by Joyce Marshall
DANIEL POLIQUIN is no newcomer to the literary scene. A Franco Ontarian, born and still resident in Ottawa, he is the author of two earlier novels, the second of which, L`Obomsawin, was short-listed and a close contender for the Trillium Prize in 1987, as well as Nouvelles de la capitale, a book of linked short stories. He has translated two books by Jack Kerouac into French and is Currently translating W. O. Mitchell.
In all ]-us writing, Poliquin concerns himself with human beings whose nature is so dominated by a single characteristic that they might almost be called monsters. Like I`Obomsawin, the native Indian painter who is the central figure in the book of that title, who fights to have his paintings restored to him and then destroys them; or the two mad poets who appear in several of the stories in Nouvelles de la capitale.
In Visions de Jude, which, like the short stories, is set in an Ottawa neighbourhood called Cote- de-Sable, once occupied by boarding houses and minor embassies, now being gentrified, he has attempted an even more unusual sort of character, one who is very tricky to write about -- a man of immense and universal charm. Jude is a success at everything he undertakes -- Arctic exploration, writing, academic life -- admired by everyone and loved by almost every woman he encounters. Several of the notes I made for myself ask, in some variation of these words: Is he going to be able to bring this off? Charm so often turns to dust when one tries to find words for it. To add to his difficulties, Poliquin has chosen to present this overwhelmingly charming figure through the eyes and minds of four of the women who love him. There are male commentators certainly, such as the eccentric Professor Pigeon, classicist and failed poet, who acts as a comic Greek chorus all through the book, but it is the women who are given the final word. Here my notes to myself became more and more nervous: so few male writers can convincingly enter a woman`s mind. As I read on, my third query to myself arose. Jude, we learn from the first sentence and more and more clearly as we get into the story, is gravely flawed. Though he is loved again and again, he cannot himself love. He hurt,,, his women and himself, in extremely subtle ways. (Poliquin is very sure in his depiction of male and female jealousy.) If lie explains this, links it all back to a single trauma in Jude`s early life, I thought land wrote), the whole structure will collapse, I`ll be bitterly disappointed, and the book will fail.
Well, no need to worry. We do accept the tremendous charm of this charming individual. (I can`t precisely analyze how it`s done, hut done it is. We accept.) The four women who speak in the first person in the book`s four sections, each of which is named for a calendar date -Epiphany, Candlemas, Remembrance Day, St. Nicholas Day -- and are strongly individualized in attitude and voice. There is Marie Fontane, would-be flower child turned yuppie housewife, whose encounter with Jude is the most cruelly frustrating of all; Maud Gallant, a pianist whose life and career are completely wrecked by Jude; Elizabeth Holoub, an aging survivor whose past includes collaboration with both Communists and Nazis; and Veronique, Marie`s teenaged daughter, a shrewd little creature and the one least ready to be charmed, though she succumbs finally like all the others. What`s more, in their different ways they all sound and act and feel like women. And, though we eventually learn more about Jude`s early life and, as might be expected, it wasn`t good -- the brutality of his father, death of his twin brother -- we aren`t given a single incident and told We Must believe it was this that turned him the way he went. He simply walks off at the end of the book (quite literally vanishes), still a mystery to his friends, the women who love him, and to us. This, in my opinion, is one of the novel`s strengths -- one of many.
Also impressive is Poliquin`s ability to create a society and set it in motion, peopling it with human beings all busily engaged in living their own lives, such as Professor Pigeon, who finally comes into his own in retirement as a house-sitter for Rockcliffe residents. There are some wonderfully comic scenes -- among others, a midnight bacchanalia at the Museum of Man, of all places.
Franco Ontario writers have a field of their own -- a threatened, even fissured society that is not the society of the majority in this province (or in Quebec) -- which is just beginning to find its way into fiction. Visions de Jude should be read by all those who do not need to wait for translation, and should be translated into English as quickly as possible.