Moncton in the 1970s was a racy place for Gerald Leblanc. Leblanc's essentially autobiographical novel Moncton Mantra (Translated by Jo-Anne Elder, Guernica Editions, 124 pages, $15.00, paper, ISBN: 1550711369) details the bumpy road of a young Acadian writer coming to be amidst obstacles aplenty.
Moncton Mantra is intended to explore the identity struggle Leblanc experienced in his youth. Fresh out of high school and full of angst, protagonist Alain begins study at the University of New Brunswick in 1971, longing for answers to rhetorical questions. At the university, Alain meets like-minded peers, who share his contempt for Anglophones and the QuTbTcois. Distracted from his studies by abounding enthusiasm to share experiences with the inspiring people he meets, Alain inevitably succumbs to the lure of sex, drugs and rock and roll, consequently terminating his scholastic career.
For the remainder of the book the narrative is cyclical. Alain longs to be a writer and vows to himself he will adhere to a strict regime of reading and writing in order to achieve this goal. Periods of counter-productivity occur when he falls prey to newly formed habits during depressive states induced by the melodrama of his homosexual trysts. Once the hard reality of impoverishment hits, Alain takes on temporary jobs until he is eligible for welfare, and can return to writing. But even then he is plagued by a paralyzing fear of having anyone else read his work.
Moncton Mantra might have been fascinating had the author tried to be less pragmatic. The short novel introduces over fifty characters with sparse and erratic development, rendering few of them memorable or significant. With Leblanc listing every address in Moncton Alain inhabited in chronological order, the insignificant details grow tedious.
More perplexing is the absence of Alain's struggle to explore his Acadian identity. The book commences with Alain stating, "I started to think seriously about these concepts, about what made me Acadianā I would have travelled to the ends of the earth to try to understand my feelingsā" Disappointingly, references to this quest are sparse in the text, until the chronological details are tied into a climactic whirlwind of conclusions. Also notably strange is Alain's nonchalant attitude towards his homosexuality. It seems unrealistic one would feel more isolated for being Acadian than for being a homosexual, especially in a time and place of little tolerance.
It is plausible that much of Moncton Mantra's magic has been lost in the translation. The tale brims with Acadian terminology and names, and might be more meaningful to the reader if left in a francophone context. In English, the novel's central character has adopted, perhaps unintentionally, the tone of an unscrupulous braggart, indulging in an irresponsible youth. And what could have been a fascinating study of an emerging writer, has unfortunately been obscured amidst an unrelenting barrage of details. ō