Found in Translation

Reviewed by Natalie Boldt

Rarely do a mystery novel and a Western have much in common—unless the books in question are Andrée Michaud’s Boundary: The Last Summer and Dominique Scali’s In Search of New Babylon. Both are works in translation: Michaud’s French-language novel Bondrée was translated by Donald Winkler and Scali’s À la recherche de New Babylon by Donald Wilson. And both are award-winners: Scali’s debut novel earned her a First Novel Award in Chambéry, France, in 2016, and Michaud’s, her tenth, a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2014—along with a few others. Finally, both are timely, thought-provoking, and rewarding books.

Set in 1967 in Bondrée, a popular vacation spot straddling the Quebec/Maine border, Boundary is aptly titled. It speaks to a confluence of borders—geographical, cultural, and temporal—and replicates and blurs them to great effect. The “last summer,” for example, begins and ends in 1967—a banner year for sex and nationalism in this country, neither of which go unproblematized here. Marred by the deaths of two vivacious young beauties, best friends Zaza and Sisi, the “Summer of Love” in Bondrée is bluntly terminated as holidaymakers and the inspector in charge of the case come to terms with the idea that there is a violent criminal targeting young women in their community. In their attempts to solve the crimes, all must negotiate the cultural and linguistic differences that have, until now, sustained boundaries between French-speaking Canadians and English-speaking Americans.

Though the premise as I have described it borders on cliché—sex and murder have long been the mystery novelist’s bread and butter—Michaud manages to avoid that designation by incorporating a concomitant conversation about the underpinnings of this violence. As the case unfolds, the residents wonder about the nature and impetus of the crimes committed. Where, they muse, does responsibility lie? Was Zaza too beautiful? Did she and other similarly “happy and desirable women” provoke this “savagery”? The misnomers are disturbingly familiar. Beautifully written and compelling, this book will prompt important conversations, as will Michaud’s adept handling of cultural difference, which is well represented even in translation.

Much like Boundary, In Search of New Babylon is a riff on a familiar genre. It has all the trappings of a Western—saloon brawls, gunslinging, horse chases, and hangings—and a resonant cast of characters. The novel begins in 1881 with the Reverend Aaron, who appears helpless on the side of a dirt road in southern Utah, his hands having been severed at the wrists by his nemesis, the Matador. The story extends backwards and forwards in time via a series of “notebooks,” a prologue, and an epilogue, through which the Reverend’s story unfolds along with those of the other major characters—outlaws, immigrants, and an opportunistic pioneer turned prostitute.

Scali’s work is familiar without wandering into the realm of formula. Readers who have enjoyed Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers or Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Frontier Trilogy will enjoy Scali’s haunting, McCarthyesque foray into the West and her creative engagement with memorable tropes. Like these other texts, In Search of New Babylon departs from a generic idealism involving romance, sunsets, and a protracted climax, and speaks instead to a history and tradition of violence. Scali’s characters meditate powerfully, overtly, and by example on the irresistible catharsis and, ultimately, the toxicity of the violence that drives their world. Beautifully and compellingly written, these characters frequently transcend their fictional nineteenth-century context with pertinent insights about humanity’s seemingly insatiable desire for spectacle.

But this is not a book with an expressly postcolonial agenda per se. Though the entropic nature of the violence in Scali’s West is critically framed, specific historical traumas go unaddressed. The cast of characters is mostly white—though the Matador is, to be fair, Mexican—and Indigenous peoples, when they do appear, frequently emerge in the guise of problematic stereotypes (the sneaky savage, the vicious scalper, etc.). So, while the book pushes boundaries in some areas—most notably through its deconstruction of an idealized anti-heroic West—it unconsciously recapitulates them in others. In its entirety, however, In Search of New Babylon is thought-provoking, even more so if read in the context of the growing number of authors who have creatively reimagined this familiar genre. Whatever your literary preference, neither of these books will disappoint.

This review “Found in Translation” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 164-165.

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