Atavisms by Maxime Raymond Bock, translated by Pablo Strauss
February 9, 2016 § 2 Comments
Atavisms, Quebec author Maxime Raymond Bock’s debut short-story collection, translated into English by Pablo Strauss and published in 2015 by Dalkey Archive, contains thirteen stories spanning time periods from Samuel de Champlain and the (most recent) white discovery of Canada to the present day. Many of them are first-person, with characters that look at the world in a slightly off-kilter way.
Both stylistically and content-wise, Bock’s writing reminds me to a certain extent of Samuel Archibald’s work. Archibald was recently shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, but Bock’s book–more explicitly and literary and meticulously concerned with the precise effect of the language–has not had the attention it deserves. Both writers are contemporary, immersed in a world of Anglophone literary fiction as well as the Quebec tradition, both write with a masculine edge softened by introspection and insight, both can turn their pen to a variety of genres—and both, intriguingly, have written a scene in which a young boy (who is nonetheless old enough to know better) brutally kills a small domestic animal.
The first story, “Wolverine,” starts off with a would-be writer—Poet—and his two friends, who are somewhat less intellectual, setting out for a night drive with a difference: there’s a cabinet minister imprisoned in the back seat, his hands duct-taped together. As they head for the forest, Poet thinks it an opportune moment to describe his novel-in-progress to his friends: “It was a love story. A couple of depressed, coca-chewing revolutionaries were getting ready to take over a coffee plantation that had somehow escaped the forest fires and the clear-cuts.” Tonight’s adventure illustrates the gap between what these boys are (immature mediocre wannabes who believe they’re superior to everyone else) and what they think they are (badass Quebec nationalists). Poet is quickly losing his alleged sensitivity as the night wears on, with ominous lines like “Turbide was stirring now, waking up to a nasty headache. His moans were wrecking the nice silence you look forward to when a tape ends” combining reason and rationality with threat. But Poet isn’t in charge, Jason is, and once they’ve tied up the old man, Jason starts punching him in the face, “[e]very blow accompanied by … the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation—the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the sham democracy.” After the beating, which the Poet thinks is sufficient payback for one night, Jason pours petrol over the man. The ending is not the anticipated foregone conclusion but leaves the characters and reader shaken just the same.
“Wolverine” isn’t the only story with a character poised on a precipice between a life of the mind and a life of brute force; what Bock does well—something that is often attempted by writers of more macho fiction without always fully coming off—is show that these two kinds of lives are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. But Bock also shows characters from entirely different social situations. In “Raccoon” a very young couple with a newborn live isolated in their apartment. The first-person narrator is the “official ambassador to the outside world’; whenever he returns, he goes through an elaborate disinfection process to avoid bringing in C difficile. The narrator distrusts authority and believes in conspiracies, but feels safe behind the locked doors and windows of the apartment. They have “a good life[: …] TV, couch, fridge, bed, table.” They change cereal brands because of the brand eaten in the girlfriend’s favourite soap opera. When a nurse present at the birth tells them the baby has FAS (foetal alcohol syndrome), they misunderstand and make a joke about him being speedy. It would be easy—and satisfying—to write about these characters with a superior tone, but Bock doesn’t do this, instead giving them agency, the ability to be happy with what they have, and hopes, plans and good intentions. The result is something complex and thought-provoking.
There isn’t a single story in the collection that isn’t political in some way, most often dealing with Quebec nationalism or colonialism (hence, perhaps, the atavisms of the title). The politics is handled well—definitely not subtle, but also never intrusive or awkwardly stuck on. The last, and possibly best, story in the collection is “The Still Traveler,” an intriguing combination of indigenous issues, time travel and Inuit legends. The opening immediately calls Dorian Gray to mind as the narrator tells us that “Those who have seen me age so quickly suspect nothing. They think I have some rare disease, some form of adult progeria or congenital degeneration.” The narrator has inherited a semi-dilapidated house from his parents, and leaves his urban Montreal apartment for the country to slowly renovate it. While sorting through the collections of possessions, he finds a trunk that had belonged to his great-grandfather, who’d been a seaman and sailed the world. The contents of this trunk are not junk; in fact, it’s a collection of Inuit art that the narrator recognises needs to be professionally evaluated. Among the artefacts is a metal eye. While reading his grandfather’s diaries to trace the origins of this eye the narrator discovers that his grandfather was part of a smuggling ring, supplying these artefacts to private collectors. Whenever there was nothing left to barter, they stole what they needed. The narrator is too familiar with colonialism to be shocked by this discovery, but he was “still hurt to see my own great-grandfather caught up in such outrages, and now to find [him]self in possession of his ill-gotten booty.” As he packs away the artefacts in disappointment, he is transported, while holding the eye to a rock by the ocean, surrounded by fishermen. He learns that the eye will transport him to whatever place and time he thinks of. This sounds gimmicky, but the rest of the story is held together by Bock’s attention to the logistical minutiae of time travel as well as the story told by the places and times he visits.
Atavisms is a strong collection, and Pablo Strauss, one of the best new translators working in Canada at the moment, captures Bock’s rhythms and voice fantastically well in his English rendition.
Bock’s new novel, Des lames de pierre (Le Cheval d’août, 2015), moves in a slightly different direction. It’s a study of the lives of two poets, Robert Lacerte, born in 1941, and the unnamed first-person narrator, a contemporary Montreal writer. The two meet at an outdoor poetry reading a year and a half before the older man’s death, and the two stories of their lives pull together two separate threads of Quebec writing. Lacerte had a typical childhood, being sent away at fourteen to a lumber camp to work for the entire winter, but having the luck to meet a fellow teenage worker who introduced him to literature. The narrator is an urban poet attending readings, suffering from occasional city-ennui. The intertwining of the lives of these two men, juxtaposing their very different but equally of-their-time existential and material concerns, is skilfully done, leading to a moving ending. Read an extract in translation here.
Both Des lames de pierre and Bock’s novella, Rosemont de profil, about the perils of revisiting childhood friendships, share both Atavism’s strong voice and Bock’s care and attention to language that is always interesting and often exhilarating. This is a Quebec writer who deserves a wider audience.