- Michel Tremblay (Author) and Michael Bullock (Translator)
The City in the Egg. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Toby Homel (Translator) and Yves Beauchemin (Author)
The Second Fiddle. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cedric May
Periods marked by the intense ferment of ideas throw up fantasies, Utopian or dystopian. The Renaissance produced Rabelais, the Enlightenment Voltaire and Defoe, the young people of May ’68 occupied the Odéon and, with the help of Barrault and Renaud, collectively rewrote Rabelais for the stage and for their day. Terry Pratchett by Boris Vian out of Eugène Ionesco might begin to describe Michel Tremblay ’s early (1968) excursion into modern fantasy fiction. François Laplante Jr. is the Candide of Tremblay’s tale of initiation, stumbling innocently through the five districts of the city in the egg. Each district with its post-catastrophe landscape is presided over by a different deity. These vie with each other for Laplante’s co-operation in a last-ditch effort to save their crumbling world and salvage their rapidly dwindling powers. At first, bewildered by an Escher-like decor of corridors within corridors, getting ever darker, he resists the call to become a Great Initiate but then is drawn breathlessly into the myth and discovers his redemptive vocation, without ever achieving the mental clarity to sift through the disinformation with which the dying gods bombard him.
The publisher would like us to believe that Tremblay here sets "the scene for his Belles-soeurs series in the theatre and his ’plateau Mont-Royal’ novels." This isn’t true nor is it strictly necessary to commend this, his first novel, to our serious attention. There is a tenuous link as Tremblay sketches in Laplante’s dysfunctional family. He inherits the egg of the title, the key to the fantasy world, from a distant, rich uncle whose photo gives him the look of a sort of bogus jailbird. But this early fantasy (I’ve already hinted that the date of 1968 is significant) stands by itself and was certainly worth translating. The job has been superbly done with great sureness of touch by Michael Bullock. If we can speak of Tremblay’s The City in the Egg and Yves Beauchemin’s The Second Fiddle in the same breath, it is because both are the work of master storytellers who proceed with great speed, lightness of touch and economy of means. Both manage to maintain an air of expectancy in spite of the at times crushing nihilism of the message. Though Yves Beauchemin deals in crude ultra-realism, at opposite extreme from the fantasy world created by Tremblay, both works are quests for meaning in the midst of a plethora of confusing signs and the cruelly playful taunts of blind chance.
Second Fiddle (this should be the title; "second fiddle" is an adverbial phrase, not a noun phrase) tells the story of a forty-five-year-old journalist who has lived his life in the shadow of a more successful writer friend. The novel begins with the death of the friend and ends on the Magdalen Islands with a group of his friends gathering, in accordance with the terms of his will, to celebrate his life. Neatly bracketed by these two evocations of death, the novel relates the attempts of Nicolas Rivard to break free from the stifling influence of François Durivage, his dead friend. This proves difficult as Rivard has an affair with Durivage’s widow, who asks him to write her late husband’s biography and to deliver the eulogy at the party in his island home. Rivard seeks to break free by proving himself still attractive to women and capable of carrying off a journalistic coup to enhance his reputation and self-esteem. In the process, he loses his wife, his children, his home, his job and at times his sanity. There is real suspense as Beauchemin leads his characters through increasingly risky and foolhardy schemes. He and a fellow journalist attempt (successfully) to expose a cabinet minister involved in deception and fraud. With telling irony, fate presents Rivard with fleeting successes which soon turn sour.
As in his highly successful Le Matou, Beauchemin uses the device of the repeated chance encounter to bring his character to his senses. Rivard asks whether the smiling child with the red braids who pops up at key moments could be sent by God. This recurrent motif does not have the force of the alley-cat figure in the earlier novel. "I’ve been eating vulgarity morning, noon and night for months now!" says Rivard’s wife Géraldine, appalled by the sordid turn their life has taken. You need a strong stomach for this novel at times. It has none of the delicious candour of Le Matou.
This is the challenge for the translator, David Homel. Second Fiddle depends hugely on the authentic ring of the slick, modern dialogue. To give just one example of the snares of scatological speech in translation, "merde" and "shit" have totally different resonances, a different social range, a different power to shock. Homel is not always sensitive to this, though the scale of the task must not be underestimated. Sleazy vulgarity is the currency of this novel of the crisis of ageing. Problems of taste and the delicate handling of tastelessness present themselves constantly. The mood is not always lifted by Rivard’s genuine love of good literature and music. The critique of greedy materialism is not pursued energetically but there are interesting philosophical sub-themes: the tragic consequences of physical beauty, the fragility of close relationships, the clash of generations, the suicidal tendencies of young people in the big city, the bulimic consumption of food and drink as a compensatory ploy. Increasing sexual promiscuity has robbed the novelist of one of the main sources of narrative tension; the endlessly inventive choreography of dalliance is a thing of the past.
Second Fiddle is a rare example of a well-constructed modern novel. The irony, the pathos, the suspense, the intricacies of the plot, the wealth of characters from the homeless alcoholic, through the street kids, to the powerful, rich and influential, from different classes and professions (there is a brief, sympathetic portrait of a retired priest)—the whole is orchestrated, and this is a big, big novel, with pace, good judgment and flair. This is Beauchemin’s great strength.
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MLA: May, Cedric. Innocents Abroad. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 185 - 186)
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