by Mélissa Verreault
La Peuplade, 2014
Setting everyday lives against the grand backdrop of the second world war is a theme in Québec literature already familiar to readers of Eric Dupont’s La Fiancée américaine. But while Dupont’s Tosca-fuelled goings-on can readily be compared to an opera in scope, delivery, and ambition, Mélissa Verreault’s L’angoisse du poisson rouge is more similar to the later, somewhat calmer chapters of Dupont’s novel. In many ways, it is Verreault’s very own Fiancée, her longest and most ambitious work to date. It is, however, more easily compared to a play than an opera: there are three main sections, a monologue or two, and above all an underlying message that seems more commonplace on the stage than in a novel.
Most strikingly—as with Dupont, too—there is a sense of heightened (and occasionally magic) realism, the feeling that everything is larger than life, dreary and trivial though our everyday concerns might appear when compared to the high drama of World War II. Verreault brings Montreal to life, giving beauty to the city and lending a touch of magic to everyday surroundings. (Our two lovebirds dance on a Montreal platform, for example, as commuters around them await a train to Rosemère or Saint-Jérôme, “counting steps to the sound of invisible violins.”)
It is a novel about life, happiness, and “why an individual chooses to leave the country that saw him come into the world, to uproot himself, his head and his heart split between his homeland and the promised land.” It is about making something of our lives, of realizing there is more to being a success than having 500 Facebook friends, speaking five languages, or owning a house.
Although it can veer dangerously close to chic lit at times, particularly in an overly long first section before the real meat of the story arrives in a powerful second act, there is also talk of recession, unstable governments, and a weakened European Union (Fabio, Manue’s love interest, is a recent Italian immigrant to Montreal). It is a novel about memory, and memories. Memories of the men sent from Carpi in the north of Italy, to fight on the Russian front.
One of fiction’s most valuable roles must be to get the reader to stop and consider something they had previously been aware of without ever taking the time to probe and investigate more thoroughly. L’angoisse will leave more than a few anxious to read up on Italy’s role in the second world war. In it, we learn what Italy changing sides meant to the men involved in the fighting, we learn of the fate reserved for Benito Mussolini after the war, we learn the story of Fabio’s grandfather Sergio as he survives the Russian labour camps to return home five years later with “a lifetime of hardship and sacrifice scribbled across his face.”
“How can five years
be wiped away?
There would always remain a layer of unhappiness, a thin film, shiny and glistening, of bitterness and terror.
Verreault’s style is quirky and irreverent, but there is no denying the novel’s ambition over the course of close to 450 pages. The first section is something of a romantic comedy, written in the third person although sticking close to Manue’s point of view; the second relates Sergio’s story, containing its fair share of offbeat aphorisms with more than a grain of truth to them amid the horrors of war; and the third section is told in the first person by Fabio, focusing on Manue and Fabio’s decision to start moving forward with their lives despite past tragedies, with all three parts bookended by love letters between Sergio and his wife-to-be.
Overall, Verreault’s gamble pays off. It’s a light read, with a little more depth than might be expected beneath the surface. All the better to drive home the novel’s central thesis:
“It’s just hit me. Manue and I like to think we’re so special with lives that are full of improbable anecdotes and convoluted destinies. We never realized how normal that is. Everyone has an incredible story to tell. There’s no such thing as a straightforward life. We tend to think that some people’s lives are of no interest at all. But only because we don’t know about their family quarrels, their heartbreaks, their incurable diseases, their sudden departures, their lost children, their devastating fires, their squandered fortunes, the rope around their necks. No more than we know about the great swells of happiness that go with the seemingly satisfied smiles.
We’ll never understand all the impossible things that lie behind the eyes we meet.”
Review by Peter McCambridge