Earlier this month I celebrated my birthday and my family knowing me quite well (you’d hope they would!!) delivered a number of gifts that were all neatly wrapped and rectangular in shape. They’d been online shopping choosing a raft of Archipelago Books that weren’t already on my shelf. Jacques Poulin featured with three gifts so straight into his work I delved. No logic with the one I chose first, just the one that happened to be closest to my hand when selecting.
Our protagonist is Teddy, he lives on a deserted island, alone with his work as a translator of comic strips, his only company a battle scarred alley cat called Matousalem. Once a week his “boss” from the newspaper arrives via helicopter with supplies, more comic strips to translate and then departs with that week’s work. But one week the boss drops off a surprise, a barefoot girl Marie, “from the back she looked like a boy, because her shoulders were a little too broad” as well as her cat Moustache.
Teddy divided his time among translation, keeping an eye on the island and such occupations as building maintenance and repainting the tennis court. He gave priority, obviously, to his main job, and he worked to a very precise schedule.
Now, on some days the words simply didn’t come….He would give up waiting for them; then as he was getting ready for bed, they would appear, like guests who have forgotten the time. They kept him awake a good part of the night.
The words whirled around in his head.
There was a full moon.
This is a novel of simple language and style, reminiscent in a way of Rodrigo Rey Rosa, where more is said with less.
Ever since the girl had been there, the island had seemed smaller. You’re more sensitive to the presence of other people on an island, he mused. Or perhaps other people’s Presence is more intrusive.
The loneliness and the time spent on Teddy musing about his simple existence is wonderfully portrayed through the simple style and to the point prose. We have a detailed chapter of Teddy cooking a pie, it includes the recipe. A stark reminder that the everyday mundane can actually be a celebration of existence if you only take the time to think about it.
Another “character” is The Prince, Teddy’s tennis ball machine, which is put to use to relieve Teddy’s stress and keep his body sharp. He has “conversations” with his brother (who isn’t there), the memorising word-for-word large passages of short stories about isolation, a visit at low tide on foot to another island, where they are met by a silent man with a shotgun. But the tranquil idyllic scene is broken when one week the boss leaves his wife “Featherhead” and her Chihuahua, Candy, behind. Given our protagonist is a translator we have definitions of words throughout (for example “happy”), reading the clinical explanation denigrating the true meaning:
She started putting the dictionaries away while he got undressed. As she was closing the big Harrap’s her attention was drawn to the word “ethereal” at the very bottom of the right-hand page: she couldn’t resist looking to see how the word was translated; then she turned the page and read in a low voice: “Au-dessus des choses de ce monde.” Not of this world.
This simple fable muses on what it is to be a French Canadian, not French, not American. As time becomes more blurred we find that during each spring tide, when the moon is full, there is all sorts of rubbish and debris washed onto the shore. During the spring tides is when a whole lot of other characters begin to appear; an author who wants the solitude to write “The Author”, a French professor who is an expert in the history of comic strips “Professor Moccasin”, and later “The Ordinary Man” who is brought in to restore order to a populated island. The list continues but to reveal such would mean a spoiler alert, so you’ll just have to read the book to see how society develops.
As we delve deeper and deeper in what it means to be part of society our fable begins to blur too, the paths on the island are mapped, representing the sinuous flow of life in our veins, one character is reduced to speaking in monkey language from the comic strip Tarzan, time becomes blurred, it is no longer a reality, merely a concept. And of course, having a writer and a translator on the island we have musings on writing as art:
“There’s a man walking on the beach,” she began. “His mind is blank and he has no idea where he’s going. He’s all alone. Suddenly his foot catches against something. He continues on his way, then he feels an urge to go back and see what it was. He retraces his steps. He kicks at the thing, which is almost completely buried in the sand, and it doesn’t move. It doesn’t seem to be a rock or a piece of wood. He gets down on his knees and tries to lift it, but he can’t get a grip on it. SO he puts his nose up to it: it smells strange, an animal smell, it smells of leather….Intrigued now, he sweeps away the sand and stones with his hands and discovers that the object resembles a suitcase laid down flat, with one corner sticking up in the air. He removes some more sand. He uncovers a handle, hinges, straps, another handle, and now he’s getting excited because it’s not a suitcase after all, it’s a real chest, lying on its side, a leather chest with a domed lid and it seems very old because it’s half-rotted by the water. He picks up a pointed rock so he can dig faster. He’s hurrying because the tide is rising, he’s working nervously now and images are starting to glow in his mind: gold coins, diamond rings, old dirks and daggers, diadems, necklaces set with precious stones, old pirate maps, the images are all jumbled up together and he digs more and more feverishly, sometimes with the pointed rock, sometimes with his hands. At last the treasure chest is freed. He grasps one handle and, pulling with all his might, he manages to move it, then to pull it out of the hole; he sets it upright on the beach and drags it over to the trees so it will be safe from the tide. It’s a very old chest: the leather has been eaten away by the water, all the hinges are covered with rust; there’s no padlock, just an old lock that’s all rusty too. So then he starts to look for something to help him force the lock. He looks for an iron rod or a boat nail, anything, perhaps a nail like the ones they use for fastening down railway ties, but all he can find is a fence picket with a piece of wire attached to it. He slips the wire under the clasp and, using the picket as a lever, he taps it. The lock gives way. Kneeling on the ground, he anxiously raises the lid; heart pounding, he looks inside: all he can see at the bottom of the chest is some mildewed cloth, old women’s clothes. Nothing else. And that’s the story about writing.”
Poulin’s world is one I enjoyed very much, a simple place, with simple language but so many hidden meanings, a meandering journey through existence, the meaning and joy of solitude, the insanity of society and the joy of writing. More works by Poulin will be reviewed over the coming weeks.