Translated by Rhonda Mullins
Winner of the 2011 Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie
Shortlisted for the 2013 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English Translation
Selected for Canada Reads 2015
Just over a week to go until Canada Reads 2015. The next shortlisted title I decided to pick-up was the other French Canadian title on the list, And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, translated by Rhonda Mullins. This is the first time in the history of the show that two French Canadian books have been featured at the same time. Of the five titles, this was the one that I was least looking forward to reading. It wasn’t that I was averse or hostile towards the subject or anything, it just didn’t excite me like the others did. Saucier’s novel is the story of two very senior citizens, living the life of hermits in the hopes of dying on their own terms. This was an interesting book with a lot of complex themes, but even a week after finishing it, I can’t definitively say if I enjoyed it or not.
The strength of this novel is how Saucier weaved such a thematically complex story with such a simple plot and a very small cast of characters. Many of the six living characters are really well rounded and probably the best developed of the three novels on the show this year. Tom and Charlie, the two octogenarians at the centre of the book, are instantly memorable. They are at the heart of what this novel is about: the right to live and die on your own terms.
Saucier’s writing is very heavy on theme, and big themes at that – life and death, falling in love, personal reflection, and man’s primitive connection with nature. My biggest problem with the novel, and the reason why I’m undecided if I like this book, is that at certain points, theme seems to come at the expense of everything else. Plot is often times slow, dialog is sometimes clunky, and narration is often direct and literal (although perhaps this could be a problem with the translation). The biggest problem I had though, at least in my reading, was the complete and utter lack of humour. The whole concept of this novel, two old guys living in the woods, surviving off the avails of a pot farm run by their quirky friends, and eventually the old guys are joined by a 65 year old escaped psychiatric patient. The comedic possibilities are endless, but almost never materialize. The result is a fairly dense and heavy book.
Of the four books for Canada Reads 2015 I’ve finished so far, this book least fits the theme of “One Book to Break Barriers.” There have been a lot of novels in recent years that take on this topic of dying on your own terms – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews and Extraordinary by David Gilmour are a couple of examples. But, I don’t feel that And the Birds Rained Down hits as hard as those novels. As I’m writing this review, I’m having trouble putting my finger on exactly what exactly it was with this novel that I didn’t connect with. But, if you read a lot, chances are you’ll come across the odd book where you’re only reaction is “meh, it’s alright.”
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Winner of the 2010 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction
Winner of Canada Reads 2015
Shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award
I’ve been moving through the Canada Reads 2015 novels at a good pace. I’ve gotten through three and have over two weeks to get through the final two, so I should have more than enough time to be ready for the show. After finishing Intolerable, I decided to tackle Ru next as it seemed like the logical next book to read. The author, Kim Thuy, is a Vietnamese –Canadian who lives in Quebec. I recognized this title from the 2012 Giller Prize shortlist and the 2010 GGs, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the content of the novel. This is the story of Vietnamese woman who was a young girl during the Vietnam War, subsequently lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia and eventually grew up in Quebec. The main character, An Tinh Nguyen, is mother to a child with autism and eventually works for several years in Vietnam as an adult. Ru, for me, fell somewhat flat. This book is an example of form over function.
The inherent issues that surround a translation aside (even though this is done by the master of Canadian translation, Sheila Fischman), the structure and form of this book make connecting with Nguyen in any meaningful way very difficult (for example, I had to flip through the book to even remember the name of the protagonist). Ru is told through a series of vignettes. They range from a half-page to 2 pages, with the majority being about a full page. So, at 141 pages, there are a lot of vignettes. Each individual snippet resembles a prose poem more than it does a work of fiction. It is high on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery, but low on forward-moving narration with very little linearity. This is, without a doubt, a post-modern novel; interestingly enough though, the individual vignettes have an air of modernist stream-of-consciousness. While none of these points are inherently negative, for me, Ru just didn’t connect. I had trouble buying-into the narrator, because I was too wrapped up in the poetic nature of the book. I found myself reading this as if it was poetry – focusing on those associational elements you look for in the genre and not keeping those mental notes on the progress of the story.
So, as I’ve explored with the last two books, how does this title hold up when examined through the lens of this year’s theme, “one book to break barriers?” In my reading, not well. This was a beautiful book, but it doesn’t hold up to the critical examination that this theme requires. Ru touches on different threads that could “break barriers” – the immigrant experience, returning to your homeland, raising a disabled child, but none of these threads are pulled to the point of adding anything new to the discussion. On a more positive note, there are interesting scenes and passages of a childhood in the midst of the Vietnam War and spending time in a refugee camp.
Ru was just ok. Not great, not terrible, just ok. It was a very fast read so it’s not a huge time commitment. As I said, the language and the “poetry” of the novel are quite beautiful – it loses points because of difficulties with plot. This may be right up someone else’s alley, just not mine (as evidenced by its list of accolades). Even though I have 2 books left to read, I think it is a safe bet that Ru will not be taking the title.
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Without even realizing it, every Canadian has had a piece of Roch Carrier’s writing in their hands: an excerpt from his well known conte “The Hockey Sweater” is reprinted on the back of the five dollar bill. The former National Librarian of Canada has built a reputation as one of the great observers of French-English tensions in Quebec. One of Carrier’s early novels, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, released in its original French in 1968 and translated in 1970, looks at these tensions through the lens of a small Quebec village during World War II. Quebec fiction typically has a few common structural points that are worth mentioning for those who are not familiar with les livres Quebecois. These works are often filled to the saturation point with characters. This particular novel is just over 100 pages but there are at least 15 characters that the story is told through. Also, perhaps as a result of the large number of characters or vice versa, Quebec novels are often told through a number of vignettes from the point of view of several different characters. The result is often times a rich mosaic filled with memorable dialog and sharp wit. Carrier, Tremblay, Beauchemin, Godbout, and Aquin all fit this mold. This novel is funny, heartbreaking, violent, shocking, and an all around great read that has aged very well; 42 years after its first publication, this book is still as relevant as the day it was written.
With conscription as the backdrop for the story, La Guerre, Yes Sir! centers on a family who’s son has just been killed in the war; a troupe of English soldiers, or the maudits Anglais as they are referred to, bring the body to the parents’ kitchen for the wake, making this young man the first war casualty of the village to be repatriated. What ensues is a mix of a tears, laughs. fists, tourtiere, and cider. As I mentioned previously, dialog is the driver of this novel, but there is one scene in particular that I believe demonstrates the linguistic and cultural divide better than any other: Arsène, the local gravedigger and butcher is enjoying the wake as much as everyone else but has been making very strong comments against the men in uniform. Bérubé, a soldier who recently returned home with the body of the casualty, takes great issue and brutally assaults Arsène to show him what being a soldier is truly like. The other guests of the Corriveau home make no comment and many barely even take notice, but the Anglais who delivered the casket take great offence with this, decide the party is over, and evict the well-wishers. This is a great insult to the French villagers, and without giving too much detail that will spoil the book, does not go unpunished. The idea that English soldiers dare interfere with the grieving village’s customs is an insult of the highest order. With all of this in mind, it will come as no surprise that the overall tone of the novel is decidedly anti-war. We have characters who are deserters, characters dodging conscription, and characters who will do whatever it takes to be disqualified from conscription; take this example from page 1:
Joseph spread the five fingers of his left hand on the log.
His other fingers, his other hand, seized the axe. It crashed down between the wrist and the hand, which leapt into the snow and was slowly drowned in his blood.
Renowned translator Sheila Fischman did a superb job on this book. Fischman has a keen eye to translate sentences or phrases that could be considered untranslatable. One technique that is used in this novel is leaving some of the French writing as is. One obvious example is the title. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was the original title; it is meant to highlight the linguistic divide, and to change this would be to take away part of the fundamental raison d’etre of the novel. Much of the profanity, and there is a lot of it, is also preserved in the original French. For those who are not familiar with how to swear in French, it is mostly taken from words that are religious in nature, i.e. hostie, tabernacle, or vierge; whereas English profanity is taken from words that were originally sexual in nature. This is very effective because if Fischman were to simply transliterate this it would be senseless. The book reads like it could have been written by an Englishman from Quebec; the language is rich and the translated idioms and speech patterns fit the class of character that Carrier is portraying.
This book is a fine read. It is definitely a must for anyone interested in any facet of Quebec culture. This is also a must for anyone who is interested in the effects of World War II on small town Quebec, or really any small town. Or, if you would simply like a funny book, this is pretty good choice.