Reviewed by Alex Andriesse
American readers can be counted on to name at least three or four Canadian writers: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje come immediately to mind. Munro is from rural Ontario, Atwood from Ottawa, Ondaatje from Sri Lanka, though he has lived in Toronto for most of his life. As different as these writers are from each other, they all share one thing: the English language. Until now, the majority of us have been pretty much in the dark about the literary productions of our Francophone neighbors to the north. The new publishing venture QC Fiction, founded last year, seems poised to change this state of affairs. Their approach is both modest and bold: they put out three books of Québecois fiction in translation each year, and they are committed to publishing young writers and translators who challenge our expectations. “To be honest,” says Peter McCambridge, the editor of the series, “we’re hoping to help shake things up a little.”
If the two books under review are any indication, QC Fiction is already well on its way to changing how readers think about the Canadian literary landscape. David Clerson’s Brothers, first published in 2014, and Pierre-Luc Landry’s Listening for Jupiter, first published in 2016, are remarkable in many ways, but they are particularly remarkable in that they do not make claims to representing Québec or Québecois quiddity to the rest of the world. This isn’t to say they’re generic fictions. Far from it. But, unlike their coeval countryman Raymond Bock in Atavisms (a 2012 story collection that plumbs and plays with Québecois history, politics, and identity), Clerson and Landry appear determined not to be pinned down by place.
This is especially true of Clerson’s Brothers, which is set in a no-man’s-land, a mythological seaside terrain where the two titular siblings live with their elderly mother in a hardscrabble rural nightmare of washed-up sea creatures, seaweed, and “shells as big as islands” (13). The mood of Brothers is dark. Very dark. One brother is missing an arm, which his mother chopped off on the day of his birth in order to shape, golem-like, the second brother, nearly identical to his elder brother except that his arms are short and withered. Their only contact with the outside world consists in trips to a neighboring village where they squabble with a couple of boys harvesting leeches, and trade objects scavenged from the seashore for honey or smoked herring. Otherwise, the brothers run wild. They drag a wooden puppet from the monstrous surf and christen him “Puppet.” They dream in unison of their absent “dog of a father” who, their mother has told them, was a canine behemoth that came out of the sea.
As you might imagine, the two brothers soon grow tired of this claustral existence. When the wicked “leech-boys” rip Puppet limb from limb, the younger brother attaches one of Puppet’s arms to the older one’s stump, in an effort to make him whole. Together, they repair a wrecked boat, hiding it each night in the marsh. They tan a dead dog’s skin and make a tunic of it for the older brother to wear. “My dog of a brother! My dog of a brother!” the younger brother shouts in delight (58). As in a children’s adventure tale, they set aside stores for a sea journey and attach Puppet’s severed head to their boat’s prow. After twenty disastrous days adrift, the narrative jumps, and we find the older brother has washed ashore and, because of his dog-skin tunic, been mistaken for a dog himself. He therefore has no choice but to learn to live a dog’s life, dominated and abused by a family of pig-people. It is a long, violent time before the older brother can escape to the sea again. And by then he is no more than a hollow shell of a person, “a warrior with a skeletal body clothed in a dry skin and old dog pelts”:
He breathed exhaustion, starving. His mother, his brother and Puppet spoke in his head. He was almost a dead man, the walking dead, out hunting. (121)
After almost dying at sea a second time, he is miraculously saved and nursed back to health before returning to the place where he and his brother started out. The ending of the novel is so extraordinary, I will leave it for readers to encounter for themselves.
Clerson’s prose, as translated by the poet Katia Grubisic, is equally extraordinary. Its fairy-tale quality made me think by turns of Homer, Swift, the early García Márquez, Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything, Kathryn Davis’s Labrador, the darkest passages of Collodi’s Pinocchio, and the wilder verses of the prophetic books of the bible. Brothers strikes me as utterly original, yet at the same time seems as if it has always existed. Turning the pages, I was overtaken by the excitement of discovering a new favorite book, and a writer whose work I will follow. (No sooner did I finish Brothers than I ordered Clerson’s second novel, En Rampant—a title which might be translated as Crawling or Groveling or, maybe, On Hands and Knees. Two chapters in English, also translated by Grubisic, are available on the website Quebec Reads.)
To turn to Pierre-Luc Landry’s Listening for Jupiter after reading Brothers is a bit like waking from a dream. Or, considering the oneiric premise of Listening for Jupiter, maybe I should say it is a bit like waking from a nightmare into a dream. The two novels share a fascination with the dream world, with brotherhood, and with death. “Everything is dead here,” the younger brother says to the older brother in Clerson’s book. “We’re all going to die,” says Xavier, in the first sentence of Listening for Jupiter:
That’s what crossed my mind while the car was idling. I thought: all these people—Earth’s entire population, me, them, everybody—we’re all going to die at some point. The end is the cornerstone of our very existence. It’s cliché, of course, but it caught me off guard and kind of knocked the wind out of me. (11)
As one can hear in this passage, Landry’s style is loose and colloquial where Clerson’s is concentrated and cadenced. The twinned narrators of Listening for Jupiter—Xavier, a pharmaceutical salesman, and Hollywood, a cemetery caretaker—are contemporary speakers who have contemporary thoughts and do contemporary things. They listen to their iPods, swallow pills, lament the lack of meaning they find in their careers, and constantly think of their lives in terms of movies and songs.
There is a magic realist spin to Landry’s novel that owes more to Safran Foer than García Márquez. Not only has the weather around the globe gone haywire—March in Montréal is balmy, while in Europe and Toronto (the connection isn’t clear to me either), the snow is coming down as never before—but Xavier and Hollywood, two lonely men in far-flung locations, begin meeting each other in their dreams. Through these shared dreams, they become friends, soul mates, dream brothers.
Listening for Jupiter is a chatty, whimsical book. The narrative bounces around geographically, from London to Montréal, Toronto to Bilbao, Alabama to Long Island, and also formally, alternating chapters narrated by Xavier and Hollywood with diary entries, poems, and the occasional email. The scenes in which Xavier and Hollywood meet in dreams are especially touching, and Landry lingers on the tenderness between them: “They’re both a little uncomfortable,” he writes of one dream-meeting, “like lovers sharing a piece of everyday life for the first time” (101). This is not a novel afraid of sentiment or pronouncement:
Dreaming is our way of fleeing—reality, and everything else. We flee because we aren’t comfortable anywhere and we want to see if things might be better someplace else. And because we need to believe in something. Something beautiful. Even if we know nothing is real. (73)
One could say that Landry has written a quintessentially millennial book, a book in which the two young male protagonists are trapped in their own heads, their own parallel lives and monologues. They are dreamers, capable of meeting each other only in dreams—at least until the well-primed conclusion.
Landry’s most evident talent is for dialogue, and the two translators, Arielle Aaronson (who translates Xavier’s sections), and Madeleine Stratford (who translates Hollywood’s), make sure that each character’s textual timbre rings true. “It snowed every day in March,” a friend tells Xavier on the phone from snowbound Toronto: “This shit isn’t over yet” (145). They also nicely capture the naïveté of Hollywood’s poems and the earnestness of Xavier’s journal entries: “I want my story to be beautiful—not realistic—by the time I’m ready to share it” (21). They have done a superb job making Landry’s multi-voiced novel authentically multi-voiced in English.
QC Fiction’s decision to have two translators take on Listening for Jupiter lends itself well to the book’s brotherly themes. It is also evidence of the series’ willingness to experiment with literature in translation. For a forthcoming collection, I Never Talk About It—co-written by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon—QC fiction has assigned thirty-seven different translators to the thirty-seven stories. With such verve, and with such titles as Listening for Jupiter and Brothers already on the shelves, the future of Québecois fiction in English looks bright. Little by little, the written world is opening up.
Clerson, David. Brothers. Tr. Katia Grubisic. Montréal: QC Fiction, 2016.
Landry, Pierre-Luc. Listening for Jupiter. Tr. Arielle Aaronson and Madeleine Stratford. Montréal: QC Fiction, 2017.