A Cemetery for Bees. Linda Leith Publishing Inc. and
Songs for Angel. House of Anansi Press and
Quebec writer Marie-Claire Blais needs little introduction. Her first book, Mad Shadows (La Belle Bête, 1959) and her fourth, A Season in the Life of Emmanuel (Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel, 1965), are part of both the English and French canons in Canada, and she has won the Governor General’s Award for French fiction four times. A resident of Key West, Florida since the 1980s, Blais has turned her gaze to the southern United States. Few authors can narrate misery as she can, and her most recently translated novel, Songs for Angel, is no exception. The ninth in the Soifs cycle, a series of ten novels, Songs for Angel picks up the relentless rhythm of misery established in the first eight books, and revisits many of the more than two hundred characters depicted in the cycle.
It is the innocence of the characters that makes the novel simultaneously devastating and beautiful. At the centre of the story is the mass murder of fifteen Black American parishioners by a nameless and thus archetypal “Young Man,” a seventeen-year-old white supremacist searching for infamy; on the periphery there is war, suicide bombing, homophobia, child abuse, rape, starvation, the death penalty, terrorism, homelessness, and the environmental degradation and sickness that accompanies human exploitation. There are hauntingly beautiful breaks from the violence, however, in snapshots of various communities comprised of Black, white, mixed-race, and trans characters, among others, who come and go, resisting violence with innocence. What results is a relentless, living, breathing humanity created by Blais’ perfectly modernist stream-of-consciousness prose. Bits of plot, politics, philosophy, and conversation pass from one character to the next in one continuous sentence broken only by commas. Seen through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, countless psychological dramas come together to create a human whole—it is in fact almost impossible to follow any one story apart from that of the white supremacist “Young Man” awaiting trial in prison, who is disturbingly portrayed as innocent and victimized in spite of the horror of his crimes.
The book opens as a community of predominantly Black and trans characters gather on the beach to scatter the ashes of their friend Angel, who dies of AIDS at the end of the eighth book. Together with the intermittent appearances of other characters from the Soifs cycle, these characters form a kind of human chorus continually threatened with exploitation and violence, but always united by human frailty and community. By the end of the book, vets have cured some sea turtles trapped in plastic, and the final period brings temporary respite. Trans character Yinn “believes in a positive revolution” (196). However, danger always looms, and the respite provided before the next and final book of the Soifs cycle begins is tenuous.
The translation of a two-hundred-page sentence is no mean feat, and Katia Grubisic captures all that is Blais in her interpretation of the text. She is the translator of both of the books reviewed here, which are similar in their self-reflexive search for meaning (whether this is a feature of the original texts themselves or of Grubisic’s translations). The language is haunting and bleak in Songs for Angel. Behind the recurrent imagery of mist and fog, the language in A Cemetery for Bees expresses diasporic loss and longing. A published poet, Katia Grubisic was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Translation in 2017, and she brings poetic sensibility to both English translations.
Montreal author Alina Dumitrescu’s A Cemetery for Bees, originally published in 2016 as Le Cimetière des abeilles, is an autobiographical novel revisiting the author’s childhood in the former Socialist Republic of Romania before the fall of Ceauşescu. Described on the back cover as “an elegy for childhood,” the book describes fragments of memory featuring colourful figures as only a child would see them. Not unlike Blais’ procession of acrobats, dogs, parrots, and drag queens, Dumitrescu’s childhood town houses a fortune teller, a one-armed news agent who knits with her feet, a “madman,” and a piano teacher who feeds her students orange liqueur. The author spends her childhood summer gathering fallen insects and creating elaborate graves, just as decades later she gathers memories and commemorates them in text.
Both authors’ texts are performative—the first performs humanity, while the second performs memory, and this is underlined in the metafictional elements in both works. The “Young Man’s” story in Songs for Angel is being written by the fictional author Daniel, who, according to the omniscient narrator, “knew it was impossible for him to be cured of the distress he felt while he was writing about the Young Man who lived within him now” (75). Dumitrescu, meanwhile, speaks repeatedly of “autofiction,” the “opulence of words,” and of languages lost and found. Her departure from Romania to Montreal is titled “Dress Rehearsal,” and her self-creation as a diasporic subject in Montreal takes place over seven chapters that evoke the seven days of Genesis until finally, at the end of the book, twenty eight years in her new country have passed and she has mastered French, her third language after Romanian and Russian.
French is the language that Dumitrescu uses to simultaneously create herself and immortalize her past, the latter signalling the desire for symbolic or literal return that characterizes the diasporic experience. Dumitrescu’s memories are fragmented and nostalgic, and while she describes her displacement from Romania to Montreal as a “double absence,” she manages to fill it with language and words. These are ultimately the words that sustain her, and the writing process anchors her in both the past and the present: “I tucked the weight of childhood into my shoes so I wouldn’t fall.” Both works demonstrate the role of story in human experience; in Songs for Angel, the narrator credits the printing press with American emancipation—in A Cemetery for Bees it is words that represent Dumitrescu’s salvation. The fragments of story can be challenging to assemble, but the humanity that emerges in both works makes the process worth the effort.
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