by François Blais
translated by JC Sutcliffe
I don’t often get the chance to read good comedy or satire, so it was a real pleasure to pick up François Blais’ Document 1 this summer. From the first page, the author’s wit and humour drew me in, and I quickly breezed through the compact little book. This was my first time reading François Blais, one of Quebec’s most exciting new literary voices. Known by some as an underground superhero of French writing, he is the author of nine novels and one collection of short stories. Document 1, which was released in French in 2012, was translated into English by JC Sutcliffe and published by Book*hug earlier this year.
Document 1 is told by Tess and Jude, two thirty-something dreamers from Grand-Mère, Quebec. They both love to travel—in theory. But they’re also broke and lazy, and can’t seem to muster up the motivation to go anywhere. Instead, they spend their time on Google Maps, exploring small towns across North America from the comfort of their small apartment. When they decide on a whim to plan a real adventure to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, the hapless pair decides to scam a writer’s grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to pay for the trip.
Part of what makes Document 1 so successful is its many threads.
On the surface, it is a first-person account of Tess and Jude’s slapstick attempts to get to Bird-in-Hand. But beneath this story, it is also a piece of metafiction and a satirical exploration of the world of arts and letters in Quebec. As we read each chapter, “written” in turn by Tess and Jude, our preconceptions about fiction are presented, and then taken apart. Concepts like narrative unity and literary structure are systematically introduced and destroyed. At its core, Document 1 is a parody of the novel, and anyone who has ever spent time writing fiction or applying for arts grants will undoubtedly find themselves chuckling aloud.
Overall, I thought JC Sutcliffe did a great job of translating Blais’ work. The same tongue-in-cheek humour is there, and the voices of Tess and Jude are just as funny and relatable in English. However, I did sometimes have trouble with Sutcliffe’s use of British English. Document 1 is set in rural Quebec, and Blais’ writing reflects this cultural background. In Sutcliffe’s translation, expressions like peckish, rubbish, fancy, and dodgy are jarringly British, and conflicted with what I knew about the characters.
That said, Sutcliffe’s translation is also filled with some lovely linguistic gems and she does a great job of capturing the satire and comedy inherent to the French novel. Most importantly, Document 1 is just as much of a page-turner in English as it is in French—despite the fact that nothing really happens.
Review by Megan Callahan
Read an interview with the translator