21 June 2010

Lost in Translation

The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel [L'épouvantail]
André Major [Sheila Fischman, trans.]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977

In the latter half of the 'seventies McClelland and Stewart published translations of novels by Marie-Claire Blais, Hubert Aquin, André Langevin, Diane Giguère, Monique Bosco, Jean-Yves Soucy, Naïm Kattan, Jacques Ferron and Gabrielle Roy. Different times, especially for the house that refers to itself as "The Canadian Publisher" (in italics, always italics). The Roys aside, all were issued in hardcover and enjoyed a lone printing; there were no paperback editions. I can't say I've read all of these, but of those I have The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel is the one I'd most like to see returned to print.

Originally published in 1974 as L'épouvantail, the novel begins with our hero, Momo Boulanger, waking up after a severe beating. There will be more to come. Momo is a man very much out of his depth, trying to make sense of the past. Fresh out of jail, he's come to Montreal to confront a red-haired beauty named Gigi. She's working as a hooker out of some seedy place called the Paradise, but short years before, in little St-Emmanuel, she'd been his girl. "If you were any kind of man you'd get me out of this hole", she'd told him. And so, desperate for cash, Momo had robbed a hardware store. Her father turned him in.

Gigi's whine is a cliché, and the plot resembles a pulp novel, but what sets this work apart from the cheap, yellowing paperbacks is Major's use of language. Anyone seeking evidence of Sheila Fischman's formidable talent as a translator need look no farther than this book.

Here's the beginning of chapter three:
He had stopped looking over the tops of the houses that formed an endless wall on either side of the street; there was nothing more to see up there now that night had fallen like a canopy, closing him completely inside a kind of deserted labyrinth where no one would turn around as he went by, astonished or smiling at his black eye and swollen lips; he walked slowly, dragging his feet, a stiffness of muscles of his calves, and for a moment nothing could stop him, not even the uselessness of his wandering, even though it seemed absurd to be walking like that, just for the sake of walking, as though the fabulous sum of his steps would finally lead him somewhere, or at the very least make him discover some goal to be reached, while the one really important thing to do was drink some hot coffee and take some time to rest up and get warm.
One sentence, it flies in the face of formula. Major's paragraphs often go on for pages, moving dreamlike between past and present, St-Emmanuel and Montreal. One dark scene follows another; even those depicting Momo and Gigi at the beginning of their relationship disturb. The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel is not a pleasant read, nor is it an easy read, and yet once started it is difficult to put down. It's the finest novel I've read this year.

Object and Access: A slim hardcover, there are plenty of Very Good copies to be had at under C$8. Pay no attention to the Ontario bookseller charging C$10 for a "Fair" library discard. The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel is rare sight in our public libraries, though it is found in most universities. A bit more scarce in the original French, despite having been reissued by Stanké in 1980.

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