EACH OF THESE recently translated Quebec novels presents us with a desperate woman in a confined, almost claustrophobic situation, but there any resemblance between them ends. Daniel Gagon's diva, Iolanda, has retired from Rome to Capri. Driven to the edge by uterine cancer combined with prosecution for tax evasion, she is discovered by Paolo and Francesca, two idealized young lovers, who adopt and care for her. With unprecedented time and space to reflect on her career, Iolanda is overwhelmed by remorse: "I have sung about love without knowing what it is" Renouncing private life in pursuit of success, Iolanda had allowed herself to become an icon; now that she is confronted with what she gave up, she advises Francesca not to make the same mistake.
Iolanda's meditations are constantly interrupted by calls from the President of the Republic, who is obsessed with Iolanda; he believes that she alone can save his corrupt and tottering regime. 'A woman," says the President, "gives one courage, she makes one feel a great joy." For the President, Iolanda is pure symbol, a "fairy godmother." Ignoring her illness, he urges her to return to Rome. With each call and refusal, however, he comes closer to identifying with her exile, her world-weariness, her regrets. In an ironic reversal, she gains some measure of peace from the tenderness of Paolo and Francesca, while the President becomes infected with her disillusionment.
Nonetheless, he learns nothing from his dialogue with her, for as soon as Iolanda dies, he tries to persuade Francesca to take over the role of saviour he had assigned the diva in his crazed scenario.
While Gagnon presents Iolanda's story from Paolo's point of view, and through Iolanda's conversations with the other characters, Mailhot restricts us to her protagonist's own consciousness. On the first page of Death of the Spider, the unnamed narrator tells us that her family and friends think she has flown to London, but instead she chose "to rent a room," which becomes a room of her own with a vengeance.
Mailhot's story is replete with paradox. "To savour my freedom, the narrator tells us, "I had chosen a prison" - the dirtiest, ugliest room she could find: "Thick soot everywhere ... the residue of incinerated bodies" Worst of all and epitome of the room's threat is the "monstrous spider ... enormous, hairy, grey" she sees above the bed. "In a split second, just long enough to see it clearly in all its repugnant horror, it dove headlong into me!" Once she has swallowed the spider, the narrator begins to weave a complex web of memory and fantasy, dominated by images of suffocation, mutilation, or the transformation of women's everyday tasks into grotesque rituals.
Reading Mailhot's novella is like looking through a terrifying kaleidoscope: just as an image forms before our eyes, it dissolves and the elements reorganize into something equally painful: a cancer detection clinic becomes a concentration camp; a monastery turns into a desert. Themes that might have had a positive charge in other feminist novels - wornen's friendships and female continuity - here combine with the male domination of church, state, and business to oppress. In one memorable fantasy, the narrator imagines
A life-sized picture of my daughter, and in her belly three women.... I easily recognize my grandmother ... then, behind her, my mother, and finally me ... How will she deliver such a bloodline without dying?
For Mailhot's narrator, there is no escape from the feminine condition nor any refuge in nostalgia, as she imagines
her mother "telling me of the joys of the past as of happiness that I had forgotten to experience." The only relief from terror is wit and irony; in one fantastic sequence a lawyer advises the narrator: "Men are weak and you cannot demand
of them a hell beyond their reach."
Toward the end, with references to a notebook and a film script, we get some suggestion that the narrator is trying to take control of this relentless parade of images. Just possibly she has been redeemed by her ordeal, for on the last page she emerges from her room with tentative self acceptance: "I greet myself without wanting to spit in my face."
Both Death of the Spider and Divine Diva are the second of their authors' novels to be translated into English (Michele Mailhot's Coming of Age was the first of her eight and Daniel Gagnon's The Marriageable Daughter was the first of his seven). With poetic texts like these, which depend for their effect on image and allusion, the translator faces a daunting task. Neil Bishop and Agnes Whitfield have both rendered these difficult books into a tense, heightened English prose, thereby preserving their lyrical qualities.