“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
These words of Marx occur twice in course of Eric Dupont’s Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution: early on, underlined in the book lying open on the lap of the protagonist’s recently deceased mother, and again as the story nears an end. But between the two occurrences it’s pure farce—even the tragic bits.
One has to wonder what goes on in the imagination of Dupont, the Quebec writer whose works have won awards and garnered impressive nominations in both the original French and in English translation. With his latest release from QC Fiction, he has defied the odds of conventional storytelling to pull folktale magic, Marxist idealism, sex work, the politics of language and culture, and a curse reaching back through the centuries into one oddly contemporary tale. From the outset it is probably best allow yourself plenty of rational wiggle room, accept the premise of the proposed wild goose chase or fool’s errand at the heart of Rosa’s grand adventure, assured that however unlikely, the novel’s internal logic will be disclosed before the last page is turned. And ten to one you won’t see it coming!
Our heroine here is Rosa, named after the famous revolutionary socialist, raised by her trade unionist mother, Terese Ost, and Aunt Zenaida, an anachronistic old woman, one hundred years behind the times, who literally emerged from a large block of ice Terese and her daughter found on the shore near their village and dragged back home to thaw before the stove. Home is Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot, a tiny hamlet “forgotten by God and all of humankind” out on the Gaspé Peninsula “where the wind can be a crutch to lean on.” Until it’s not. Little Rosa is raised on a healthy diet of Marxist ideology and regular rounds of Scrabble, but things are not good in Notre-Dame-de-Cachelot. The paper mill has closed down, and the local economy has been forced to rely on a mysterious gas called Boredom which is tapped and sold to foreign interests.
And then, one day, the wind suddenly stops just as a leak occurs in one of the pipes accessing the source of the precious, albeit poisonous, gaseous commodity. Soon, people start dying of Boredom, beginning with Rosa’s mother. Without the wind to disperse the fumes, the village is doomed. Rosa tries to find solace in her socialist texts but to no avail. Instead, the potential solution comes to her when she finds a giant winkle shell on the shore, places the massive mollusc to her ear, and hears her mother’s voice advise her that the wind comes from the west—from Montreal. Immediately Rosa, who is now twenty, knows what she must do.
So off she goes. Waiting for the bus to take her into the city she meets an international troop of strippers (as one does), and much to their collective surprise, a woman pulls up in a minivan and offers to give them all a lift. This savoir is Jeanne Joyal and it just so happens that she runs a boarding house for young women where Rosa is welcome to stay. All too perfect? All too perfectly weird, I’d say. Naive and trusting, Rosa arrives in Montreal dressed like someone from a distant era and immediately finds a job in a pay-by-the-hour motel, across from a club where her new friends perform Communist infused lurid acts for an audience containing more than a few national political figures . Of course, she has no idea what she has just walked into, but her simplicity and openly accepting character inspires the strippers and hookers in her work environment to look out for her and gently educate her about the less savoury aspects of the world.
What makes this most unlikely scenario work is the central character, the fabulously innocent Rosa Ost. She evolves and hardens as time goes on, but her trust and dedication to her seemingly impossible task is endearing. At her lodgings, she learns that her landlady is tough, set in her ways and determined to educate her young charges, Rosa and three others, in the intricacies of Quebec history whether they want it or not. Our protagonist is often the one to take a risk and stand up in defense of her roommates. Like a good socialist.
There is romance, there is betrayal and there is mystery against a backdrop of political realities true to the timing of the narrative—late 2000, following the death of Pierre Elliot Trudeau—and still valid today. Language and cultural tensions are growing, the climate is an increasing concern and attitudes toward women, especially those in the sex trade, are marked by double standards that still prevail. The weakest link in this wild tale is a running gag about dialects that doesn’t necessarily translate smoothly. For it to work one has to read the Gaspé and Acadian seasoned dialogue with the correct accent. In English it risks falling flat. But it’s not a huge element within the narrative overall. Playful and irreverent this improbable farce is a fun read with a strangely satisfying, if bizarre, ending that ties up the loose ends in the wildest of knots.
Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution by Eric Dupont in translated by Peter McCambridge and published by QC Fiction.