Life in the Court of Matane

by Eric Dupont

translated by Peter McCambridge

QC Fiction, July 2016

Québec Reads founding editor Peter McCambridge explains why it was an easy decision to translate Eric Dupont’s Bestiaire as the first book under the new QC Fiction imprint, which he now heads.

On the face of it, Bestiaire, forthcoming in translation from QC Fiction as Life in the Court of Matane, is the portrait of a family. The portrait of a family close enough to be the author’s own, growing up on the “barren wasteland” of eastern Quebec, among silver church spires in one of the frozen villages, far from the bright city lights of Quebec City and Montreal, “not quite at the end of the world.” But our narrator has cod scales growing in secret behind his knees, not something anyone would likely want included in a family portrait for posterity, until one day, that is, they fall off and down onto the bedsheets, glinting there like diamonds.

These cod scales are typical Eric Dupont, hints of magic dabbed onto the canvas of his childhood. The novel is an offbeat but often wistful look back at his early years, similar in style to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, made Dupont’s own with a series of “mysterious, exotic stories,” each involving an animal.

Life in the royal court involves growing up under the reign of Eric’s skirt-chasing father, Henry VIII, and his second wife, “the kingdom’s despotic sovereign,” Anne Boleyn. These caricatures are, in themselves, less victims of Dupont’s storytelling prowess than one of the driving forces behind the novel, reducing complicated individuals to their simplest parts for comic effect. His mother, for instance, “loved her children, Elvis Presley, and cats (and had an impressive collection of the latter),” while his father “loved his children, Jacques Brel, and women (and had an impressive collection of the latter).”

Navigating the opposing personalities requires a family gymnastics performance worthy of Nadia Comaneci herself, a typical comparison in a novel in which the personal and day-to-day (the Sunday exchange of prisoners between a divorced couple no longer on speaking terms) is constantly elevated to the level of international incident (Comaneci’s flawless gold-medal performance at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal):

“For a while our graceful performances on the uneven bars were of the highest calibre. I like to pretend that, just like Nadia, we got full marks for our landing on this northern beach.”

Local myth, anecdote, and history (sometimes all three at once, as with the six brothers who married six sisters) mix with world events. And so talk of first communions and confirmations rubs shoulders with a history of communist Laos and, perhaps most memorably of all, an encounter with a little dog on a blue stamp: Laika, who now can be seen emerging from the fog at the port of Matane, scrounging for meatballs.

It’s a feast of a novel, calorie-filled and decadent. Words like cockamamie and larger-than-life abound as Dupont leaves exaggeration far behind to stride into the realm of magical realism. Election posters are so big they can be seen “from the moon” and, if you squint hard enough, you can make out “particles of kindness” dancing around his grandmother’s head. “The sabres returned to their sheaths, the cannons fell silent, the mines were deactivated” describes nothing more than a family truce, brother and sister taking home disappointing school reports are “like two condemned prisoners on a tumbril, on our way to the gallows,” and a young Eric stands before Matane “like Attila before Rome.” You get the idea.

In this way, the tone often flirts with the mock-heroic, drawing parallels and comparisons between the simple things in life and transforming them, to the reader’s amusement, into grand tragedy and farce. Take, for example, the humble turnip:

“I eat turnip in solitude and in darkness. Its bitter taste and slightly stringy consistency are nothing but a polite reminder that I am only one generation removed from hunger. […] To eat turnip is to eat humanity and all its suffering.”

The parallels with Dupont’s later, even more ambitious work, La Fiancée américaine, are impossible to resist. Indeed, there is something incredibly satisfying about rereading an author’s early work and finding the seeds of his later work planted there for all to see. The “ashtray mounted on a moose leg” puts in an appearance, although there’s a different story behind its origin, and the deposal of Anne Boleyn and silent execution of a Carmelite nun are a “sad opera”—a theme to be developed, and then some, in La Fiancée, with all its nods and winks and frantic hand gestures in the direction of Tosca.

It all makes for an irreverent cocktail, combining mythology, irony, and off-the-beaten-track comparisons (anger is the size of a pea, swelling up inside Eric) with weightier themes and hints of suicide and disaster through a well-threaded narrative that gives name recognition to seemingly random objects (the Pavel Ponomarev, a Silva compass, “stray Muscovite dogs,” a little girl running for a bus, the precise meaning of the German word vergeblich) that we are then thrilled to see reappear later on.

Throughout, Dupont is aware of the transformational power of literature—“Literature was to once again become an unspoiled continent that I would continue to explore alone, armed with a machete and a rifle, discovering behind each moss-covered rock whole worlds whose only purpose was to change mine, little by little.”—and his own brand of writing is more powerful than most. We do not leave this world of his making unscathed.

In a word, it’s ambitious. It’s light and magical with a constant undercurrent of menace—perhaps, like many a family meal described in the novel, best washed down with a sip of 1977 Château Rancour.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by Peter McCambridge
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Forthcoming from QC Fiction