Complex Simplicity

  • Michel Tremblay (Author) and Linda Gaboriau (Translator)
    Twists of Fate: If by Chance and Destination Paradise. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • Michel Tremblay (Author) and Sheila Fischman (Translator)
    The Grand Melee. Talonbooks (purchase at
Reviewed by Ralph Sarkonak

The Grand Melee is the fifth book of Tremblay’s nine-volume Desrosiers Diaspora novel cycle. It plays the role of a narrative pivot, connecting these novels to Tremblay’s earlier Chronicles of the Plateau-Mont-Royal series, by means of a 1922 marriage between Nana and Gabriel. The preparations for the wedding, the ceremony, and the reception of Rabelaisian proportions are at the core of the novel. Before these events, the novel describes the impact of the wedding invitation on the myriad characters, in a tour d’horizon that serves as an introduction to this middle volume of the saga.


The novel is a prequel to Tremblay’s earlier works. Characters who first appear in his plays later reappear in the first novel cycle, Chronicles of the Plateau-Mont-Royal. Now the writer has managed to knit together the two fictional canvases. Not coincidentally, knitting is at the centre of the novel’s fantastical dimension. The three tricoteuses and their mother, Florence, may be invisible to everyone but Josaphat, over whom they stand guard, but they are no less real for that. Josaphat is a gifted but troubled being, going back to his incestuous relationship with his sister, one of whose results is the bridegroom. In The Grand Melee, we meet younger versions of some of Tremblay’s most memorable characters, starting with Nana, the eponymous grosse femme d’à côté of the first novel cycle. Yet despite numerous allusions to the writer’s literary past, The Grand Melee can and will be appreciated equally by first-time readers; there is ample paratextual material to guide the Tremblay novice.


Two of the novel’s main themes are the body and creativity. The ageing body is illustrated by Louise’s liver spots. A classy sex worker who lives in a suite at the Château Laurier, Louise is thinking of retiring but not before making a regal appearance at the wedding in Montreal. A retired Mountie just manages to get into his dress uniform. One character has terrible hot flushes; another develops panic attacks, still another diabetes. One is losing his hearing, and another suffers from delirium tremens. In fact, alcoholism affects more than one character, for alcohol is “the only solace ever available to men of his race” (71). Some of the female characters suffer from blatant exploitation because of their gender, whether at the hands of a boss, a loan shark, or an unforgiving priest. Nana’s sister, mother, and mother-in-law are all feminists, for they are willing and able to tell off men in powerful positions. Many of the characters have a creative bent. The janitor in a run-down building was once a proofreader and talented translator. Though diminished in standing and health, he still loves to recite poetry. A good pianist, Régina tends to greatness when she learns to improvise in the final paragraph of the novel. But the most creative person is Josaphat, a wonderful fiddler. (In an earlier volume, we see how equally gifted he is as a writer when a younger man.)


Sheila Fischman, who has translated many of Tremblay’s works, does another magnificent job, rendering his prose into readable, idiomatic, and savory English. Through the translation, one feels, and even hears, the French. Fischman uses double negatives to give a flavour of the colloquial language. She is quite right to keep the original mélée in the title, where it refers to the music played by Josaphat and Régina: the beautiful reel that is “a melting pot of music from the old countries” (219).


Intertextuality is another form of nuptial: Hugo, Baudelaire, and Lamartine all appear as references. Less obvious but no less present are Proust and Sartre. Although Nana makes do with a substitute father figure, the novel also recalls The Father of the Bride (1950), with Elizabeth Taylor of Hosanna fame. The melee of the title is not only the beautiful reel, the description of which is a masterpiece of novelistic writing about music—a Proustian echo—and of Tremblay’s entire corpus. For like Josaphat’s improvisations, what characterizes this oeuvre is “the complex simplicity” (219), which has also been the hallmark of this important Quebecois writer since his debut in the 1960s.


Twists of Fate is made up of the sixth and seventh volumes of the Desrosiers Diaspora saga. The first volume, If By Chance, consists for the most part of five scenarios, labelled “Encounters,” that narrate various outcomes that could befall Ti-Lou, the She-Wolf of Ottawa, upon her retirement to Montreal. Things get off to a bad start when she is murdered minutes after arriving at her destination. The final scenario, by far the happiest as far as Ti-Lou is concerned, has her meeting a knight in shining armour in the person of a handsome and amiable Montreal policeman mounted on a horse. The whole volume could be construed as a demonstration of what we used to call l’arbitraire du récit, in which writers of fiction do what they please: hence the multiple narratives.


Destination Paradise, a far more successful volume, is an intertextual homage to Balzac’s novel La Duchesse de Langeais and its eponymous character who serves as the inspiration for Edouard as he comes out at the only bar in Montreal that allows “confirmed bachelors” to gather for the hefty price of twenty-five cents—we are after all in the 1930s! Edouard’s first visit to the Paradise is a roaring success when he self-identifies as the duchess from whom he takes his inspiration.


As always Tremblay is at his best in the in-between of literature and history or reality and fantasy. The high point of this volume occurs when Josaphat, looking for a cure for his visions, seeks refuge in Saint-Jean-de-Dieu, a lunatic asylum. There he is befriend by a sometime poet named Emile [Nelligan], French Canada’s Rimbaud, who was interred some thirty years before by his family, who were unable to cope with his bohemian character. They make an odd but endearing partnership as Josaphat’s musical gift has a calming influence on the inmates of the hospital. Emile and his new friend collaborate, both in the laundry and upstairs, entertaining everyone with joint sessions of poetry and music.


The book ends with the description of three Christmas dinners, the first one of which is a love feast for Ti-Lou put on by her beloved policeman as she awaits the amputation of a gangrenous limb. Nana cooks a traditional feast as she awaits the birth of her third child. Lastly, Josaphat plays for his beloved sister outside in the cold, because Victoire’s husband, unable to forgive or come to terms with the initial incest, has vowed to kill her brother. Only Edouard, another outsider, is there to comfort his endearing uncle. Tremblay’s characters, some so unforgettable, are people dealing with heavy problems as they know best. The only escape from the harsh realities of Depression-era Montreal is “religion, love, and music” (127), as the epigraph from La Duchesse de Langeais so eloquently states.

This review “Complex Simplicity” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 21 Sep. 2022. Web.

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