The Curonian Spit
They say that prehistoric man drew mammoths on the walls of his cave with bits of coloured earth not for decoration but because he believed that his drawings would grant him magical powers. That they would help him on his next hunt. In other words, prehistoric man already knew how powerful art can be.
It’s this sacred power of writing that I look for when reading manuscripts. Texts in which each word hides another. Miracles are rare, but I remember being hooked from the first lines of Eric Dupont’s first manuscript: right away I could see the power behind the voice. Eric Dupont writes books in which the characters always speak from a political point of view, in which mothers help their children develop an exemplary awareness of trade unions, in which the herd always seems to have missed the point, in which the world of the living is fringed with the world of those no longer with us. But, first and foremost, he builds a world in which “laughter reigns supreme.”
The history of literature is filled with novels that we consider to be masterpieces today and that were derided when first published. The archives of Harper’s Magazine reveal how Henry James accused Charles Dickens of being the greatest of superficial novelists: “He has added nothing to our understanding of human character.” Other crimes of lese-majesty were to follow. Nabokov’s Lolita wasn’t “worth any adult reader’s attention” according to The New York Times, while Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was dismissed as “kind of monotonous” by the same newspaper. “And he should have cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crumby school.”
Which is to say that Eric Dupont has managed something that almost never happens. With his fourth book, La fiancée américaine, he has written a novel that’s serious, a novel that isn’t built around “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” like so many others, a saga that’s not frivolous, kitsch, or cynical, and that he’s transformed into a genuine cultural phenomenon. Even more unbelievably, he has written a novel infused with Byronian charisma, buoyed by both the critics and by crowds of readers who flock to his every public appearance. La fiancée américaine, in a brave virtuoso performance that’s full of fireworks, spurns conventional literature. “It’s one giant leap for Quebec literature,” Martine Desjardins wrote in L’actualité magazine. Because La fiancée américaine contains a whole arms factory of techniques drawn from world literature, metabolized by the author as he read, and applied for the purpose in hand to the Gaspé Peninsula. But to write a book like this, a rich reading experience is not enough.
Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy has complained that American writers do not read books in translation, leaving their literature lacklustre. Interviewed by France’s Catholic newspaper La croix, he had some advice for American culture: “Creative writing programmes are killing your literature,” he said, explaining that he had zero respect for contemporary American literature since it is dominated by universities and their students. Even teaching posts, he said, have a detrimental effect since they “cut writers off from society.” The result, according to Engdahl, is a literature that doesn’t take risks. He suggested that writers work as “taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries, and waiters” to earn a living.
For Eric Dupont, who has taught translation at McGill University for more than ten years, this is a question close to his heart, and his approach reflects a method advocated by Herodotus: If you want to paint a chrysanthemum, observe it for a year and you will become a chrysanthemum. Eric Dupont’s language becomes music through the filter of experience.
“I have to visit the Curonian Spit,” he told me one day. “The Baltic Sea washes up chunks of amber onto its beaches.” He was getting ready to write Magdalena Berg’s long journey and the tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff military transport ship in La fiancée américaine, and he had to see with his own eyes the contours of the Curonian Spit, the two stretches of sea between which the water freezes in winter. He couldn’t write about it without having experienced it for himself. He took a coach in Poland and travelled alone to what was once East Prussia. Even though I was a little worried, I knew that experience and total devotion to his craft make him a portrait painter like no other.
My eyes were the shape of sea urchins the whole time I was reading the manuscript for Voleurs de sucre, Eric Dupont’s first novel. A novel about being uprooted, it explains the loss that comes with leaving one’s native soil, in this case Amqui, the centre of the world, the source of all happiness. Fear of divine fury and a thirst for vengeance and emancipation ensure that Sugar Thieves transforms even a cheap eating-house like Boubou Pizza into an epiphany available to all:
“Boubou will fold some years after our visit. In my memory, though, it will always be my first trip—the beginning of the true odyssey of sweetness that will take me from Amqui’s maple syrup to West Indian molasses to the tortes of Upper Austria. The journey to the pizzeria contains the seed of all the heartbreaks I will live through in airports and railways platforms; like a prophecy, it announces the pain of departures and the greatest pain of all: the return of one who comes back speaking languages that his people don’t understand.”1
Sugar Thieves marked the start of a mythical portrait of the Gaspé Peninsula in which the miraculous and the real come together. In Eric Dupont’s books, the world of the living is right next to the world of the deceased. His characters are in constant dialogue with the dead, with no border between the two: just think of the sticky Truth in Sugar Thieves, Aunt Zénoïde in La logeuse—“a little wizened old woman dressed in mauve velvet” who’s found frozen, “clinging to a life buoy from the Empress of Ireland, the luxury liner that sank off Rimouski in the spring of 1914”—or Jeanne Joyal or Sister Mary of the Eucharist in La fiancée américaine. The living-dead act as oracles, a social and historic memory that points a finger at the horrors of the real world whenever a character is in disarray or others seem content to settle for an injustice.
Eric Dupont’s characters must always build bridges between radically different worlds: the banal and the bizarre, the natural and the supernatural, the backcountry and the city, men and women. All of his work is the act of translation, dramatized. Some have said that he uses magical realism, but over time I’m beginning to suspect he’s convinced he’s simply orchestrating a realistic narrative.
Rosa Ost leaves the penguin-like conditions of her village to find out how to summon the westerly wind so vital to the local economy, the westerly wind that has stopped blowing altogether in the region. But the city is a constant source of distraction. Rosa Ost is given an education in city life from a troupe of communist dancers, a woman who happens to be the reincarnation of Joan of Arc, and Sri Satyanarayana, the owner of a flea-ridden motel on the Main.
Most people don’t try to bring out the sacred side that’s hiding away deep inside them, but Eric Dupont seems to turn to it regularly. As a consequence, his characters inspire an emotional response in every aspect of their lives. Life is made up of conflict, pleasure, harmony, and dissonance. The same elements are found in music, art, and the novels of Eric Dupont.
Guttural accents. Torturers. People hospitalized and forced to diet against their will. In Eric Dupont’s world, saintliness is not to be trusted. His third novel, Bestiaire, opens with Nadia Comaneci and the possibilities of weightlessness. “History would remember her smile most of all—the one thing she hadn’t worked on and that came to her naturally.”2
In this family novel of opposites, the mother consults the oracles to see what the future holds, while the father regularly makes a clean sweep of his life and starts over. In a house heated to 17 degrees, local produce is preferred—fried cod, poached cod, broiled cod, cod in white sauce, cod liver, cod baked whole in milk—and the sovereignty-association debate has “plumbed the depths of the most commonplace candies.” When the Parti québécois was elected in 1976, many companies, Cadbury among them, took the opportunity to move their headquarters to Toronto. Separatists were outraged and launched a boycott of Caramilk, a highly coveted candy bar. Hiding behind a rock, the children devour their caramel-filled candy bars as they look out to sea, thereby transforming an everyday act into a revolutionary one.
One of the common themes linking Eric Dupont’s novels comes from reading Hannah Arendt: are all of us both victim and executioner? In Life in the Court of Matane, Eric Dupont provides the following answer: “The stronger the oppression, the shrewder the ways around it have to be. This is how bonsais grow. The miniature Japanese trees are but the sum of thousands of responses to as many upsets. They are the botanical incarnation of Resistance and a miniature form of art, which also has to overcome constraints. To grow a nice bonsai, you must inflict all kinds of bearable torture on it. Never cut off too many branches. What doesn’t kill it makes it more beautiful. When someone harasses or mistreats you, they are turning you into an object of beauty, a work of art.”
This realization, which unfolds in family life in his first three novels, is shifted to the level of world history in Eric Dupont’s magnum opus, La fiancée américaine, with old German women who suffered through the war, gay couples killed for illicit love affairs, and young tomboyish women who build fast-food empires and crush everyone around them… Eric Dupont finds his stories in the spaces left vacant by war: the moments between tragedies that make up what life is truly made of during and after conflict. Perhaps the most fascinating of these spaces is the place he reserves for women in his stories. But Eric Dupont’s work is primarily a metaphor for endurance. His books hint at the possibilities of eternal life. And, for me, La fiancée américaine answers the most important question of all: why make art?