‘The Unknown Huntsman’ by Jean-Michel Fortier (Review)

img_5527Not too long ago, I posted on Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Matane, an enjoyable novel about a less-than-perfect childhood.  This was the debut offering of QC Fiction, a small press presenting Quebec French literature in English.  They’re planning to release three books in total this year, and the next one will be out in a couple of days’ time.  This second release has much in common with Dupont’s book, including the rural setting and copious dollops of humour; however, there’s also a fair amount that’s sinister here too.  Don’t go out into the woods alone…

Jean-Michel Fortier’s The Unknown Huntsman (translated by Katherine Hastings, review copy courtesy of the publisher) describes strange goings-on in a remote village somewhere (presumably) in the Quebec hinterland.  The adults of the community come together on Monday evenings to discuss the week’s events, a gathering usually dominated by idle gossip and petty complaints.  After an hour or so of letting off steam, the villagers head home, leaving the small room underneath their church empty for another week…

…or so they think.  In fact, when Friday evening rolls around, the room is packed again with a meeting of a rather different kind.  Here, the mysterious Professor rages in front of a selection of adoring, if slightly nervous, followers, mocking those who attend the gatherings earlier in the week and demanding loyalty from his faithful flock.  Of course, in a such a small community, interruptions are always possible – but the Professor is prepared for all eventualities:

“Good evening, I… I’m looking for my eldest son, I thought I saw him go into the church… my Samuel, he likes to hide in here sometimes.  But, what are you all doing here?  And you, up there in the front, I know you, what are you doing here, Mr.
Alas, she doesn’t have time to say our Professor’s name; just as she points a finger at him, he pulls the trigger.
p.39 (QC Fiction, 2016)

All of which leaves the reader wondering what on earth is going on in the village and, of course, who the Professor might be…

The Unknown Huntsman of the title is a red herring, an invention dreamed up by some of the complicit villagers to throw the others off the scent.  The body of the unfortunate Lisa Campbell, the local hairdresser, is dragged into the woods, and when it’s discovered, suspicion soon falls on a mysterious outsider, a shadowy figure threatening the village.  Of course, having been a witness to the murder, the reader is aware that the real killer is somewhere in the village, and we expect that the focus of the novel will be on working out his identity.

But that’s not the way it pans out, as Fortier’s novel is less a mystery novel than a clever work examining an isolated community, and how they spend their days.  The novel is told in two sets of alternating chapters: one describes the events of the Monday meetings with a humorous, sardonic eye; the other focuses on the Friday gatherings, with the Professor’s following torn between trembling ecstasy and a dread of what might happen next.  Both are narrated by an unknown ‘we’, who occasionally intrude into the main narrative, but the style of the sections are very different.  Katherine Hastings skilfully brings the clear distinction of the two strands into English, with the first part full of meandering, comma-laden sentences and the darker side of the second part underlined by the short, clipped style.

Most readers will have given up on the idea of finding out who the murderer actually is long before the end of the book with Fortier far more interested in using the murder as a catalyst, one that will shake life up in the small community.  Gradually, we (!) begin to sense the underlying schizophrenic nature of the narrative; in such a small settlement (village actually appears to be a bit of an exaggeration), it’s hard to imagine that the Friday meetings could actually take place without the knowledge of the law-abiding Monday group.  Which just makes the whole affair even creepier…

The writer is obviously playing with the reader, with the whole story moving dangerously into Kafkaesque territory, even if the names of the villagers suggest something more Dickensian.  It’s hard to take people like Agnes Letterly (the librarian), Mr. Leaven (the pompous baker)  and Doctor Harmer (a doddering physician who should have been pensioned off years ago) too seriously, meaning that the book becomes ever more allegorical, and comical:

Angelina White looks at Mrs. Latvia, who looks at Baker Leaven, who looks at Doctor Harmer, who looks at Father Wavery, who scratches his knee.  You could hear a pin drop if it weren’t for the doctor wheezing from his asthma and all those brains whirring a mile a minute, including ours, but what should we do, what should we do, if we’re going to do something, it will mean interrupting the meeting, but that’s never been done before, at least not as far back as we can remember. (p.98)

The late arrival of an outsider initially threatens to get to the bottom of matters, but in an almost *anti*-Kafkaesque move, the bureaucracy (in the form of a census taker) is no match for the little community.  For the first time, the ditherers at the Monday meeting come together as one – the government has no right to ask questions, and it certainly won’t be getting any answers.

The Unknown Huntsman is a cracking read, a book you’ll race through, but it certainly provides more questions than answers.  In the end, it’s a clever examination of the collective hysteria and collusion that arises when a group of people is stranded outside mainstream society, and of the way anything outside the norm is frowned upon, occasionally even eliminated.  With his careful blend of farce and black humour, Fortier has created an entertaining novel which works on several levels.  It might not do much for Quebec tourism, but it’s a definitely a good advertisement for the province’s literature 🙂

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