Fiction Review by Iain Higgins

Christine Eddie, The Douglas Notebooks, translated by Sheila Fischman (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2013). Paperbound, 180 pp., $19.95.

The Douglas NotebooksOne of my favourite pop songs is Radiohead’s “Electioneering,” but I sometimes listen to it in a cover version by Portland Cello Project. To hear this jangly, grungy rock number in classical garb is enjoyably estranging and sends me back to the original with newly opened ears. I hear it as if for the first time. If I ask myself why, I realize the answer is simple: because the classical version is a translation, and one of the things that translation does is shake us up whenever we get too settled in our relation to anything. We need translation for the same reason we need transportation: to take us through unexpected experiences to sites we might not otherwise know existed. No one can learn even a small fraction of the world’s languages, so translation is indispensible—and as foundational and transformational as the wheel or the jet engine have been.

The value of translation, though, is more than its capacity to transport us to the major tourist sites of the past or the present. It also lies in its potential to lead us into byways, backwaters, and neglected places off the cultural-tourist-packed beaten track. Christine Eddie’s Les Carnets de Douglas is such a place apart, and it is now available to Anglophones as The Douglas Notebooks, ably translated by Sheila Fischman, whose labours on behalf of Québecois writing recently earned her a Festschrift: In Translation: Honouring Sheila Fischman, edited by Sherry Simon [reviewed this issue]. The publishers have chosen to call this compelling little fiction “a fable” (if only on the cover), a term that might conjure up Aesop and moralizing stories. A better term would have been “tale,” since one of the book’s ancestors is Flaubert’s Trois Contes (Three Tales), with its stark simplicity, clear-eyed sentimentality, and literary self-awareness. Eddie’s conte, though, has also been crossed with the historical novel of rural Quebec (Trente Arpents, for example) and the Greek romance (Daphnis and Chloe, say), making it a strange place indeed. Not only that, but the tale is presented as if the author were imagining a film, starting from “Location” (“Repérage”) and moving through “Close-Up (and fade to white),” “Wide Shot,” “High-Angle Shot,” “Dissolves,” “Fast Motion,” “Music,” and “The End” to “Credits.”

Along the way, this conte recounts the hard, bittersweet lives of Romain and Eléna both in themselves and in the context of rural Quebec’s transformations since WWII. Romain, escaping privileged indifference, and Eléna, fleeing domestic brutality, meet accidentally near Romain’s solo sanctuary in the bush, fall in love, and have a daughter, Rose. Eléna dies in childbirth, however, and Romain has to relinquish his beloved daughter to the care of the village doctor, helped by the village schoolteacher (a survivor of the Shoah), who soon moves in with the freethinking veterinarian. Meanwhile, to allow Rose to be raised without becoming the object of adult jealousies, Romain sets off to wander the world, sending his daughter updates by way of the notebooks of the title. Father and daughter are briefly reunited in the end, but also in a radically changed Quebec, and the conte then speeds through a series of credits that sketch the afterlives of all those who touched Romain, Eléna, and Rose, whether gently or brutally.

Described like this, The Douglas Notebooks sounds like a late-night tearjerker delivered with inappropriate literary affectation, but it does not read that way. The potential sentimentality of the story, which Eddie sometimes allows but never indulges, is always carefully contained by her simple, evocative, understated prose, for which Fischman finds a subtle English equivalent. Here, for example, after Eléna’s mother has been killed by her drunken lout of a husband, Eddie takes the girl to the cemetery, “where Eléna could go only in secret, before school or after Mass, and she never had time to say Maman, I miss you. The only daughter had no choice but to put up with her only father” (“ou Eléna ne pouvait se rendre qu’en cachette, avant l’école ou après la messe, sans jamais avoir le temps de dire maman tu me manques. La fille unique n’eut d’autre choix que de s’accommoder de son père unique”). Although she cannot keep the repeated syntax (“ne...que”), Fischman maintains the other important parallel elements, thus transporting us into Eddie’s controlled conte without mis-transforming its stylistic world. Such decorum can be found not only at the level of style but also at the level of plotting: Romain and Eléna first meet by literally bumping into each other, and Romain ends up with broken ribs, thus bringing Eléna into his life. Both the Adam and Eve story and the standard rom-com encounter subtly collide here in a scene at once realistic and literary. Like the rest of the book, this moment is believably unbelievable, in keeping with the fabulous history to which it belongs.

Whether in English or in French, The Douglas Notebooks is as unsettling and transporting as Radiohead’s “Electioneering” covered by Portland Cello Project. What else can one ask from either an original or its translation?

—Iain Higgins

As in The Malahat Review, 188, Autumn 2014, 143-144