by Alain Poissant
translated by Rob Twiss
University of Ottawa Press, 2015
The novel begins with an inseminator visiting Bonté III, a Holstein cow that belongs to Francis, one of our main characters. A conclusion is quickly drawn: “The only thing to do now was to call the butcher.” This, then, is the fate of Bonté III, the message we’re reminded of every time we think of the novel’s title. Business being business (in a novel in which characters are constantly “in the service of money,” overworked and underpaid, betraying their better selves in an attempt to earn a living), Bonté III is off to the slaughterhouse. “Because it is what it is, thought Francis.”
Francis works hard, looking after his precious cattle from dawn till dusk.
“Francis had never left his cows or his fields. He had never traveled. He had never slept anywhere but his own bed or on a bale of hay when a cow was giving birth or, sometimes, on the porch in the summer. When his father had died suddenly on his tractor at the age of thirty-nine, Francis had understood that he would not leave the farm. He borrowed his travels from migrating birds. He took his turn at the head of the flock. He pecked at the grass in the meadow. He stood guard with his neck straight up in the air. He slept with his head under his wing.”
Until one day Francis has had enough of the single life. He takes five pictures, uploads them onto the computer, picks one, then writes the ad:
32 years old
Man seeks woman
Leave a message at the farm
And the rest of the book is as simple, touching, and laconic as Francis’s ad. We meet the Kid next, Graziella’s son. Eleven years ago, Graziella had moved away to work at a bank in Montreal. The bank is robbed twice in quick succession, an event that is almost as matter of fact as the rest of the book:
“A month passed before other robbers—or maybe the same ones—had barged in like wild men with their disguises and their weapons to scare the tellers, screaming: ‘Get your hands in the air! Get your hands in the air! Get your hands in the air!’ Money, the great pacifier, had once again been put into the sacks and pushed out towards the robbers.”
Graziella works hard. “She counted. She canvassed clients. She dressed with the utmost care. She did her makeup. She painted her nails. The men who saw her on the metro or dealt with her in her soundproofed office found her pretty, attractive. Every morning at ten to eight she took the elevator. At eight o’clock sharp she sat down behind a pile of folders and a mug of coffee. The minutes went by. The years went by.”
Until, that is, Graziella doesn’t come into work one day. She walks out on her two-bedroom condo and her comfortable existence in Montreal to sleep outdoors on public benches back in Napierville.
“There must have been a disaster. Something no one had heard about and from which Grazie had had to flee.”
But we never find out why.
Graziella, of course, ends up answering Francis’s ad. Though it is a stretch to call this a love story. In fact, The Fate of Bonté III is an odd beast. It’s also extraordinarily good. Subdued and quirky in equal measure, it’s perhaps easiest to describe by setting out what it’s not. It’s not plot-driven, it’s not genre fiction, it’s neither overly poetic nor especially linear or straightforward. It’s a bit of a puzzle, although the narrative style leans toward the matter of fact, somehow, almost improbably, holding our interest and tugging at our heart strings along the way. It’s not detail-riddled realism. And it’s not melodramatic, although there is tragedy: a school bus accident. A death or two. An eldest son taken by AIDS. (“Occasionally, a disease will make heroes, and the heroes will give courage to those who need it. AIDS didn’t make any heroes.”) An explosion that takes with it the last of a man’s good humour.
But it’s not overdone; events are usually not quite sad. The effect just feels real, perhaps a little numb, helped throughout by a very much on-key translation that feels at once true to the French and to the mood of the original.
This is a bleak, plodding world in which religion has been put to one side, unable to bring any comfort or relief, “as if it had been decided that life would be simplified into three distinct parts—a beginning, a middle, and an end—and that God would handle only the beginning and the end; man would take care of the middle.”
Times have changed, but people don’t seem to have been caught off guard by modernity. “They adapted very well. They worked. They built houses. They had children. They went on vacation. Then death caught up with them. Not much of a change there.”
The echoes with the fate of Bonté III in the first chapter are unmistakable. “It eats. It drinks. It ruminates. It pisses. It shits. That all costs what it costs. It ovulates. It bears a calf. It gives birth. It produces milk. That all brings in what it brings in.” Life’s tough and then you die, our narrator seems to be telling us in this world in which “money [is a] full-time job.”
But generally speaking this is a subtle book; so much is left unsaid. Details, hints, and pieces of the puzzle are added as asides, left to be skimmed over or to be picked up and savoured (like Graziella’s “warm lips, warm breath” which steal the reader’s imagination at a funeral). The story is measured, given up to the reader in doses meted out by the narrator, at times almost reluctantly, with so much to be gleaned between the lines, the magic in the details.
This world of Poissant’s creation is “big and mysterious; being alone in it was not an option.” If the book has a message, perhaps it is this. Maybe there’s more to life than money. Maybe life is easier to manage when we’re not facing it alone. When we have something to distract us from the messiness of life for all its simplicity.