In Translation Review

Petit chien pas de pattes

by François Barcelo

L’Écailler du sud, 2008

The prolific François Barcelo was the first Quebec author to be published in Gallimard’s Série noir, yet only one novel and some short stories have been translated into English. His trademarks are a gripping story and a dark sense of humour. Forget a happy ending.

Petit chien pas de pattes [Puppy With No Paws] is the story of an embittered minor Quebec writer named, with a postmodern touch, François.

While living cheaply on a Mexican beach, he sort-of accidentally kills his drinking companion, Javier. Things get complicated when he has to take care of the man’s mute daughter. Getting her off his hands isn’t easy, especially since she’s got a bank card with access to huge sums of money. And then there’s another problem: he’s got a weakness for little girls.

François heads back to Canada by way of Texas, where he hopes to leave the girl with relatives. The tension mounts as they move from town to town, one step ahead of the law. At the same time, he struggles against temptation when they are obliged to sleep in increasingly close quarters. Lolita meets Thieves Like Us.

In Houston, they’re captured by criminals eager to reclaim money Javier had stolen from them. So it’s back to the Mexican beach François once thought of as heaven on earth. If you know your Jim Thompson and Ted Lewis, you’ll recognize the twist at the end, but you won’t see it coming.

“You know what you should do, Pancho?” asks Javier, after trying to extract one last drop of beer from the bottle of Superior he’s just raised to his lips.

I don’t reply, because this is at least the fifth time he’s asked me the same question. And I know he’s about to answer it himself, as usual.

He continues with the ritual. He opens his car door, takes the empty I hand him and puts it in the case of Superior along with his own. He shuts the door and turns to me in the hope I’ll give him a cold one. I don’t move. He continues unruffled, as if I might’ve forgotten what he’s told me so often:

“I’ll tell you my story and you turn it into a book. It’ll be an international best seller! Too bad your computer’s not working.”

In the two weeks I’ve been camping on this beach, Javier’s been singing the same tune every time we hoist a few too many: I should write his life story. With one variation: this evening, he’s promising me a worldwide hit. At first, he painted a picture of phenomenal sales in Mexico, once he’d translated the memoirs he’d dictated or inspired me to write (I didn’t even try to get that detail straight) into Spanish. A few days later, seeing that wasn’t enough to get me excited, he swore that our book would be just as big in the States, because he knew a journalist in Houston who’d turn out an English version as good as what I’d write, if not better. I didn’t bother pointing out that I write in French, which most Texan journalists probably don’t understand, and that, in any case, he’d have trouble translating it into Spanish himself, seeing as he only knows a few dozen words—ones used in English, as well, like déjà vu and savoir-faire.

And now this evening he’s predicting global success, no less.

Even though I do sometimes regret not having a computer anymore (but never to the point of considering writing by hand), I’m sure Javier’s life is just as boring as those of the dozens of other people I’ve met in bars who, on learning I’m a writer—something I tend to boast about when I drink too much and particularly when I haven’t written a line in months—start going on and on about the kind of ordinary events that make up most people’s lives, especially those who don’t even realize they’re exactly like everybody else’s.

I could point out I’m only a minor Quebec writer whose books have never sold more than two thousand copies apiece, never been exported outside Canada, never been translated into any other language. But why humiliate myself more than necessary? Writers have enough problems as it is. They might as well enjoy the prestige of the title without going into further detail. A writer’s a writer, and to anyone unfamiliar with the literary world, it’s still more honourable than being a plumber or dentist.

Plus, now I have a way to steer Javier onto another subject, every time he starts insisting I write his biography.

“Sure, Javier. Tell me everything. It’s all going up here.”

I tap my temple, behind which lies a memory at least as good as a computer’s when I’m sober and being told something worth remembering.

“No, Pancho,” groans Javier. “You know I can’t. I’ll tell you, but only if you write it all down and turn it into a book. A real book, not just in your head so you can go around blabbing it to anybody, anywhere, all mixed up.”

“Whatever you say, Javier.”

And I nod my head with feigned sadness and resignation, delighted to have brought an end to the conversation that never goes anywhere. But then he adds, for the first time, “I can even give you an advance in a few days, if you want. A big advance.”

He’s never promised me any kind of advance before. And he immediately regrets it.

“No, forget it. It’s too dangerous. And it’s impossible.”

No kidding! He’s just as poor as I am. Maybe for just a second he was considering robbing a bank to publish his memoirs?

To console ourselves for the ups and downs of the conversation and of life in general, I open the door of the Cavalier. (I’m in the driver’s seat.) I lift the lid of the cooler I’ve buried in the sand right next to the car, so all I have to do is reach out to get an ice-cold beer, or two, when I have a sort-of friend like Javier, who’d like nothing better than to join me.

As a matter of fact, it’s kind of because of him that I almost always need to have cold beer on hand. I’m the one who invented the system of burying the cooler to keep it cooler. In the daytime, I park the car on top of it, to protect the beer from the sun, thieves, and my often premature thirst. Around four or five in the afternoon, I move the car about a metre to the right, so I can just stick out my arm to lift the lid and help myself.

On the other hand, it was Javier who told me, the day after I arrived, where to buy ice—in Madre de Dios, barely sixty kilometres away. And, above all, where to find beer in returnable bottles—in Madre de Dios again, but this time at the depósito, where it costs a third of the price of the beer in non-returnable bottles sold in the stores frequented by the few tourists in this corner of the Yucatán. Better still, he came along to show me where the depósito was, along with the ice store, where they also sell purified water, which prevents tourists in the know from getting turista.

So, thanks to him, my bowels are working normally, my beer is cold, and my beer budget is holding out, even though Javier also helps me deplete it from time to time, like tonight, for instance.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review and translation by Karin Montin