by Eric Dupont
Marchand de feuilles, 2012
La Fiancée américaine is like a box set of your favourite series drama, not necessarily neatly ordered from Season 1 to 5. It’s like a box set because after a few dozen pages, a few dozen anecdotes, and a few dozen characters, we feel like we’re in Season 3 of a series we can’t get enough of. We know these characters, we love them (even when they let us down), and we’re almost too afraid to continue reading, terrified the writer isn’t going to be able to pull off an ending that will do the whole thing justice.
As it is, the novel scooped the province’s two most prestigious literary awards—the Prix des collégiens and the Prix des libraires—in short order. Dupont’s fourth novel in eight years, it is his most impressive, and most international, work to date. Dupont set out to write a novel he would forever be proud of and, by God, he doesn’t disappoint.
The novel plays out to the backdrop of two world wars and other key moments from 20th century history, spanning generations and continents. It is riddled with straight-out-of-left-field leitmotifs (the colour teal, Magda Goebbels’ earrings, sweet-toothed nuns, quaggas…) and constant allusions to Puccini’s opera, Tosca. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times surprisingly dark and sad (with stillborn babies and grotesque accidents, the deaths begin to pile up despite an apparently innocent start to the book), the result is a tour de force, a work that impresses by its powerful score and the inventiveness of its orchestration every bit as much as Tosca. Dupont’s characters are always larger than life, and always for the most unexpected reasons.
Take Madeleine Lamontagne. Born in 1900 with teal-coloured eyes and red hair, she is adopted by a French-Canadian family when she turns nine. The story, more or less, begins here. A gin-fuelled fireside story from Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne to his three children reveals how he came into this world, against all odds, on Christmas morning of 1918. But first, how his grandfather, Louis-Benjamin, came to marry Madeleine. Madeleine the American. Our American fiancée.
You see, Old Ma Madeleine, Louis-Benjamin’s mother, wrote to her brother in New Hampshire for a bride when Louis-Benjamin’s sickly fiancée succumbed to Spanish flu. Madeleine arrives on March 1, 1918. News of her arrival in 1918 spreads through Fraserville, soon to be renamed Rivière-du-Loup, “like syphilis through a Berlin whorehouse.” Rumours abound. There are three competing theories:
1) The Lamontagnes were duped by Old Ma Madeleine’s brother, all too keen to be shot of Madeleine.
2) Madeleine is a black widow, leaving a string of coffins in her wake.
3) She is a lady of the night, having intercepted the real Madeleine and taken her place.
After her morning rosary, Madeleine begins to cook, deciding that the way to Canadian hearts is through the stomach. “They would have to be won over one by one, calorie by calorie, carb by carb.”
Meanwhile there is trouble in Quebec City. The army is looking for young men to conscript. Police sent from Toronto have fired at the unarmed crowd. It’s only a matter of time before they come for Louis-Benjamin, the priest reckons. But they won’t take a father. And so Louis-Benjamin marries Madeleine only weeks after her arrival.
Madeleine is pregnant. It’s November 17, 1918, and the parish priest decides to hold a special mass to celebrate the end of a bloody war.
He has the choir sing a Te Deum, “a hymn sung on various occasions, notably at the end of a smallpox epidemic or whenever a siege of a city had been lifted, an heir to the throne had been born, spring had arrived after a particularly deadly winter, a shipwrecked crew had been saved, a harvest of oats had been especially bountiful, or an end had come to a war that no one had wanted and that had brought nothing but death, sadness, and pestilence down upon humanity.”
Just after midnight mass on Christmas Day, Madeleine goes into labour. The first baby dies. A second baby—our gin-drinking, storytelling Louis Lamontagne—survives but Madeleine the American dies in childbirth. She is buried with her baby in the spring once the frozen ground has thawed.
So that was Chapter 1. That was our first Madeleine. Louis’ daughter Madeleine will grow up to be crowned Queen of Breakfasts by a Toronto journalist. Less flatteringly, she’ll also be dubbed “Quebec’s Thatcher.” But we have a lot to get through between now and then. Not least a dizzying amount of characters, each of whom is memorable to say the least. Dupont plunges into every detail of their past lives at every available opportunity in the unique, colourful world of his creation. These diversions and digressions aren’t distractions: they are the story, making Dupont’s writing what it is. Parallel themes, running gags, recurring threads hold the whole thing together, casting out unlikely but successful bridges between kindly parish priests munching their way through Lent and the nuns of Warsaw feasting on the sausages, beer, and eggs brought home by the cross-eyed strongman in their care.
The pages fly by, and we are delighted by beautiful turns of phrase and the author’s skilled eye for head-turning detail. Breasts “hang limply like a pair of old oranges in a plastic bag,” the summer of 1968 goes by “like an Apollo rocket,” a calf by the name of Adolf bellows “a D-sharp announcing the end of the world.” Torrential storms beat down, “straight out of a Wagner opera.” Nuns listen to a mother’s complaint “like others are surprised to find themselves listening to the dialogue of a porn movie: with no small amount of shame and a great deal of interest.”
Drawn into the second world war, we’ll travel to Prussia. A mother will jump out of a window during a bombardment, a feverish aunt will write desperate letters to Goebbels’ wife asking for advice. A stuffed quagga (half-horse, half-zebra) will be taken from the Königsberg museum, thrown out a window, pissed on, and set on fire.
This is not the history of the 20th century you learned in high school. But it is what Dupont does so well, managing to be completely off-the-wall and heartbreaking at the same time. Make no mistake: this is Dupont at his finest. This is the Dupont of Bestiaire and Voleurs de sucre[ref]Sugar Thieves, trans. Sheila Fischman, Cormorant Books, 2012[/ref] right after he has shifted into top gear, for the first time setting his zany observations against an ambitious, international backdrop.
So pick yourself up a (weighty) copy of La Fiancée américaine. Read on and travel with our unlikely cast from Quebec to New York to Dachau to Toronto to Berlin to Königsberg to Rome. As in all good novels, this is at once our world and a world entirely of the author’s own making. There is both plenty to recognize and plenty to double-take at along the way. And, who knows, at journey’s end you too might be tempted to agree with Voir magazine:
“If the Americans have John Irving and the Colombians Gabriel Garcia Marquez, we have Eric Dupont. And he’s every bit as good as them.”
Review by Peter McCambridge
Read an excerpt in translation here.