because they are in fact

merely commentary

on action that

has really occurred…

There is, I sense, in this commentary created to accompany these sketches a prescription that applies to the dynamics between words or images on the page and the reader or viewer that also applies to the creator. There is something in this text that speaks to the creative process—especially to the degree to which so much of what the writer or artist commits to the page (or canvass) extends from a place beyond conscious attention, to be received actively but without specific intention.

When I write and a reader finds their own answer in the work, to a question I may not have even asked, that is when magic happens. Artaud may have imagined that is drawings murdered magic, but his accompanying text indicates that the magic he believed to be the mediation between artist and audience was alive right to the end.

50 Drawings to Murder Magic is published by Seagull Books and translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith.

Life in the Court of Matane by Eric Dupont – My Numéro Cinq review

The publication of my most recent review for Numéro Cinq the other day, was, for me, a welcome opportunity to revisit an intelligent, humourous, bittersweet tale about growing up in Québec during the 1970’s and 80’s. This debut release from QC Fiction, a new imprint from Baraka Books created with the bold ambition to bring a new generation of Québec writers to an international audience through a subscription funded model, is first and foremost a story about family.

I have been thinking a lot about family myself these days as my brothers and I have been shaken and shattered by the critical injury of our father and the sudden passing of our mother within the span of the past week. Like all families, ours has its share of idiosyncratic dysfunction, but in our heartbreak we’ve been remembering the beauty and the humour above all of the difficulties and anxieties that have divided and united us over the years.

The family that Eric Dupont brings to life in Life in the Court of Matane, separated, defined and redefined by divorce and remarriage, shimmers with sparks of love, respect and affection. Even in the court of this latter day Henry VIII and his past and future queens, a sense of humour goes a long way, setting the ground for an unforgettable, original coming of age tale.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

A Very Funny Novel: Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane — Joseph Schreiber

CoverLivreMatane_RVB

Growing up in a broken home is rarely easy. Too often children become pawns on the emotional battlefield as their parents face off against one another. This is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in which the eponymous narrator of Life in the Court of Matane and his sister find themselves at an early age. So it’s little wonder that they would recognize their predicament in the feats of a certain young Romanian gymnast swinging between the uneven parallel bars at 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But Nadia Comaneci is only one of a number of personalities evoked in this inventive coming-of-age story. She joins the re-imagined court of Henry VIII, key figures in the debate between Québec Separatists and Federalists, and a menagerie of assorted birds and beasts in Eric Dupont’s engaging account of a childhood defined by divorce.

Originally published as Bestiaire in 2008, Peter McCambridge’s translation of this acclaimed novel heralds the debut of QC Fiction, an ambitious publishing initiative dedicated to introducing readers to an new generation of Québec literature. Their goal is to be able to offer “surprising, interesting novels in flawless English translation” to a wide audience through a subscription funded model inspired by publishers such as And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, and Open Letter Books. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine a more enchanting and original novel to launch this new imprint than Life in the Court of Matane.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

Immersed in the moment: Incidents by Roland Barthes

In his Publisher’s Note to the French edition of Roland Barthes’ Incidents, a collection of essays published shortly after the theorist’s death in 1980, François Wahl suggests that the four very different texts assembled form a coherent whole because each piece “strives to grasp the immediate”. These are not theoretical or critical investigations in any sense, rather, in each text, Barthes is immersed in the moment, observing, reflecting, and recording his reactions. There is an unchecked flow and intimacy, by turns nostalgic, sensual, and melancholic but always tuned to the instance of occurrence: to the incident.

2016-05-19 21.38.01These are works that invite the reader to engage with all five senses, mediated through words and memory–they are not formal pieces but rather take the form of journal entries, diary writing, and fragmented travelogue. Barthes writes people and he writes place, never really entirely at ease with too much of either. Delight, boredom, and sadness filter through his reflections creating an immediacy that is at times startling. He is not writing for posterity, he is writing for himself.

The collection opens with “The Light of the South West”, an evocative essay/memoir, a personal tribute to the south west region of France. He writes about the experience of traveling south from Paris. Passing Angoulème he becomes aware that he is on the “threshold” of the land of his childhood. It is the quality of light that defines the place:

. . . noble and subtle at the same time; it is never grey, never gloomy (even when the sun isn’t shining); it is light-space, defined less by the altered colours of things . . . than by the eminently inhabitable quality it gives to the earth. I can think of no other way to say it: it is a luminous light. You have to see this light (I almost want to say: you have to hear it, hear its musical quality). In autumn, the most glorious season in this land, the light is liquid, radiant, heartbreaking since it is the final beautiful light of the year, illuminating and distinguishing everything it touches. . .

He goes on to turn his attention to the elements of the south west that resonate with different aspects of his childhood, to reflect on the way that memories formed in childhood inform way we remember the places associated with that time, the magical spaces and the difficult times will each carry their own tone, their own qualities.

2016-05-19 21.41.06The title piece is the earliest in the book. Recorded in 1969 when the author was in his mid-50s, “Incidents”, as the name implies, captures moments from an extended stay in Morocco through an incidental series of fragmented encounters and experiences. Here, people form the scenery; with a special attention reserved for young men. Barthes demonstrates a a particular eye for detail (and somewhat of an obsession with hands) in these passing observations, combined with an acute sensitivity for scents and colours. The vibrancy, shades and contrasts of the country come alive. As a reader you become aware of the blinding light, the dark shadows–they are not described, you sense them in the background.

A young black man, wearing a crème de menthe-coloured shirt, almond green pants, orange socks and, obviously, very soft red shoes.

A handsome, mature looking young man, well dressed in a grey suit and a gold bracelt, with delicate clean hands, smoking red Olympic cigarettes, drinking tea, is speaking quite earnestly (some sort of civil servant? One of those who track down files?), and a tiny thread of saliva drips onto his knee. His companion points it out to him.

Some young Moroccans–with girlfriends they can show off in front of–pretending to speak English with exaggerated French accents (a way of hiding the fact without losing face that they will never have a good accent).

The art of living in Marrakesh: a fleeting conversation from open carriage to bicycle; a cigarette given, a meeting arranged, the bicycle turns the corner and slowly disappears.

The Marrakesh soul: wild roses in the mountains of mint.

The third essay, “At Le Palace Tonight . . .” is a tribute to a Paris club in a converted theatre. He describes the ornate detail, the mood and the atmosphere of this place where he seems to almost prefer to be an observer, watching the dancers and the human interactions rather than taking part. And as in the first essay, we find once again a wonderful evocation of light, this time light as informed by the interior of a structure:

Isn’t it the material of modern art today, of daily art, light? In ordinary theatres, the light originates at a distance, directed onto the stage. At Le Palace, the entire theatre is the stage; the light takes up all the space there, inside of which it is alive and plays like one of the actors: an intelligent laser, with a complicated and refined mind, like an exhibitor of abstract figurines, it produces enigmatic shapes, with abrupt changes: circles, rectangles, ellipses, lines, ropes, galaxies, twists.

This collection closes with “Evenings in Paris” a series of journal entries from 1979 that open with words Schopenhauer wrote on a piece of paper before he died: “Well, we’ve escaped very nicely.” The Barthes who comes through in this selection is tired, often impatient with colleagues and irritated by noise. A certain loneliness and dissatisfaction underscore his descriptions of dinners with friends, failed attempts to win the affections of the younger men he covets, and an unresolved mourning for his beloved mother. Most nights he finds himself heading home alone, half despairing, half relieved, to settle into bed in the company of Pascal, Chateaubriand, Dante, or the echoing ghost of Proust. Although he still enjoys longingly watching attractive men, he has little patience for crowds or social functions. This is a heavier, more emotionally intense offering, the intimacy of “the immediate” weighs heavily as Barthes commits his thoughts to paper, unaware in the writing as we are in the reading, that he is nearing the end of his life.

2016-05-20 02.33.11And, because he is recording the ordinariness of the daily encounter of the self with the world, there is the possibility of shock waves that ring down the years with a new intensity in light of the incidents (that word again) that have unsettled Paris in recent years:

The guy who sells Charlie-Hebdo walks by; on the cover in the publication’s idiotic style, there’s a basket of greenish heads that look like lettuces: ‘2 francs the head of a Cambodian’; and, right then, a young Cambodian rushes into the café, sees the cover, is visibly shocked, concerned, and buys a copy: the head of a Cambodian!

Not without a little social commentary, even in a deeply personal journal, Roland Barthes, remains ever relevant down the years.

Reading Incidents is, in itself, a sensuous experience, it is doubly so in this edition from Seagull Books. With a sparkling fresh translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan and illustrated with the evocative photographic images of Bishan Samaddar, this collection of writings becomes one that can, as Barthes himself would have intended, be savoured.

Life in a company town: Arvida by Samuel Archibald

You could almost envision Arvida as a town constructed as a backdrop, like a movie set, just waiting to be called upon by a talented story teller; one who would pull and draw legends, myths, and memories out of the woodwork of his hometown and re-imagine them, use them as fuel for his creative fire – a writer like Samuel Archibald. And you would not be that far off. Arvida was, in truth, a company town, founded in 1927 on the banks on the Saguenay River, 240 km north of Quebec City. Archibald describes the town’s genesis as follows:

“The Americans built the town beside the aluminum smelter in a hundred and thirty-five days. There’d been nothing around for 200 million years, then there was the Alcan smelter, and a hundred and thirty-five days later, a town.”

A town with no history suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere was a haven for those with a past to escape, those who wanted to forget or be forgotten… “a town of second chances”.

arvidaBy the time that Archibald was born 1978, Arvida had been fused with the town of Jonquière and today a number of smaller communities have been amalgamated to form the city of Sanguenay. Arvida, as separate entity, the model town once praised by the New York Times no longer exists as such. But its glory days, its decline, its humanity – and a measure of misguided inhumanity – provide a wealth of inspiration for the stories that make up Arvida, Archibald’s short story collection first published in French in 2011, and now available in English translation. It has been shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

On the back cover of this book, Samuel Archibald is compared to a “Proust-obsessed Cormac McCarthy”. Stir in a nod to Stephen King and it is not an inaccurate billing. There is a dark heart throbbing throughout these stories, a pulse that binds them together, weaving often disparate tales into a surprisingly coherent and effective whole.

The series is bookended by the first and third parts of the “Arvida” story: “My Father and Proust” and “Madeleines”. Together with “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” (Arvida II) which appears about two thirds of the way through, we have a fictional glimpse of the author, his family, and his hometown. Funny, sad, and philosophical, this tripartite tale begins with humorous accounts of the narrator’s father’s boyhood penchant for stealing pastries and ends with the challenge of facing Proust’s madeleines armed only with the memory of McNuggets, anchored in the middle with a celebration of the spirit and fortitude of his grandparents and the characters that brighten small town life at its best.

Many of the stories that fill out the collection are decidedly darker. Blood and violence are not unknown. But then neither are dreams and a spirit of magic. “Cryptozoology” features a father and son who live between dream and waking life without holding one as more valid than the other. Sharing a cabin in the woods, 13 year-old Jim is essentially his hard-drinking father’s care taker, driving him home from social gatherings, and cleaning and sobering him up the morning after. On the road and along the traplines he is haunted by sightings of an elusive animal, perhaps a cougar, that cross into his sleeping hours and take on an increasingly mythical significance as Jim himself becomes ill.

“Now Jim is dreaming and listening. He hears what they’re saying about him. He’d like to reassure them, to explain to them. He often has a dream with no up nor down, where the beast attacks him and devours him. It’s a dream of carnivorousness and violence, but not of death. He does not expire while the cougar is annihilating his body, he fossilizes within the animal like a memory of flesh.”

Ghosts are also a featured presence in Arvida, from the old fashioned gothic horror of “A Mirror in the Mirror”, the tale of a woman who wastes away into a state of otherworldliness waiting for her playwright husband to return from an extended stay in Montreal; to the spirits, real or imagined, that haunt and ultimately destroy the family life of a man who takes on the restoration of a crumbling historic mansion. But the horror theme is taken to an extreme in “Jigai”, a gruesome fantastical tale of ritual mutilation set in Japan, safely across the globe from small town Quebec. It is apparently an allegory of an unimaginably brutal story Archibald heard when he was growing up. Placing it in the middle of this collection however, has the effect of providing a powerful counter point to the small moments and the everyday terrors, fears, and passions of life in a remote community.

The fictional Arvida is inhabited by a wide assortment of colourful, often hapless, indiviuals. For example, in “América”, for the promise of three thousand dollars, a pair of young men decide to accept the challenge of smuggling a woman from Costa Rica into the United States. First they enlist a cokehead as an accomplice who turns out to be little more than a burden that must be abandoned, and then neglect to consider the impact that the events of September 2001 will have on their attempt to cross the border in 2002. Later on in another story, “The Last-Born”, a man who is less than a deep thinker, decides he can kill a man, again for a couple thousand dollars. Yet what starts out as attempted murder, turns into an unexpectedly heartwarming tale. Archibald is sensitive to the complicated dynamics of human interaction, allowing his characters to find their own ways in to and, with luck, out of trouble.

Arvida was very well received in Quebec. Archibald worked with translator Donald Winkler for a year to realize the work in English. Hopefully the Giller nomination will serve to introduce him to a wider audience, and to provide a well deserved boost for his small publisher, Biblioasis, who had three titles on the long list this year, two moving on to the short list. The stories in Arvida may be inspired by a particular place, but they vividly evoke the reality of small town Canadian life, especially in the 1960’s and 70’s. They could be set in any number of communities across the country, especially those company towns that rose up around mining or pulp and paper factories. Some, like Arvida have been absorbed into larger centres, while others are fading away.

School Days: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

“Our Lady of the Nile: how proudly the school stands. The track leading to the lycée from the capital, winds its way through a labyrinth of hills and valleys and ends, quite unexpectedly, in a twisting climb up the Ikibira Mountains – which geography textbooks call the Congo-Nile range, for want of any other name.”

NileThis first novel by Rwandan born French writer Scholastique Mukasonga imagines life in an exclusive girls’ school high in the mountains of Rwanda close to the source of the Nile. Created by the Belgian Catholic church to nurture and prepare the daughters of wealthier Rwandan families for a future that befits their pedigree in the now independent nation, the lycée offers a well rounded education for a young lady and protection from the undue attentions of the opposite sex. Being a virgin, or at the very least not pregnant, is still key to securing a good marriage. And keeping watch over this small community is a blackened statue of the Virgin Mary enshrined nearby, practically assisted by a rigid Mother Superior, several sisters and a chaplain with a lecherous eye for his female charges. Lessons cover academic subjects, languages, religious studies and finishing school skills such as cooking and sewing.

Our Lady of the Nile opens at the beginning of a new school year. Land Rovers, limousines and buses arrive to deposit students. As one might expect, the girls form alliances, engage in gossip, develop crushes on the French male teachers. Assuming a dominant role among her third year classmates is Gloriosa, the big boned, intimidating daughter of a high ranking Party official. In the Hutu dominated nation, her greatest scorn is reserved for the two Tutsi girls admitted under the quota requirements, Virginia and Veronica.

As the year progresses it becomes clear that for all the Catholic school’s efforts to civilize the young ladies, traditional superstitions, beliefs, and customs have a strong hold over the students at the lycée, blending in with Christian faith and fear. For Veronica in particular, another element comes in to play. An eccentric white man who lives nearby on a crumbling estate, lures her into his obsessive fantasy about the Ancient Egyptians and his belief that the Tutsi are their direct descendants. In her vanity she is willing to entertain his delusions. Virginia is skeptical and uncomfortable by her friend’s willingness to assume a queen’s role and seeks instead to assuage disturbed spirits.

Of course underlying racial tensions are never far from the surface. One student, Modesta, with a Tutsi mother and Hutu father, is caught between the two. She likes to confide in Virginia but cultivates a place of security by playing Gloriosa’s lapdog. Although the Rwandan genocide is still years off at the time this story is set, violence is a real and present threat and each side is aware of where their fate lies and it all comes down to a question of race:

“Because there were two races in Rwanda. Or three. The whites had said so; they were the ones who discovered it. They’d written about it in their books. Experts came from miles around and measured all the skulls. Their conclusions were irrefutable. Two races: Hutu and Tutsi, also known as Bantu and Hamite. The third race wasn’t even worth mentioning.”

As Our Lady of the Nile unfolds, life at the lycée and the adventures of some of the girls in this tiny African nation are sketched out at a slow, simmering pace. However, because each chapter tends to deal with a distinct event, the novel has the feel of interlinked short stories. I did enjoy this book, it reads well with moving, often funny, passages, but the overall effect is somewhat disjointed. I found it too easy to put it down and not pick it up for a day or so. A little more consistency and tension would have helped propel the story toward what is a shocking and violent end.

witmonth15Translated by Melanie Mauthner, the tone is graceful and clear. But I have to say that there was one moment that set the reading experience off and had me wondering where the editor was. Told from an omniscient third person perspective throughout, there is one paragraph that falls into the first person plural, in the first half of the novel. The effect is jarring. One of those times that, as a reader, one wants to have a peek at the original text.

* Our Lady of the Nile was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) 2015

A tenuous grasp on reality: All My Friends by Marie NDiaye

Oh my.

I was looking for a short story collection, something that might fit neatly into the Women in Translation theme that is guiding the reading of many of my fellow bloggers this month. Having heard so much about French author Marie NDiaye I decided to have a look at her collection All My Friends. What I found was a portal to a bizarre, surreal, mildly horrific literary Twilight Zone. If you like your stories neat and clear cut this is territory best avoided. If you enjoy challenging tales peopled by troubled characters who stretch the boundaries of reality, fueled by obsessions, fantasies and psychoses, well, step right in.

All My FriendsThe final heartbreaking, but relatively straight forward story, is very short. The four stories that proceed it are long, convoluted and slippery. The reader really has to surrender him or herself to the experience, to the strangeness and stunning evocative beauty of the language. After finishing this slim volume I had a glance at a number of other reviews and was surprised how differently others saw or interpreted the stories. And perhaps that is the ultimate power of this collection.

The title tale, “All My Friends” is narrated by a school teacher whose wife and children have left him. He leaves his house like a museum and hires a former student, Séverine, to work as his maid. His attraction to her is complex, a curious blend of obsession and loathing that extends back to the days when, as a beautiful student, she resisted his charms and his efforts to impart knowledge on her. She is, however, married to another former student, an unassuming Arab that the teacher can barely remember. And then, to add to this peculiar triangle (quadrangle?) is Werner, yet another former student from the same cohort who went to Paris to better himself and returns, wealthy and well educated, to win Séverine’s love. Complicated? Definitely, especially because, so far as I could tell, Séverine herself is portrayed as a rather cold, obstinate creature and it is hard to imagine what sort of appeal she holds over all the men who are drawn to her.

Two of the stories revolve around celebrity. In “The Death of Claude François”, the passing of a famed singer devastates the women of a housing project. As the story opens, Dr Zaka meets her former best friend, Marlène Vador, after a 30 year separation. Marlène has remained on the project, nursing it seems, an undying love for the long dead hero. Dr Zaka never shared the depth of that affection:

“How ridiculous, she told herself, all that sniveling, all that sweat, all that sorrow simply because a man has died, a perfect stranger to every one of the women on the lawn, although dearer to their wanting hearts than the many children they’d borne, than the husband who had begotten them, whose eyes stayed dry on the death of that luminous, splendid stranger, so French, so blue eyed, so blond-headed.”

However, if the death of the French idol failed to move her, Dr Zaka has conceived a most unusual “gift” for her friend, presumably to make amends for leaving so many years before. In the longest story, “Brulard’s Day”, an overtired, psychotic woman has retreated to a resort town in the mountains. She is clinging to the idea that she was once a famous actress although the true extent of her acting career is not clear. She has left her husband and daughter and is awaiting funds she expects from a mysterious lover. In the meantime she is haunted by visions of her younger self, mortified by the fact that she is reduced to wearing – gasp – loafers and attempting to perform an appearance that befits her image of herself. When her husband appears on the scene it begins to become evident that neither have more than a desperate desire to be more than they are or have ever been.

Finally, the story, “The Boys”, reads like a dystopian tale in which poor rural families seek wealthy women to purchase their sons. A family fortunate to have a son handsome enough to fetch a price as a sex slave will stand to benefit from the income. As the Mour family pass their handsome son on to his fate, René, a poorer boy from a nearby home who picks up odd jobs with the family but is otherwise allowed to disappear into the shadows, watches and comes to decide that he too would like a ticket out.

“He’d always known he could make a gift of himself. Assuming someone would take him, assuming someone was eager to have him, a colorless boy named René, he could subjugate himself to the will of anyone at all. Little matter if he was purchased or picked up for free.”

Tightly paced, haunting and deeply disturbing, this is perhaps the strongest entry in the entire collection.

witmonth15Born in 1967 to a French mother and Senegalese father, NDiaye trained as a linguist at the Sorbonne. She was was playing with form and style at an early age and her first novel was published when she was only 18. In 2013, at the age of 45, she was long listed for the International Booker. This collection was originally published in 2004. The English translation by Jordan Stump was published in 2013 by Two Lines Press.

Naming the unnamed: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

“A man who’s drinking is always dreaming about a man who’ll listen,” advises Harun, the aged man sitting in a bar in Oran, Algeria, in the opening chapter of The Meursault Investigation. His companion, night after night, is a young student intent on sorting out the mystery behind the iconic text he carries in his briefcase. What unfolds over a series of encounters is the tale of the unnamed Arab murdered in the pivotal scene of  L’Etranger by Albert Camus. In presenting Harun as the fictional counterpoint to Camus’ Meursault, Algerian author Kamel Daoud sets up to name and flesh out a life not only for the victim of violence on that hot beach, but for his brother and mother as well. What follows is more than an homage; it is an active dialogue from the other side of the equation – ethnically, politically and historically.

kamelAn acquaintance with L’Etranger is not only assumed but a recommended prerequisite to The Meursault Investigation. Both are novellas so reading or reviewing the former in advance is not an arduous task. I last read Camus’ classic in late 2013 with The Guardian Reading Group so I had the advantage of being able to search the online archives for my own reflections and the discussions that ensued. I still found myself dipping back into my own copy as I started out with this book but as I fell into the story it no longer seemed necessary.

Our narrator this time around is immediately a more likable character than our old friend Meursault. He is not happy, but we have a context for our sympathies. He is seven years old when his beloved older brother Musa meets his senseless fate. Their father had disappeared before he had a chance to even form a memory of him so his brother was his hero and a surrogate father figure. His senseless death, unreported save for two obscure newspaper accounts his mother clings to, cannot be proved. No body is ever found. After all, in the novel in which he is killed he is neither named nor is the fate of his body mentioned.

His mother becomes obsessed with seeking answers. In the process Harun is reduced to a shadow of himself, he feels like an effigy of his brother. He follows his mother as she searches for clues. He is blamed for surviving and denied his own identity. He becomes a ghost in his own life. While Meursault’s relationship with his mother is, from that famous opening line – “Mother died today” – cold and flat, Harun and his mother share a complicated, emotional dynamic. “Mama’s still alive today” he reminds us repeatedly, but both are wounded and reduced, survivors of the unnamed Arab in an uncertain and shifting post-colonial Algeria.

Eventually he is led to avenge his brother’s death by taking the life of a Frenchman. It is, in itself, an act rooted in the story of Cain and Abel:

“I blame my mother, I lay the blame on her. The truth is, she committed that crime. She held my arm steady while Musa held hers and so on back to Abel or his brother. I’m philosophizing? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask.”

In an echo of L’Etranger, where Meursault is condemned to death not for killing an Arab, but for failing to cry at his mother’s funeral; Harun faces imprisonment not for an act of murder, but for killing his Frenchman one day after the Declaration of Independence rather than alongside his countrymen during the battle for freedom. Close on the heels of this new found Independence, some two decades after his brother’s death, our hero finally encounters the famous text which he instantly recognizes as explaining, complementing and mirroring his own. He is at once intrigued and dismayed.

The echoes with L’Etranger resound throughout this novel. Daoud answers the absurdity of Camus with his protagonist’s own absurd predicaments. He matches Meursault’s rejection of God with Harun’s dissolution with his faith. But his hero’s hopes and disappointments are his own, solidly grounded and charged with a power that, from the Algerian perspective 70 years out from the publication of the original inspiration, demands to be heard.

This is, of course, not the first time that fiction has been answered by fiction, untold stories have been re-imagined, or silenced characters have been granted voice. The Meursault Investigation has been met with international praise, a measure of skepticism and, in the author’s home country, calls that he be tried for blasphemy. Translated from the French by John Cullen and published by Other Press, this is a deceptively simple yet deeply important work. Time will tell how it holds up in the light of such a famous counterpoint, but, for my money, it has to be seen as a continuation of a conversation that will, because it is so deeply informed by L’Etranger, serve to draw Camus’ work forward into twenty-first century discourse while setting its own very important and timely literary agenda as we move forward.

Besides, Harun with his diversions and penchant for storytelling is much better company than poor miserable old Meursault.

We’re extras in our own stories: Atavisms by Raymond Bock

I am often at odds with the literature from my own country, in fact I’m increasingly at odds with my own country itself. When I heard about Atavisms, a newly released translation of Maxime Raymond Bock’s award winning collection of short stories it caught my attention immediately. I was keen to have a look at Canada through the lens of a contemporary Québécois writer. I don’t know what I expected, but I was hooked from the opening pages.

atavismsNot content with niceties, Bock catapults his reader into this collection with “Wolverine”, a story about a disaffected nationalist nursing his resentment long after the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec – a separatist paramilitary organization) has fallen into decline in the years following the institution of the War Measures Act in October of 1970 in response to the hostilities that had risen to a crisis point. When he happens to encounter a former Liberal cabinet minister, aged and intoxicated, he enlists a couple of friends on an adventure of revenge that turns brutally violent. It is shocking even if you come to this tale from a distance, but as a Canadian who will never separate the October Crisis from his 10 year-old imagination, I met it with intoxicated horror. Suddenly I was thrown back to my prairie schoolyard where my friends and I re-enacted events we were in no way equipped to understand – but with kidnapped officials and bodies in trunks it was infinitely more exciting, and terrifying, than anything on TV.

The horror continues to unfold in the second story, “The Other World”, but this time the reader is thrown back hundreds of years, to the early Quebec settlers and the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack by of a band of Iroquois on a couple of traders and their Huron guides. As the lone survivor lies under a thicket of pine branches hoping to remain hidden as the attackers relieve their victims of goods and scalps, he muses that, no matter what happens, he has no regrets.

From there we move, in “Dauphin, Manitoba”, to look outside the borders of Quebec, with a man’s monologue directed at a girlfriend he left behind in a prairie town. They had moved out there together. While she found herself captivated by her work, he failed to get a foothold or feel at ease in the vast empty landscape and retreated to the familiar blanketing comfort of a Montreal winter.

“You could pace back and forth a hundred years without coming close to the boredom I felt on those prairies, once sifted by antediluvian oceans, sculpted by retreating glaciers, surveyed by rambling nomads – friendly spirits, even better warriors – plowed to-and-fro by combines kicking up the dust of buffalo skeletons. You could say I caught you off guard when I left you alone to follow your path; you could say it was a nice trip, the time of your life. Lies. We’re both free now. You can study law, become a pastry chef, take up curling, or stay out there and keep up the good work; I’ll stay here and the snow will keep coming down.”

I once made a move like that in the opposite direction, albeit no further than Ottawa; but in the end made my way back west, never really at home at either end of the equation. As the narrator frames his missive to his girlfriend in terms of the generic novels he is making his way through, he does not sound any more committed to his move as something intrinsically right than as an acknowledgement of where he does not belong.

As the stories in Atavisms unfold, stretching back and forward in time, common themes, from history to politics to parental anxiety, reoccur, reflecting off one another. It can be argued that these thirteen stories are interconnected although they do not explicitly share any repeating characters and range from historical to surrealist to speculative fiction. Some of the contemporary stories are deeply universal and could almost be set anywhere, like “The Bridge” in which a depressed history teacher muses about his fate should he give in to his suicidal whims; or “Room 103”, a son’s one sided conversation with his dying father:

“It’s the end, Antoine, there’s nothing left to be done. You’re so light you don’t even make a dent in the mattress. It’s just you all alone with your obsolete quarter-million dollar machines, your network of tubing, your probes and dreams.”

Like a fragmented block of glass, each story in Atavisms offers a view of the Québécois experience through a different prism until the final tale, “The Still Traveler”, pulls all the threads together into a time and place in a precolonial reality dating back to the legends of the earliest residents and visitors to the Americas. After all, atavism refers to the tendency to revert to an ancestral type and that, more than anything is the underpinning theme of this collection: fathers and sons, family histories, political legacies, the identities that contain and define us.

Outside of Quebec, a sense of identity is diluted. I was struck by the depth of the colonial commentary that runs through a number of these tales and how the early days of New France are revisited with a harsh measure of reality. This is a conversational point sadly under played in Canada as a whole. As a new level of racism and xenophobia directed at new Canadians grows across this country, we would do well to remember how recently white Europeans made their way onto these shores.

Newly released by Dalkey Archive Press under their Canadian Literature Series, Pablo Strauss’ translation very effectively maintains the distinctive flavour of Bock’s richly varied stories. Supplemental endnotes fill in some essential language and historical references to enhance the reading experience.

I would strongly recommend Atavisms to anyone interested in knowing more about the Quebec experience, whether inside or outside Canada. Not only because the perspective is not as widely known or understood as it should be, but because this is simply a collection of very good stories. Period.

Of misery and cauliflower: The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard

The tale that unfolds between the covers of The Author and Me by French writer Éric Chevillard is, to be honest, quite unlike anything I have ever read. In fact the tale, or rather tales and other sundry comments exist on two levels: in what might be considered the primary text and in an extensive series of footnotes, which at one point digress into a 40 page story called The Ant. And linking it all is the character’s (and possibly the author’s) explicit loathing for cauliflower gratin. And can the protagonist wax lyrical about his utter contempt for the cruciferous casserole? He can, and does. He also sings the praises of his most desired dish, trout amandine. It would be ridiculous – well perhaps it is ridiculous – if it was not so very funny.

AuthorOh wait, I can sense you backing away now and looking for a quick exit. Would it help if I add that you will also find murder and two shocking twists within these pages?

The book opens with a Foreword in which the author briefly discusses the way his past characters have been conflated with either real individuals or with himself. Questions of the nature of writing and an author’s responsibility for the beliefs and actions of his or her creations continue in the extensive, ongoing footnotes. Meanwhile, on ground level, shall we say, the main character, a middle aged man, collars a young woman sitting on the terrace of a café. With little preamble he launches into what may, or may not, be leading to the confession of a crime predicated on the indignity of being promised trout and being serve a dish of congealed cauliflower and cheese. He contrasts his views about the two dishes with passion:

“On the one hand, the vast openness of space, the loving moon, still more heavens beyond the heavens; on the other, a dull, leaden horizon, the collapsed roof, the flooded basement.

On the one hand, life in all its possibility, benign and, for a few moments – some ten mouthfuls – magnificent; on the other, the wretched gloom of day following endlessly upon day, a longing for death, death as rescue and release.”

As the character’s tale of woe continues, the footnotes run commentary on the author’s tendencies and predilections, muse on the relationship between the author and his character, the author and his reader, and the general nature of writers and their relationship to the world. As you might imagine, the lines between the actual author, M. Chevillard, who continually references his own prevous work, the (presumably) fictional author and the created character blur as the novel becomes increasingly bizarre.

Which all brings us back to this most reviled of vegetable dishes. How serious is the character’s diatribe? How much, against the footnote creator’s protestations, is ironic? Allegorical? To what is it a commentary on the state of literature? On the very state of civilization?

And when is cauliflower gratin simply cauliflower gratin?

For a taste of contemporary experimental absurdist French literature, tuck in your napkin, pray for trout but prepare for cauliflower. Created with finely seasoned humour by Éric Chevillard, carefully prepared and translated for your consumption by Jordan Stump and served up by Dalkey Archive Press, this is a novel that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It has definitely whet my appetite for tasting Chevillard’s earlier work.

This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.