In a year that’s been longer, and harder, than most, I’m sure many of us have thought about getting away from it all now and then, but for some people, whose daily life is more of a struggle, that ‘now and then’ comes around far more frequently. However, if you can’t just run away, what other options do you have? Well, you’re always free to imagine a better life, and in today’s book, that’s exactly what the protagonist does, with his dream destination located in a galaxy far, far away – and yet, he still manages to keep his head out of the clouds…
Jean-Christophe Réhel’s Tatouine (translated by Katherine Hastings and Peter McCambridge, review copy courtesy of QC Fiction) takes us to the town of Repentigny, on the outskirts of Montreal, where a man leads a fairly dull existence jumping between part-time jobs while trying to find enough money to pay his rent. A published poet (who’s always being urged to write a novel), he’s nevertheless at a dead end and spends a lot of his time dreaming of a very different life, yearning for a new start, his Star Wars obsession leading him to dub this fantasy world ‘Tatouine’.
Our narrator may sound like a bit of a slacker, a thirty-something loser too lazy to knuckle down and get a real job, but the truth is that his health won’t really allow it. He has cystic fibrosis, and when the constant rounds of pills and nebuliser sessions don’t work, it’s back to hospital for more treatment, making it difficult to maintain a routine and live a ‘normal’ life (constantly coughing up phlegm and blood makes a social life rather tricky, too). However, even when things are tough, he tries hard to look on the bright side, and with a little help from those around him, life on the planet he’s stuck on isn’t always that bad.
A quick look at Réhel’s French-language Wikipedia page will tell you that there’s more than a hint of autobiography to Tatouine. One aspect of the novel is its depiction of a debilitating condition and the constant struggle just to get by:
I hang up, go upstairs to the kitchen, and drink a couple of glasses of orange juice. I drink orange juice every time I spit up blood. It’s psychological. It feels like it helps me keep the flare-ups under control. Once again, the absurd, grotesque nature of the bleeding hits home. It can last anywhere from three days to a week. It can happen all the time; it might not happen again for months. It can strike at any time. If it won’t stop bleeding, I need to go to the hospital and they’ll stick something in my vein and fuck that, etc. etc. It’s a routine I’ve mastered over the years until it’s now part of my day-to-day. I’ve got a dog in my lungs. A dog that hates my guts and I don’t know why.
pp.61/2 (QC Fiction, 2020)
It’s hardly surprising that the narrator’s in a rut, and you can certainly forgive his frequent Star-Wars-fuelled flights of fantasy, in which he sees the people around him as characters from the movie and dreams of another life far, far away.
Yet, Tatouine is nowhere near as sombre as you might imagine. It does start fairly bleakly, but gradually, despite the narrator’s difficulties, there are signs of a warmer, happier life, and for every setback, there are several positives. When money problems force him to leave his apartment and he moves into a small basement room, the friendship he strikes up with his landlord makes up for it. After quitting a dismal part-time job at a shoe shop, he’s welcomed at a local supermarket with open arms by an understanding manager and several friendly colleagues. Then there’s his sister, living in New York, who offers support when it’s needed, but allows him to live his own life.
Over and beyond all this is the relationship that develops with a colleague from the supermarket. Her real name is glossed over; for our friend, she’s simply Amidala, his own queen. They get on well together, and he’s able to make it all work as they watch Star Wars films, go for long breakfasts and have fun ice-skating. A lot of the time, then, he’s simply happy, just like everyone else…
This is perhaps the best feature of Tatouine. Of course, there’s a lot here about the struggles of living with a debilitating illness, but Réhel is also intent on showing that life can still be good. This is partly because of the warmth those around the narrator show him, and after the slow, dull start, the tone of the story warms up. The writer never hides the problems his alter-ego faces, but he always makes sure that his story focuses just as much on the positives as on the downsides.
Another important aspect of the book is its humour, with the narrator using his dry wit as a coping mechanism:
Jean-Luc hands me a little garbage can, and I throw up into it. “You OK?” I spit twice into the bin. “Yeah.” My puke is acidic and orange. It matches the walls in my room. Maybe I should go into interior design. (p.175)
This humour endears him both to the reader and the people he meets as he cracks jokes to avoid making anyone uncomfortable. There’s also an occasional emphasis on physical humour when his accident-prone nature comes to the fore. You can probably imagine how successful his shift as Santa’s elf is, and a family Christmas in the US also has plenty of scope for farce. Nevertheless, he always gets through more or less unscathed, and without losing friends along the way.
Tatouine may be another world, but Tatouine is actually a surprisingly down-to-earth novel. It’s a story about getting on with life even when your body’s dragging you back down to Earth, but also of reaching out and allowing people to give you a hand when necessary. While it might be tempting to hide away and wallow in your pain, Réhel suggests that it’s better, as long as it’s possible, to live in the real world instead. Tatouine will always be there waiting for you, for when you need it…