by Jacques Poulin (Les grandes marées, 1978)
translated from the French by Sheila Fischman (1986)
Archipelago Books (2007)
Though I haven’t posted my review of it yet, I have read Jacque Poulin’s novel Translation Is a Love Affair, forthcoming from Archipelago Books. For some reason, I don’t think I penetrated a layer with that book; something just didn’t click even though I was enjoying it the whole time. Rather than review that book straightaway, I decided I should go back a bit and read Poulin’s older novel (also presented to us in beautiful fashion by Archipelago Books) Spring Tides. I had read that Poulin’s books, while independent of each other, can illuminate one another. I’m glad for this approach. The two books are incredibly different, but certain things were similar enough that reading Spring Tides helped me establish a bit better where Poulin was going with Translation Is a Love Affair. That review will be posted in a week or two, after I’ve read the book (a shortie) again.
A quick note on the cover: isn’t it beautiful? The texture and the unconventional shape make these books feel just right.
Spring Tides won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Literary Merit for fiction in the French language (the same year Alice Munro won it for the English language with Who Do You Think You Are?), yet Poulin is apparently not widely read. I can see one reason for that: this book is very quiet, running the risk of seeming like a straightforward allegory (the problem I had with Translation Is a Love Affair at first). The book does not force the reader to come to terms with it, and the prose is so deceptively simple that a reader might miss the deeper complexities.
The central character in this book is the otherwise nameless Teddy Bear, a nickname derived from T.D.B. “And T.D.B. come from Tradecteur de Bandes Dessinées, because I translate comic strips.” Here is how this book starts; I think you’ll catch the allusion.
In the beginning he was alone on the island.
Teddy Bear likes his solitude and works consistently to have his translations done each week when the boss’s helicopter comes to collect them and drop off new ones. His main companion is his cat Matousalem and a tennis machine. The island is the boss’s, and he gave it to Teddy Bear hoping it would bring a bit of happiness (“It isn’t heaven on earth, but it’s a pleasant spot,” he said.).
Happiness is the ellusive beast in this book. The boss’s main goal seems to be to ensure that Teddy Bear experiences happiness. Though lonely (dictionaries and reference books “took the place of the friends he didn’t have”) and apparently content in his solitude, Teddy Bear obviously was missing some communication, something he was never good at anyway:
He started thinking about his brother Theo. He never heard from his brother, but he must be somewhere in southern California, and as the weather got warmer on the Pacific coast, he would surely be preparing to return to San Francisco. . . . Teddy was thinking about someone else too: a girl. She didn’t exist in reality, but her features and appearance were beginning to take shape in his mind.
Then, as if by miracle, a girl appears. One day during the spring tides, the boss drops off Marie:
“. . . My dream is to make people happy. That’s why you’re here on this island. And it’s why I brought Marie here too. Obviously I don’t think I’m God the Father and I didn’t tell myself, ‘It is not good that man should be alone’ or anything like that, but I thought you’d have a better chance of happiness if there was someone here with you. . . .”
I enjoyed this part of the novel more than any other part. Teddy Bear and Marie enjoy an uncomfortable friendship on island, though they live on opposite sides. She tries not to interfere with his work, and he tries not to interfere with her swimming. In a revealing and comic part, Teddy Bear decides to make Marie dinnner, but an unwelcome voice comes:
“I’m sorry,” he said, for his brother’s benefit.
“Quit behaving like a zouave and read the recipe like a normal person,” he told himself.
“What’s got into you?”
“Don’t make me laugh with that ‘intrusive presence’ nonsense. You’re only turning fine phrases to forget she’s a girl. Did you notice her eyes, at least? Have you ever seen such beautiful black eyes in your whole career as a translator?”
“And what about the rest?”
“How do you expect me to read the recipe like a normal person if you keep talking about that girl?” he complained. “It’s ten after four and did you read what it says on the box? ‘Allow to cool at room temperature for three hours before serving!’ Do you konw what time that means we’ll be eating supper?”
Though there are two people on the island, it still feels like a pleasant solitude. This is interrupted again when the boss drops off his own wife so she can enjoy a few days (which turn into months) on the island. Then the boss brings more people, and more still, until the island is a minor community. Each person or couple comes with the spring tides, like the debris on the island. Teddy Bear’s work is becoming harder amidst the distractions, but he’s getting better at it. Then all is suddenly shattered.
The plot introduction above seems to me to focus primarily on the allegorical side to this novel. That’s hard to miss, actually, and it’s hard to summarize a plot like that without it showcasing how contrived it is. However, to me the allegory was incidental and unnecessary, even if it cast some of the themes in a deeper relief. To me the most fascinating and maybe central part of the novel was the aspect of communication, of a connection between us. This is hardly a novel theme, but here, with the biblical references and the work of translation, it is dealt with in a novel (and pleasantly lonely) manner. If you find the above plot summary unsatisfactory (as I do) take heart that when I’m thinking back on the individual episodes, isolated from the larger contrived plot, I love this book. Here is a central line, not Poulin’s but Vincent Van Gogh’s:
There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way.
That’s heartbreaking to think about, and Poulin succeeds in this novel-length rumination on just that quotation.