by Jean-Christophe Réhel
Del Busso éditeur, 2018
“Sir! You’re in isolation, sir! Sir, you’re in isolation!” “Yo, my nose is bleeding!” I’ve never said yo in my life, it sounds completely absurd, it must be the stress. I keep on walking to the desk, I hear the woman shout, “You have to go back to your room, sir!” I’m still pressing down hard on my nostrils, but the blood keeps coming. It’s getting everywhere. You can follow the trail I’ve left, I want to die, where are the sharks?”
This scene comes fairly close to the end of Ce qu’on respire sur Tatouine, but it’s as good a place as any to dip our toe in the water. We get a taste of the hospital and the sickness and vague sense of helplessness that permeate Jean-Christophe Réhel’s quirky debut novel, although there’s no hint of the poverty, the junk food, or the bad decisions that accompany it. There’s the narrator’s ability to at once be awkward, likeable, a source of frustration, and someone who can step back and take stock of his actions. And there’s the absurd humour, set off by a series of running gags and motifs delivered with the skill and pacing of a stand-up comedian (or, indeed, a poet). Blood leads to a trail, which leads to thoughts of dying: blood + death = sharks. Where are the sharks?
Where are the sharks indeed? Nowhere to be found in this depressing, unfulfilling world of hospitals, minimum-wage jobs, and cheap booze. But it’s the type of book where you wouldn’t be overly surprised to see one swim by. Réhel walks a thin, thrilling line between realism and imagination; we might slip off at any moment into a Star Wars fantasy or a riff on the merits of being a snowflake (“if I’m really lucky, maybe I’ll end my days in the mouth of a beautiful girl on her way home from the hairdresser’s) or writing poetry (“A poet who doesn’t want to write poems isn’t a poet, he’s a chair.”).
It’s clear that Réhel is a poet: time after time, he resists the temptation to reach for the everyday description of this grey, everyday world and instead adds a light poetic twist that’s just enough to sparkle on the page without distancing or disorienting. Such touches are memorable without being overtly flashy. Why say someone walked away when you can do this instead?
“I watch her leave, I watch her back, the hallway is long. Amidala grows smaller and smaller. Her back takes a right, her back disappears, her back doesn’t turn around.”
Why reach for the obvious metaphor when you can say, on the narrator’s release from hospital after treatment for his cystic fibrosis, “I’m a cat that’s all worked up, a cat that’s gotten its claws back”? Or “The rest of the night is long. The minutes are black and slowly work their way down to my heart.” Or sometimes you just strip it all away: “I cry. I feel useless. I am pathetic.”
The time we spend in our narrator’s company is—perhaps as with any relationship—kind of sad and feel-good at once. It’s a constant back-and-forth between touching, honest simplicity and left-field descriptions and imaginings. We’re a little disgusted. If we passed him in the street, I doubt many of us would think of being friends with him, would bother asking him how his day was going, what his life was like. His phlegm, his weight, his lifestyle are all barriers that separate his world from ours, but somehow we enjoy spending time in his company, rooting for him, hoping that he pulls his life together. Like his supermarket co-worker Akim, we’re happy to see him, we say we must get a beer together sometime. But we never do, and what would we really have to say to each other anyway?
Our narrator is charming, almost in spite of himself. There’s something disarming about his honesty, the fact that he only has space in his bedroom for one of his bedside tables. But he’s far from perfect. He lies to the one person we think—we hope?—he perhaps cares about. An admission, a moment of raw honesty washed down with an offbeat comparison and a throwaway joke, and on we go:
“A first lie for Amidala. I know it won’t be the last. I put together lies stone by stone, then, at the end of every relationship, I take a good look at the structure. I think that’s how they built the pyramids.”
The need for an escape to another world, another planet, becomes clear as the novel progresses. Tatouine, we learn, will have its own rules; it is a place where we won’t have to trim our nails, wash, or get our hair cut. Our narrator won’t have anything wrong with his lungs, he won’t need to work. He won’t need to have talent. He’ll be able to play Super Mario Bros 3 all day. He’ll be a Jedi who sleeps in a spotless bedroom. No more problems.
Tatouine, here we come. Because how much longer will we survive in Repentigny, an ugly suburb of Montreal that’s tacked on by chain restaurants, gas stations, and countless pharmacies? How much longer can we breathe the air of a city that’s “one big open-air hospital.” Where “everybody’s a little ill, everybody’s carrying a little invisible wheelchair.”
Réhel takes us on a tour of both these worlds. He points out the need for imagination. He shows us the faceless figures we pass by on the sidewalk, the wheelchairs and the little catastrophes they carry with them. And my world is all the better for it.
Review by Peter McCambridge