Any book prefacing itself with the claim that “to understand this novel, readers must listen to ‘Little Earthquakes’ [by Tori Amos] and ‘Pointant le nord’ [by Pierre LaPointe]” is a book that already has the deck stacked significantly in its favour for me. There is probably a lot to love about a book for whom “Both songs might just be the ideal preface.”
That said, knowing the oeuvre of Tori Amos and Pierre LaPointe is not absolutely necessary to enjoying the book, although the continual refrain of “Little Earthquakes” is certainly illuminating, for it is a book about the ways in which the little and large tragedies of childhood–most of which are not even visible to the surrounding adults–create a lifelong trembling in the soul. It is not a novel of childhood trauma per se, and because most of its sadnesses are of a relatively familiar nature, the reader is brought wholeheartedly into this world of coldness and cod, separation and separatism, firsts and forests. There is nothing so common in childhood as the feeling of loneliness, and it is because of this that even the reader boasting one of those so-called happy childhoods can so deeply identify with the young narrator’s deep hunger for affection.
I am not entirely sure of the truth claims here. Are we in the realm of autofiction? If a memoir, then the book certainly stretches the genre beyond its usual parameters. At times very reminiscent of the long tradition of stories about childhood in rural Quebec, and at other times verging on a comic, post-modern-ish, semi-magical realist tale of leave-taking, it’s a book that is irrevocably rooted in its surroundings and yet constantly reaching toward the outside world, with Romanian Olympic stars and Belgian songwriters taking up prime real estate in the cultural atmosphere.
The young narrator and his sister are suffering in the “Court of Henry VIII” as he calls his father’s home, or series of homes throughout the rural setting of Gaspésie to which this little family is dragged. Catherine of Aragon (his mother, also known formally as “Micheline Raymond, professional cook“) has been exiled and Anne Boleyn now reigns supreme. One of the most brilliant conceits of the book is the comparison of these historic figures to the father, mother and succeeding wife of the book. A womanizing monarch, the mother of sentiment and memory, the new wife who privileges knowledge and scientific discovery over affection…:
The roars of laughter and the sheer madness that had marked the reign of Catherine of Aragon were now in the past. The time had come for education and reason. It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded.
The setting of the book is a particularly gripping moment of Quebec’s history, namely, the 1980 separation referendum (in which the population of the province voted on whether or not they would remain part of Canada, for those of you non-Canadians out there) and the events and ideologies that led to the referendum. While the tension between the separatists and federalists is left rather as a vague background, what is very interesting is the firsthand look at feelings toward religion, socialism, sex, freedom, and other aspects of the separatist zeitgeist. Perhaps no other metaphor is more perfect for the brave new world type feelings of people like “Henry VIII” and “Anne Boleyn” than that of the boat the couple want to build so that they can sail around the world. The sense of being right on the edge of a freedom that would disrupt all previously known ways of living and all aspects of life is so beautifully captured in the idea that someday (a time closely linked with Quebec’s sovereignty), the couple would ship their children off to boarding school (discarding the hierarchical baggage of the marital/spiritual past into a system of the past) and set sail in the Bay of Gaspé.
It’s a heartbreaking collection of memories to be sure, mainly revolving around the theme of abandonment, and showing what effect that abandonment has upon a child. On the one hand, the narrator and his sister are ripped away from their mother and all contact severed, but then on the other, they are ignored by their father and their “I will respect them, but don’t ask me to love them” stepmother. Yet within this framework, there is a great deal of humor, and it is because of this humour that the reader feels a tenderness and generosity toward the narrator, rather than merely spending the entire novel in a state of lament.
Furthermore, there is beauty in this sad childhood and much of it comes from a deep connection to both history and nature. Everything the young narrator experiences has an allegory, a precedent in the world around him, as in one chilling example, wherein birds are brought in as a comparison to express the narrator’s inability to learn how to reproduce his mother’s particular laughter:
Ornithologists say that birds raised in captivity without their parents only ever produce the bare bones of their song. They know the basic patterns, but can never reproduce all the subtleties. Worse still, if birds grow up with other species, they might even borrow to form their own songs. They will have a personal signature, but their song won’t be exactly the same as the song of their own. That’s just the way it is.
And yet this “worse still” scenario is, at the same time, liberating, as we find in the end when the narrator is able to call upon the great horned owl and plea for his deliverance from Matane by reciting Baudelaire’s “Owls”. It is not a swan song but rather an odd ode to the territorial impulse of these non-migratory birds.
And so, as these kinds of stories go, the plot revolves around a long and winding trajectory of the narrator’s eventual escape, detailing the various experiences and people that provide sustenance to his dreams of a world beyond Gaspésian snow and darkness–the atlases he covets, the “quasi-religious” obsession with animal migration patterns, the nun who teaches him to read, the grandmother who “could make up for all of human iniquity with a single smile.” We finally leave him in the home of his exchange family in Germany, glimpsed through a letter to the sister left behind that serves as epilogue. It is something of a perfect ending (particularly given that this book is a translation) that the final postscript describes the narrator’s obsession with words, his nose always buried in a dictionary. A reminder that words, as always, are a form of travel and discovery.
I was thrilled to discover Dupont in English through this novel, because it has the mark of a great translation, which is that none of it feels translated at all. Particularly considering the language games herein, McCambridge had his work cut out for him. But it is absolutely smooth. I’m always fascinated in translations by what a translator chooses to keep in the original language, especially when no footnotes are provided. An interesting example of this comes at a point when the narrator and his sister discover a dead whale washed up on the beach and, filled with shock, they rush home to tell Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who are absorbed in listening to the record Harmonium (a frequent accompaniment to the household’s vie quotidienne). He recalls:
You know the one…”Où est allé tout ce monde qui avait quelque chose à raconter? On a mis quelqu’un au monde, on devrait peut-être l’écouter...” Something about taking the time to listen to someone you brought into the world. They hummed along, looking deep into each other’s eyes. Our story of the beached whale remained untold.
This lyric (which is a perfect commentary on childhood neglect) remains in French, with no translation to be found, but the general idea is explained in a way that is totally seamless and that aligns perfectly with the overall tone of the scene. It is beautifully done.
As a final note, this volume marks the first publication of QC Fiction, a new imprint of Baraka Books, which aims to bring francophone literature from the province into English translation. With this book followed by Jean-Michel Fortier’s The Unknown Huntsman (Le Chasseur inconnu) and David Clerson’s Brothers (Frères), it’s an impressive start. McCambridge is also in the process of translating Eric Dupont’s highly successful novel La Fiancée américaine, so we shall eagerly await it!