by Mathieu Meunier
Marchand de feuilles, 2014
At first, the rain is everywhere: comforting, distorting, distracting. Imagine driving home from a weekend away. The world outside the car, the world on the other side of the windshield, the world away from the blow heater is the world of Mathieu Meunier’s debut novel. It’s not quite the world we know, somehow made warmer and more comforting by the windshield that stands between us and it.
And yet our narrator does not see the world from behind the comfort of a windshield, from inside a warm car on a rainy day. He is outside, exposed to the elements as he works his way down the West Coast from Vancouver on his bike, “happy as a pigeon in the sky” (with the odd flight back to work in Kuujjuaq in between).
Much more than a straightforward travelogue, though, the writing is exquisite, so good you could stick a pin in it and come up with a paragraph to remember, a turn of phrase that rolls around memorably in the mouth before bringing a smile to your lips. Like the narrator, the mere thought of a glass of wine and we can already feel our teeth being stained red. It is difficult not to fall for the book’s charms.
Our intrepid cyclist sleeps in a tent “the size of a lawnmower bag,” staying in KOA campsites that spread across the American landscape “like a runny nose in a kindergarten.” He reads thoughts left in the margins of a second-hand book by a mysterious Soyouz, sleeps in “mixed dorms where bikinis and open suitcases lie alongside dead bodies waiting for a post-party resurrection,” and eats lots of Ramen noodles (three packs for 29 cents). In Mexico, the side of the road resembles “an open-air morgue,” adding a layer of difficulty—vicious-looking wild animals—to the task of finding a safe place to pitch a tent for the night:
“Despite my lack of knowledge in zoology and dentistry, I can’t help remark the absence of a cage and the presence of teeth.”
Mexico is decidedly a place of chaos, its homes missing roofs, its inhabitants missing teeth; a destination where people are looking to “go back to square one, or two.”
“I went on for a kilometre or two with my shoe missing its sole. Weird. A soleless shoe makes me think of a girl who smells bad. It’s not out of the question, it happens, it’s not the end of the world, but it’s less fun.”
It’s a meandering journey. Neither the narrator nor the reader are in any great hurry. And life is all the better for it.
Review by Peter McCambridge
Read an excerpt in translation here.