The Firemaker by Peter May

September 23, 2016 18 comments

The Firemaker by Peter May (1999) French title : Meurtres à Pékin. Translated by Ariane Bataille.

MayThe Firemaker our Book Club read for August, so yes, I might be a little late with the billet. It’s going to be a quick one as well because I have a rather long list of upcoming billets and frankly, The Firemaker is not a book that pushes me to write a long, deep or even gushing billet. It’s honest Beach and Public Transport reading but nothing more.

It’s the first instalment of Peter May’s series in China. Dr Margaret Campbell is a medical examiner in Chicago and she arrives in Beijing to give lectures about her job to Chinese students. Li Yan has just been promoted as Deputy Section Chief in the Beijing police department. He accidentally meets Margaret on his way to his job interview and they start on the wrong footing.

The same day, three bodies are found dead in three different places of the city. The only common point between the three is a cigarette butt near the corpses.

Follows an investigation to discover who’s guilty of these murders. Margaret and Li are obliged to work together. She makes mistake after mistake in her interactions with Chinese people. Margaret and Li are madly attracted to each other but cannot really act on it. They get scientific results of sample analysis in record time, the cells don’t even have the time to multiply that they already have the report. Such performance sounds rather unrealistic.

It’s basically an American NCIS based in Beijing. It’s an easy read and I read it till the end but it’s rather stereotyped. The scientist imposed to the cop as a partner. A pair forced to work together that ends up falling in lust and then in love. Pointing out cultural differences. An American woman who doesn’t take time to read anything about the country she’s going to and offends everyone with her ignorance. A woman who flew to China to avoid her painful past. A man whose family has been hurt by the Cultural Revolution. Cardboard descriptions of Beijing. Some cultural nail polish to spice it up. And poof, 500 pages.

All in all, nothing to write home about. It could have been a lot better because the synopsis is a truly great idea. The problem is that it lacks finesse in characterization but it’s still a decent Beach & Public Transport book.

There’s a recent review in French by Nounours here

Sex, jazz and literature or when Bukowski meets Baldwin

September 18, 2016 23 comments

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (1985) Original French title: Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Cette chambre est bien le Q.G. de tout ce que cette ville compte de marginales ; cette mafia urbaine qui a trouvé d’instinct son île au 3670 de la rue Saint-Denis, au carré Saint-Louis, Montréal, Québec, Canada, Amérique, Terre. CHEZ MOI. This room is really the HQ of every marginal girl of this city, this urban mafia who instinctively found their island at 3670, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Louis quarter, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, America, Earth. MY HOME.

LaferrièreWhy did I wait so long to read Dany Laferrière? My trip to Québec prompted me to try his books and I decided to start by the beginning, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. It is translated into English under How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. A provocative title that sure caught my eyes.

The narrator is a struggling writer who lives in a crappy room in the Carré Saint-Louis neighbourhood of Montreal. It is based on Laferrière’s own experience of his first years in Montreal after he emigrated from Haïti in the 1980s. His roommate Bouba is a couch potato/philosopher. Both have girls coming in and out of the apartment and have a very active sex life. Both are black.

The narrator relates his daily life and his interactions with various white female sex partners. Most of them are students and come from Outremont, a bourgeois part of the city. They’re sort of slumming it with him. And the narrator, who doesn’t treat them really well, makes blunt observations about the relationships between a black man and a white young woman. He’s half-amused, half-offended by the huge lies he manages to feed them about his African origins. They swallow every stupid description about customs, clothes and everyday life.


They don’t question him out of ignorance but also to prove how tolerant and open-minded they can be. Blunt thoughts about how the whites see black people are spread in the book. It’s not the purpose of the novel but it’s part of the narrator’s experience as an immigrant in Montreal. This is the Baldwin side.

The Bukowski side is more in the way of life, the drinking, the sex, the dubious way he treats women. It reminded me of Post Office. Bouba and the narrator pick up girls who are like star-struck but neither of the men is really interested in them. They give them nicknames like Miz Literature or Miz Suicide according to their interests and background. One of them is lovely and seems attached to the narrator but he doesn’t really care about her. He’s on his personal journey as a struggling writer who suffers for his art in a poor hotel room like Hemingway or Bukowski. What saves him is his sense of humor. Sure, he wants to be a writer and while he wants to walk into the path of glorious writers, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Another link between Laferrière, Bukowski and Baldwin is certainly their voracious love for literature and their lust for life. A powerful energy pours out of their books. The narrator is a would-be writer, he reads all the time and books are in his blood.

Longue file d’attente au bureau de poste. On est serrés comme des sardines. J’avise une sardine, juste devant moi. Elle lit un bouquin. Je suis une sardine maniaque de bouquins. Dès que je vois quelqu’un en train de lire un livre, il faut que je sache quel est le titre, si elle aime ça et de quoi ça parle. Long queue at the post office. We’re packed like sardines. I see a sardine just before me. She’s reading a book. I’m a sardine obsessed with books. As soon as I see someone reading a book, I have to know the title, if she likes it and what it is about.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? I bet he also reads information on food packaging at the breakfast table, various instructions here and there because he’s a compulsive reader. As Guy would say, there are worse addictions. This is a most pleasant part of the book. The narrator shares thoughts about literature and shows how his reading is embedded in his everyday life. He has an intimate and casual relationship with writers, worship made of familiarity.

Faut lire Hemingway debout, Basho en marchant, Proust dans un bain, Cervantès à l’hôpital, Simenon dans le train (Canadian Pacific), Dante au paradis, Dosto en enfer, Miller dans un bar enfumé avec hot dogs, frites et coke…Je lisais Mishima avec une bouteille de vin bon marché au pied du lit, complètement épuisé, et une fille à côté, sous la douche. You must read Hemingway standing, Basho, walking, Proust, in a bath, Cervantes, in the hospital, Simenon, on a train (Canadian Pacific), Dante, in heaven, Dosto, in hell, Miller in a smoky bar with hot dogs, fries and coke…I was reading Mishima with a cheap bottle of wine by my bed, totally worn out, with a girl nearby, in the shower.

Laferrière has the humor and the bluntness of a John Fante. He’s a black man from Haiti who ended up in Montreal, lived in Florida and has been a member of the Académie Française since 2013. He’s the second black man elected in this institution, the first writer from Haiti and the first from Québec. A long way since Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

(*) NB: The capital letters are in the original text and I did the translations myself.



Back to Literature, la rentrée littéraire 2016

September 10, 2016 40 comments

560-romans-pour-la-rentree-litteraire-2016In French, Back to School is Rentrée Scolaire. In France, and a bit in Québec too, it is accompanied by Back to Literature, the Rentrée littéraire. It’s as if we readers had to go back to serious reading after gallivanting around the futile paths of Beach & Public Transport books during the summer. Now publishers and literary critic whistle the end of summer break and herd back their reading flock to more serious reading. 560 novels are released for the 2016 Rentrée littéraire. All published now to be on time for the literary prizes granted later in Autumn.

I tend to stay away from all this literary fuss. Which one to choose? How do you wrap your head around this avalanche of new books? There are too many and it becomes a cacophony of literary reviews. As a reader, it makes me dizzy. Some books are everywhere. Strangely, the more I hear about a book, the less I want to read it. More often, original reviews will catch my attention or I’ll hear writers’ interviews and I get frustrated because I want to read their new book and I know I don’t have time to read everything I’d want to. It’s like putting a great meal in front of a gourmet who’s on a diet. Torture. So I usually let time sort things out and see which books survive the hype. And by then, they’re available in paperback which is better for my wallet.

This year, I tried something different, I went to an independent bookstore, L’Esprit Livre, and asked the libraire a single question: “Among all the books of the Rentrée littéraire, which one would you recommend?” This is how I came to Le garçon by Marcus Malte. A book I’d never heard of by a new-to-me writer. It’s the perfect blind date set up by a true literature lover. You’ll hear about this unusual novel later when I finish it.

I wonder how writers feel about this whole Rentrée littéraire shebang. Sure it’s a time to talk about literature and the literary scene. It brings a lot of attention to books and one can never complain about too much attention to literature. But isn’t it harder for a book or a new novelist to be noticed? Or do they benefit from the signings and all events organized at this time of year? Doesn’t it increase the pressure? I wish I could ask this question –among others—to Marcus Malte. He will be at L’Esprit Livre on October 8th and unfortunately, I’m out of town this day. I would have loved to meet him. He also wrote polars and won the Quais du Polar award in 2008, so I’m also intrigued by his other books.

PS: For newcomers at Book Around The Corner, a Beach & Public Transport book is a book that can be read in a noisy environment. Good Beach & Public Transport books are precious. Entertaining, light and well-written requires a gifted writer.

Last but not least, let’s go through a bit of French book-related vocabulary since I use French words for notions that don’t have an exact equivalent in English.

A polar is a crime fiction book, usually on the dark side. Agatha Christie didn’t write polars, Chandler did.

The English translation of libraire is bookseller. But in French, a libraire is more than a bookseller, he/she’s a book whisperer. It’s someone who’ll share their coup de coeur with you, will recommend you books according to your tastes and will help you discover new writers.

Coup de Coeur: You’ll see them in French bookstores, books have tags coup de coeur du libraire. In English it would become the book whisperer’s crush. It’s usually accompanied by a little word of the libraire who read the book. In a few words, it will tell you why they loved it.

Sad to be back in the office after the holidays? Have a good laugh with Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

September 4, 2016 13 comments

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. (2006) Not available in French. Translation tragedy. 

When I woke up that Sunday after getting fired Marlene was dead. I was in a salty bed and two detectives were staring down at me. Three hours later I was jerking off in a police station bathroom. It was not the resurrection I’d been hoping for.

Neilan_ApathyIsn’t that a promising setting? Meet Shane a professional drifter who moves around a lot, shies away from responsibilities and roots. He tries to fly under the radar but this time he failed. He’s in custody because a woman, Marlene, is dead and he’s the police’s favorite suspect. He starts recalling the flow of events that brought him there and we’re introduced to a menagerie of characters: Doug, the dentist who faints on his patients while they’re on his chair. Marlene, his deaf assistant who loves karaoke. Gwen who likes rough sex with her boyfriends. The janitor’s wife who needs sex services. The janitor, who needs his wife to be serviced.

And Shane finds himself mixed in their lives. He’s Doug’s patient and befriends Marlene on his frequent trips to the dentist. A former college rugby player, Gwen picks him as a boyfriend and he lets himself be tackled in her rounds of TLC.

“Oh my god, Shane!” she said, and hit me with an open field tackle of a hug that lifted me off my stool and cracked two of my ribs. I saw her coming at the last second and braced myself. Otherwise I would’ve been paralyzed for life.

Since he can’t pay his full rent, the janitor in his apartment complex asks him into shag his wife every Tuesday. Shane doesn’t enjoy it but he complies, gets his a discount on his rent and comments with a deadpan sense of humor.

Still, after a few Tuesdays, just from sheer repetition, the sex had marginally improved. We were still dead fish being swung by an off duty clown, but we weren’t just any kind of fish. And even if we weren’t two majestic salmon, glistening in the sun as we leaped up a waterfall into the mouth of a huge fucking grizzly bear, we were at least tuna. Someone, somewhere would be glad to catch and eat us.

Under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane starts as a temp among the support staff in the insurance company she works for, Panopticon Insurance. Now have you noticed? If a character must have a boring job, they’re either an accountant or work for an insurance company. Imagine what a writer would do with an accountant working for an insurer. Perhaps nothing because their character would be in a boredom-induced coma. Or it would be the ultimate modernist novel. Stream of unconsciousness. Zzzzzzz.

Anyway, back to Shane and his temp job at Panopticon because that’s the funniest part of the novel. His job is to alphabetize contracts but soon he specializes in what we call in French “vertical filing” ie, putting things straight into the trash. So our Shane has a lot of time on his hands and he divides it between making miniature gallows with paper clips and perfecting the art of sleeping in the restrooms.

It was early on, before I knew the physiology of sleeping on a toilet bowl and its effects, and what I needed to do to counteract them: how long to hold on to the quadriplegic bars before trying to walk on my own, how to maximize my momentum without tripping over my dead legs, how to use my lack of balance to my advantage, which I never really figured out. It was all a matter of timing and rhythm, like tap dancing. In those first few days I knew how to shuffle ball step, but I was wearing the wrong shoes.

He makes cutting remarks on Panopticon, the cubicles, the team’s manager Andrew, his colleagues and makes fun of corporate life in general and management techniques in particular.

The boss’s name was Andrew, but he didn’t like the term boss. He referred to himself as the team facilitator.

It is absolutely hilarious, especially when Andrew organizes a “cube warming” party when their department gets a brand new cubicle or when Shane describes Inspiration Alley, the row between the cubicles. It’s covered with inspirational quotes from great leaders to uplift team spirit. As Shane says

If Tolstoy were alive today and working as a temp at Panopticon Insurance, he’d say that all insurance companies are the same, then throw himself through an eighteenth-story window and plunge to his death in a hail of glass and shattered dignity. I worked on the eighteenth floor, but the windows were too thick.

Shane’s professional wanker. Apathy is his way-of-life, an art-of-life, even. It’s his driving force and nothing can sway him. He’s completely whacked and he’s one of these characters totally oblivious that something’s seriously wrong with them. But you get to know his brand of crazy around a comment here and there.

He looked at me the way my mom did the time she caught me officiating the wedding of Mr. Potato Head and He-Man. I had just said, “You may kiss the bride,” and when I looked up she was standing in the doorway. I was fourteen years old, and I was not wearing any pants.

He’s fucked-up and can’t help stealing saltshakers wherever he goes:

I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.

(Btw, if you ever want to get rid of a French guest: serve them beef jerky with root beer and Jello as a dessert. They’ll run away quickly.)

Being in Shane’s head is fun. He might be totally immature and crazy but he makes spot on observations about humans. I chuckled, laughed out loud at his outrageous comments. The scenes in Doug’s office are hilarious. The corporate part put me in stitches. The story comes together in the end, the reader gets the whole picture and sees how fate framed Shane.

I loved everything in Apathy and Other Small Victories. The crazy plot. The amazing characters. Neilan’s punchy style and impeccable sense of humor. It’s going to be on my best-of-the-year list, I’m sure.

I read this thanks to Guy, who picked it after Max Barry mentioned it as a fantastic read. Check out Guy’s review here. Highly recommended in case of depressing weather, hard times at work, dire need of a good laugh.


Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski

August 29, 2016 9 comments

Hell & Gone (2011) and Point & Shoot (2013) by Duane Swierczynski. Not available in French. (So far. So it goes in the Translation Tragedy category)

 What was that old saying? It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye? Hardie supposed the fun and games were over. Now it was something else.


And something else it is.

I have read Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot by Duane Swierczynski almost one after the other. There are the two last books of the Charlie Hardie trilogy. The first one is Fun & Games and my billet about it is here.

In the first episode, poor Charlie Hardie happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and crosses path with a secret organization, The Accident People, who are specialized in killing people through what looks like an accident. Charlie Hardie is a tough guy. The Accident People are so impressed with his resilience and toughness that they decide they they want him to work for them. Hardie isn’t really on board with the idea so they don’t give him a choice. They kidnap him, drug him and ship him to in a high security prison somewhere. Soon, Hardie discovers he’s supposed to be the warden of highly dangerous criminals. And there’s a catch: if he tries to escape, it will trigger a death mechanism and everybody will die. And Charlie Hardie isn’t a killer. So a warden he becomes and he needs to manage a team of lethal guards. Hardie is a lone wolf. He used to work for the Philadelphia Police Department as a “consultant”, being a real cop wasn’t his thing. He worked closely with a police officer, Nate, and he was the one with the social skills in the duo. Hardie is not a leader, he’s a Pitbull who never gives up. Despite his desperate position, he still plans on escaping and doing whatever it takes to get out.

Hardie needed to gain their trust somehow, put them at ease. He couldn’t escape if his own staff was keeping a closer eye on him than the actual prisoners.

God help him…

He needed to hold a staff meeting.

This gives you a taste of Swierczynski’s brand of prose. Punchy, straight to the point and laced with tons of humor. The whole book is a fast paced adventure as Hardie discovers the ins and outs of the prison and the personality of the prisoners. It’s hard to know who to trust. There are new developments all the time and it’s a highly enjoyable ride.

In Point & Shoot, Hardie has been sent in orbit around the Earth. The Accident People again. This time he’s keeping something precious in a satellite. He’s trapped there for a year at least and he can observe his wife Kendra and kid through a weekly live feed. He must stay on duty for twelve months otherwise his wife and kid will have “an accident”. He can’t say he’s comfy in his in-orbit shoe box.

Ordinary life up here in space was a Black & Decker funhouse of pain.

Things change when his avatar lands on the satellite and makes them fall into the Pacific Ocean. How will they survive? Is this man trustworthy? Are Kendra and Charlie Junior in danger?

You’ll know more if you read the book. We learn more about the criminal organization that holds Hardie prisoner, why he’s so resilient despite all the beatings, drugging and other awful things that happen to his body. His mind is unreachable. He’s stubborn as hell and never gives up. He’s got a one track mind and protecting his wife and son is his only goal.

He’s an engaging character because his moral compass remains stable. He’s tough physically but also mentally. He remains human, not a superhero. It is through little observations that the reader sympathizes with Hardie’s predicament.

Sometimes all Hardie wanted in the world was the opportunity to stretch. A real stretch, where you can reach your hands to heaven and you can feel the vertebrae pop. Such a stretch was impossible in this claustrophobic tin can. And taking a leak? Back on Earth, guys were blessed with the ability to find a semi-hidden spot, unzip, and let it fly. Up here Hardie had t contort as he were doing yoga in a closet. If the vacuum seal wasn’t tight, then he’s enjoy the sensation of his own gravity-free piss droplets smacking into his face.

He’s the good guy put in impossible situations and he fights against the monsters.

Swierczynski_point_shootThese books are off the charts action movies. I wonder why nobody turned them into films. There’s so much material here. I love Swierczynski’s sense of humor, his style and his crazy ideas. He even gave the surname of his French translator to the French character in Hell & Gone. It’s an unusual surname, Aslanides, I knew she was her translator for France and I asked him if it was an allusion to her and it is.

I’m so sorry to report to French readers that this trilogy isn’t translated into French. It’s available in ebook and in English. Unfortunately, it means you won’t have the paper books with their gorgeous covers.

Many thanks again to Guy for pointing Duane Swierczynski in my direction. I will definitely read other books by him. Here are his reviews of Hell & Gone  and of Point & Shoot


Pardon my French: French from Québec and French from France

August 25, 2016 35 comments

Flag_of_Quebec.svgI’ve just spent three weeks in Québec and I thought I’d tell you a bit about French from Québec compared to French from France. This is a billet, not an academic dissertation. It is just my impressions and I don’t pretend to know anything more than the few observations I can make after my three weeks stay in this lovely Province. I don’t know if I have readers in Canada (except for one) but my intentions aren’t to offend anyone, so don’t be angry with me if I say something you might not like.

In a B&B, an tourist asked me: “Is French from Québec very different from yours? Because for us, it’s just French.” My answer was “as much as English in America is different from English in the UK”. The words and the accent are different but we understand each other. Mostly.

Sometimes the spelling is different, like phantasme in Québec instead of fantasme in France.

Sometimes we can be surprised by false friends. Take Dépanneur. For me, it’s a tow truck. For a French Canadian, it’s an emergency grocery store, like a 7/11, a place to go when you miss an ingredient for a recipe or just need a few items. Literally, it means a “Helper out”. In French, we call them L’Arabe du coin because these stores were traditionally owned and run by French with origins from the Maghreb. I realise I don’t know how they say tow truck.

The accent. French Canadians have a lovely accent with a lot more musicality than ours. French from France is rather flat, except in the South. French Canadians have an accent that allows them to insert Anglo-Saxon names in the flow of the sentence without distorting the original sound of the names. It’s alsmot impossible for us and I envy them for that. Robert Lepage, the theatre artist from Québec, made fun of us in his play Les aiguilles et l’opium. It’s a play about a brokenhearted French Canadian who’s staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. Lepage makes a great show of telling how the French say Miles Dévisse while unscrewing an imaginary light bulb because “dévisser” means “to unscrew”. Hilarious. To have an idea of a thick Québecois accent, it’s all in La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte by Michel Tremblay. Wonderful book, billet to come as soon as I can catch up with blog entries.

All in all, we understand each other very well, provided that the accent isn’t too thick. Once we were at a historical park watching a show about the place in 1927 and the accent was so thick I couldn’t understand the story they were telling. I thought “No worries, bilingual country, there’s gonna be an English translation”. Que nenni! as we say in French. No translation at all. I hope there weren’t any tourists from Ontario in there or they might have been as frustrated as me.

Speaking about bilingual countries. In Ottawa, signs were first in English and then with a French translation. In Montreal, the French comes first and then there’s the English. And in the Lac Saint Jean area (where the famous Maria Chapdelaine comes from), there were no English translations. Tiny details that speak volumes.

French Canadians have a different relationship with the French language and the invasion of English words in it. After attending another outstanding play by Robert Lepage, 887, and reading a little bit about the history of Québec, I might understand where they come from. It was also explained by Québécois writers at a panel at Quais du Polar this year. They fight for the preservation of the French language in their country. For example, one writer from Québec was shocked that the independent booksellers on the salon had T-shirts that said Libraire’s not dead because it was in English. He said “Why do you use English for that?” and for me, it was just a parody of the slogan Punk’s not dead and that’s all. For him it was another victory of the English language. Here, we’re more relaxed about it and we tend to accept English words pretty well and to use them because it’s cool. It doesn’t bother me, probably because I see a lot of French words in English literature or shops with French names abroad. I think it works both ways.

We tend to adopt English words for things that don’t exist in French or don’t belong to France because they’re North-American. And we forget that French Canadians have a North American way-of-life and live in French and probably already have a word for it. They have rangers that they call garde-parcs instead of saying ranger like us. They use service au volant instead of drive in but I’m not sure impatient French people would say a lengthy service au volant instead of a short drive in. I love the word traversier for ferry, it’s rolls off the tongue and it’s a lovely way to call these boats. This is a creative way of updating the French dictionary and we should look their way before using the English words.

147_PFKSometimes I find their attachment to the French language a bit extreme. Road signs are translated. Stop becomes Arrêt and sometimes it’s written in both languages. Some brands get translated. Starbucks Coffee becomes Café Starbucks. KFP is now PFK which I assume means Poulet Frit du Kentucky, the French translation of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And there’s the famous chien chaud or hot dog but I have to say I’ve seen it written both in French and in English. I can understand the fight for the right to speak French but that’s a bit too much for me. A language is alive, it has to change and nobody would even think of replacing sushi with a fabricated French word. Some words come from other cultures because they cover a reality that doesn’t exist in ours.

The paradox is that the English seeps into their French anyway because of the close proximity to the English language. I don’t like it when English syntax worms their way into the French one. I don’t have an example in mind right now but I’ve heard it several times. It happens when you spend a lot of time hearing or speaking English instead of French. It’s happened to me with all the reading, blogging and working in English. I hate it when I catch myself doing that. I don’t like it either when I hear a literal translation of an English expression when there’s already a perfectly good one in French. For example, I’ve seen several signs for a vente de garage which is the exact translation of a garage sale. That’s American. In French, it’s a vide-grenier, not a vente de garage. I guess it’s inevitable.

All in all, I think we have a lot to learn from each other, that French Canadians have great words we should use here and that they might relax a bit with some English words. Like this American tourist said, in the end, it sounds French anyway. I wonder which French the Anglophone Canadians learn in school.

Here we learn English from England in school and American on TV. We’re doing OK in Ireland and in Canada but we’re desperate in Wales and Scotland. And sometimes we end up frustrated like my daughter this summer in the US: “They don’t know what a bin is! It’s the only word I learnt to say trash can!”

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The anti-Maria Chapdelaine?

August 17, 2016 8 comments

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais (1965) Original French title: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Blais_EmmanuelFirst day in Montreal and I was in a bookshop. Being abroad and being able to browse through books that are all in French is so unusual that I feel compelled to mention it. That’s where I got A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. Published in 1965,  it won the Prix Médicis in France. A prestigious prize. I’d heard of Marie-Claire Blais and this one seemed a good one to start with.

Emmanuel is a new born in a household of peasants in Québec, probably at the beginning of the 20th century, although it’s not clearly defined. He’s something like the sixteenth child of the family. His grand-mother Marie-Antoinette is the only one who takes care of him, his mother doesn’t seem interested in him. Gradually, we discover the dynamics and the living conditions of the family. There are so many girls that they are seen as a collective entity rather than individuals. The mother has lost several children and the reader feels that she doesn’t have the energy to take care of this one or perhaps she’s afraid to get attached in case he dies too. One child, Jean Le Maigre is slowly dying of tuberculosis. His favourite brother, Le Septième, runs wild. Their sister Heloïse was thrown out of the convent because she was too exhalted. The father is a brute. The mother is ignorant of her sexuality. The Catholic church has an overwhelming power on the life of these peasants. The priest is everywhere. Children are sent to religious schools where some of the teaching priests are pedophiles. The classic theme saint or whore is present. The church meddles in the people’s sex lives, telling the women they have to accept conjugal duty. As a result, the mother’s sex life is more a succession of rapes than a relationship and she’s constantly pregnant. Neither she or her husband imagine for one minute that they should stop having children because the priest told them that they should accept babies as they come. The priest even pushes as far as saying that they are lucky to lose so many children because God claims them.

To be honest, I didn’t like this book at all. All the religious stuff put me off and made me angry. Strangely, the rates on Goodreads seem split between readers. Good rates come from Anglophones and bad ones from Francophones. I wonder if the translation did something to it or if Anglophones fare better with this hateful mix of poverty and religion. It still puzzles me.

Then comes the beauty of blogging. As I was writing my billet about Maria Chapdelaine, I started to make a connection between the two books. It feels like A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a pamphlet against the idiotic conservatism of Hémon’s book. Instead of glorifying the life of the peasants of the era, Blais shows us another picture. These people were dirty poor. The children didn’t have time to go to school and when they went, they were taught by country teachers with no diploma. They had land but could never make a decent income out of it no matter how hard they worked. The church held people’s minds in an iron fist and used their power in a way that created more problems than it solved. It’s bleak, bleak, bleak. Violent. Desperate. Hopeless. And the winter is crushing. Life in the countryside is made of hunger, cold, ignorance and poverty. The condition of women is appalling: they work, they lay children, they are under their husband’s thumb.

From what I understand, the 1960s were a big change in Québec. Like in most Western countries, you might say. In 1959, Jean Lesage was elected and started the Révolution Tranquille. Major social changes were implemented and the Catholic church started to lose their power. Blais’s book was published in 1965. Considering its context and my reading of Maria Chapdelaine, I can’t help thinking it was written against Hémon’s classic tale of the Canadian settlers. It doesn’t make me like it more but I understand it better. Another novel with an agenda. One was trying to write a edifying tale and the other tries to take this fairy tale down. It makes me think of statues going down after a revolution.

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