Friday, September 12, 2014

An Epic Sans Nostalgia: Yves Beauchemin’s Charles the Bold

One of the most fascinating dimensions of Canadian history, at least for those of us who did not grow up in Canada, is the history of Quebec and its relationship to the rest of Canada. While those south of the border are aware of Montreal as a cosmopolitan, French-speaking, “European-style” city that doesn’t require a trans-Atlantic flight and where the legal drinking age is 18, a deeper appreciation of Quebec – and the economic, religious, political, and cultural transformations it has undergone in the last 70 years – is much more rare. One way to cultivate such appreciation is certainly reading some of the numerous and fascinating histories that are available. A difference approach is available in Yves Beauchemin’s multi-novel series, Charles the Bold (Charles le téméraire).

Beauchemin is the premier Quebecois author of our time: his most famous novel, Le Matou (1981: translated into English in 1986 as The Alley Cat and adapted for film in 1985) is also the most widely-translated work of French Canadian literature of all time, currently available in more than 16 languages. He has received numerous literary awards in both Quebec and France, and the University of Bordeaux organized a colloquium on his work in 2000. Born in 1941, Beauchemin has a degree in literature and art history from the Université de Montréal, and has worked as an editor, journalist, and a researcher. Charles the Bold is not an autobiography, but Beauchemin’s familiarity with the places and communities present in his work make them richer than they might be otherwise, the streets, cafés, and bars as multi-dimensional as the characters.

Set in the blue-collar East End of Montreal, the series begins with the birth of the protagonist. There is no nostalgia here for the Montreal of the late 60s and 70s that Charles Thibodeau must survive. While Beauchemin’s East End has a full complement of strong and kind people, it is also full of charlatans, abusers, and con men. Even when Charles himself is not the direct object of these characters, violence – domestic and schoolyard, sexual and social – is always an imminent possibility.

Novelist Yves Beauchemin
One of the most striking characteristics of Beauchemin’s protagonist is that he is in no way an Everyman. His eloquence, his expressiveness, his intelligence, and even his smile are marked by the author as something other than entirely normal – and that is without even mentioning the particular facet of his character that makes the title of the first book, The Dog Years, self-explanatory. Yet although Charles is a extraordinary character, it in no way means that he lives an extraordinary life. It does not matter how astonishing Charles is; he still must survive the vulnerable years of childhood, the depredations of predatory adults, and he still enjoys the things that ‘ordinary’ people do: beer, pool, pocket-money, and sex.

For non-Quebecois readers, this series is more than a remarkable life story: it is a narrative, sideways glimpse into the convulsions that gripped Quebec in the latter half of the 20th century. Charles grows up in the aftermath of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (Révolution tranquille), the years in the early sixties when the provincial government rather swiftly and efficiently broke the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had exercised over education, family life, and social services. He is filled with awe for René Lévesque, one of the leaders of the revolution, and his move from a Catholic parochial middle school to a secular high school is transformative. Religion is a recurrent trope in Charles’ life, but not as a marker of spiritual evolution: rather (and particularly in the third book) it designates those moments when authorities are most likely to try to take advantage of those around them.

The Quebec of Charles’ boyhood and youth, of the 70s and 80s, is shaded by the politics of separatism and nationalism. Charles undergoes his own trauma during the October Crisis of 1970 (which not incidentally cements certain associations between religion and violence in his mind). The passage of Bill 101 (declaring French the official language of Quebec and, among other things, requiring all signage to be in French) means that the restaurant where Charles works after school has to redo their sign. But Beauchemin’s book is not about politics: the importance of this moment is not that it is a demonstration of the practical consequence of political decisions, but because it is one of the first opportunities for Charles to display his creativity – by assisting in the design of the new sign – in public. His de facto family are ardent separatists; the scene in which they watch the returns from the 1980 referendum is tragic, even if the reader is not in sympathy with their position, and Charles’ reaction to a chance meeting with Lévesque communicates some sense of the charismatic power that the man must have had. For those who have always considered Pierre Trudeau a strong and heroic leader, the casual way in which he is cursed is illuminating… and for those of us who, with the clarity of hindsight, have been disturbed by the racial and discriminatory rhetoric of  Jacques Parizeau following the 1995 referendum, the reaction of Charles and his friends to Parizeau in the 1980s is disconcerting. It will be interesting to see whether some of the more problematic characteristics of the separatist movement are treated in the final installment of the series.

Rue Frontenac, Montreal, 1970
There are some moments when Beauchemin’s prose becomes awkward: he often telegraphs (unnecessarily) moments that are important, actually writing that “this would prove to be significant for Charles” or “Charles could not have known how important this would be for him.” Such explicitness seems to indicate a lack of confidence that the narrative on its own conveys the importance of certain moments or decisions, something that the narrative actually does on its own quite well. But overall the awkwardness does not detract from the narrative as a whole. Wayne Grady’s translation is elegant and smooth, and if there are some moments when it reads like a translation this only serves the important function of reminding readers that a translation is what it is  this is not an Anglo-Canadian story, and I enjoyed the moments when the foreignness shone through.

If you are planning on reading this series in English, be aware that the publication of the series in English has occasioned some restructuring. In French, Charles the Bold is the title of a trilogy, composed of Un temps du chien (2004), Saut dans la vide (2005), and Parti pour la gloire (2006).  In English, Un temps du chien has been divided into two texts: Charles the Bold: The Dog Years (2007), and The Years of Fire (2008). The second French volume is the third installment of the English series, A Very Bold Leap (2009), and the final volume in what will be an English quartet (Parti pour la gloire) has yet to be published in translation.

Literary series require a commitment to the character who is the foundation of the narrative, and many series suffer from the same challenges that confront any monogamous relationship: irritation as the character does the same things over and over again, frustration at their choices, and even boredom. But Charles Thibodeau, as frustrating as he may sometimes be, is never boring. And in Beauchemin’s hands, Charles’ extraordinary character is more than intriguing enough to warrant the reader's commitment. This is a remarkable series, both as literature and as a education in the ambiance of the Quebec of a certain era. I await the conclusion of Charles’ story, and Beauchemin’s epic, with anticipation. 

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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