While I have read books by a couple of Canadian writers over the course of my reviewing career, it’s not a country that frequently appears on my virtual travel itinerary, and the French-speaking part of the country has thus far been terra incognita. Today’s post, however, sees a trip to the frozen north for my first taste of Québécois literature, and we even get to welcome a brand-new publisher to the blog too. We’re going back in time to experience a slightly unusual childhood – but one with a rather regal touch…
Life in the Court of Matane (translated by Peter McCambridge, review copy courtesy of QC Fiction) is writer Eric Dupont’s take on a large chunk of his formative years. After their parents’ marriage disintegrates, young Eric and his elder sister first stay with a horrendous foster family (a time which is mercifully skipped over in the preface) before being sent to live with their father, a police officer, and his new partner. This move to the town of Matane ushers in a new period in the young boy’s life in which he must come to terms with life under the rule of a couple who brook no opposition.
While his childhood obviously wasn’t as happy as it might have been, Dupont chooses to distance himself from it somewhat rather than wallowing in misery, and one of the ways he achieves this is by transforming the ramshackle trailer he lives in into the more impressive sounding Court of Matane – with his father transformed into Henry VIII. As the young boy grows up under the watchful eye of Anne Boleyn, the ‘king’ rails against his own enemy – not the Vatican, but Canadian federalists -, leaving Eric to indulge in the creation of his own dream world, a far better one than the cold, provincial nest he’s been lumped with.
A writer trawling through his childhood memories may not exactly be an original topic, but Life in the Court of Matane has a lot going for it, and Dupont’s slant on his childhood makes for an enjoyable read. There are occasional hints of the darkness that preceded this period of his life, as in his description of learning to read:
It was, all in all, simple enough. Someone had drawn on the pages, and the drawings were called letters. These letters, grouped together in a certain way, had a given meaning. This meaning was called a word. By putting a, i, g, h, h, n, r, s, and t in the right order, you got “thrashing”. It was simple enough. The words could then be put together to form sentences like this one: “You have to hide. Madame Thénardier is looking for you.” The system could also be used to ask questions like: “Does it still hurt?”
p.45 (QC Fiction, 2016)
However, on the whole Dupont uses a light, cheery tone, using humour to gloss over the distress of his family break-up.
The original title of the novel was Bestiaire (Bestiary), as the six chapters and epilogue are each named after a different creature. These birds and animals are then featured in the section, either prominently, as is the case with ‘The Hens’, in which Eric receives a group of hens and starts to sell eggs (with the pecking order an allegory for schoolyard cruelty), or more tangentially. For example, in ‘The Brown-Headed Cowbird’, the featured bird only makes an unexpected appearance at the last second during a visit to his grandparents’ house.
However, the new title is perhaps more apt, shifting the focus to the family unit at the centre of the novel. Although we do learn Eric’s mother’s name, for much of the novel she is simply Catherine of Aragon, a woman to be forgotten under the strict reign of her replacement (the first of many edicts in the Court of Matane is that there should be no mention of the mother’s name). Anne has the children’s best interests at heart, but later on cracks will appear in the court, with the King’s wandering eye settling on a new queen.
Curiously, while the father dominates young Eric’s life, he’s mainly seen from a distance, rarely dominating the scene (like many kings, I suppose). This depiction of father-as-king is a slightly mocking one in a way, showing Dupont senior as the ruler of his own tiny world:
Unlike our mother, our father was always itching for a fight. In our largely federalist village, he would fly the Quebec flag in front of our house. Whenever the priest visited the parish, he would wait for him, just to send him packing. He tried to grow tomatoes on the Gaspé peninsula. In Spanish literature, he would have travelled on a donkey and battled windmills to the death. (pp.16/7)
He’s certainly a Quixotic character, raging against the forces of federalism, a tyrant cloaked in his fleur-de-lys flag. When that dream is finally crushed, his energies are diverted towards the idea of building a boat, allowing him to float away from the disappointment of not having an independent homeland.
Much of the book, though, focuses on Eric himself, a shy, bookish boy marooned in an environment where his talents are unappreciated. Growing up, he mainly hopes to get away one day, so it’s little wonder that he frequently retreats into a dream world. The writer uses a style akin to magical realism in places, interacting with some of the animals who lend their name to the chapters. This includes lengthy conversations with a dog by the frozen sea-front and a nocturnal encounter with an owl who is to assist in the boy’s eventual flight from Matane.
If you’re looking for comparisons, one you could make is with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work, in particular with the third book of My Struggle (Boyhood Island). The two books share a focus on the formative years of bookish boys struggling to adjust to life in the shadow of an overbearing father. However, where Knausgaard immerses himself in the persona of his younger self, Dupont is more detached, very much the adult looking back on his younger, more foolish, self:
And so “Maman” became a hammer word, one that made a lot of noise and drew disapproving looks. They are practical because you can use them to drive nails home or pull them out, but they should be used sparingly. (p.31)
While there’s discomfort beneath the surface, it’s usually hidden behind a wry smile and some clever word-play.
With an excellent translation by McCambridge, one which reads smoothly and keeps the humour which undoubtedly pervades the original, Dupont’s novel makes for an entertaining look at a Québecois childhood. The chapters are cleverly constructed, seemingly casual, but actually tightly woven, with details casually mentioned often returning later to round off the stories. It all makes for an impressive start for QC Fiction, and a book most readers would enjoy; I’m certainly hoping their next titles are as interesting as this one🙂