There is something to be said for starting a story up in the air. The thrilling in-between of travel is often accompanied by a freedom and licentiousness intensified by the sensation of being aloft, above-it-all. In A Fine Passage, France Daigle uses this open-bordered "airiness" to explore the ruminations and illuminations of a group of seemingly unconnected strangers as they travel, by plane, to various destinations, leaving behind personal commitments and conundrums. The novel, which is slim but far from insubstantial at 113 pages, was first published in its original French in 2001, by Les Editions du Boreal. House of Anansi's English version (translated by Robert Majzels, 2002) now brings Daigle's magical free-ranging story to an anglophone audience.
A Fine Passage opens with Claudia, a fifteen-year-old en route to visit her parents in Israel, seated next to an elderly man-of-the-cloth she dubs the pope-rabbi, who is eager to share his chocolate bar and engage her in a conversation regarding religious faith. Two and a half pages later the story jumps to two as-yet-nameless women in a nameless restaurant as they discuss a nameless man. (One of the women is later christened "the woman who smokes only in public"). Then we're back on the plane with Claudia, back to the women in the restaurant, and over to another of the plane's passengers, "the man who shows no sign of reading." Finally, Claudia, the man who shows no sign of reading, and a man named Terry, converge outside the plane's bathrooms, where Terry apologizes for his pregnant partner Carmen, who is busy vomiting inside one of the cubicles. In these first fifteen pages, we are also introduced to a nameless man/spirit who is occupying "the suicide wing" of some strange afterlife, and Hans, a San Franciscan in search of guidance. The fact that the novel is not grounded in particulars of place, and that sometimes the characters themselves remain nameless, without clear context, can be unsettling, but it also provides a small, not unpleasant readerly shake-up. Leap-frogging between short scenes gives the writing an observational, note-taking quality, which again, despite its immediacy and looseness, does not feel uncrafted.
Daigle does give her reader something to hang onto however; the novel is divided into sections named for the days of the week, and salient themes: Thursday, Organization; Tuesday, Attack; Friday, Love; Monday, Dreaming; Wednesday, Negotiation; Saturday, Evaluation; Sunday, Rest. These sections, as well as providing a structural framework, act as springboards for the characters' musings on the very nature and passage of the days themselves. Hans, who has an obsession with jigsaw puzzles, and his therapist¨a west coast flake who never lets him speak ("Don't answer. Answers are always wrong on Fridays. On Fridays our defences kick in.")¨have some real gems: "When he bought this second jigsaw puzzle, Hans was under the spell of a minor Tuesday psychosis: he was feeling particularly courageous, Plutonian, Chinese."
However, the real substance and charm of this book lie in the connections and conversations between its characters. The unusual alliance struck up between Claudia and the man who shows no signs of reading is particularly compelling. While they are both waiting for connecting flights in a Paris airport, they end up sharing both the confidences of outsiders in transit and a makeshift domesticity. Here, Daigle evokes not only her characters' spoken exchanges, but also the silences of their budding friendship: "They sat for a while, allowing themselves to be rocked by the comings and goings of the people in the restaurant." Eventually, the man who shows no signs of reading entrusts Claudia with a mysterious letter she must mail from Israel, and they part, each feeling they have played an important role in the other's journey. Terry and Carmen, perhaps the least esoteric of all Daigle's characters, are appealing for exactly this reason; they exude a true down-to-earth warmth and closeness, which is especially evident in the unaffected way they speak to each other throughout their vacation. Despite, or maybe because of, this closeness, Carmen and Terry agree to "lose each other" in order to have some time apart to explore the streets of Paris so that they might later reunite with fresh perspectives. Perhaps this is Daigle's point: her characters, through their interactions with each other, are able to "escape their own limits." If only marginally, or for a short while, they experience a sense of respite and possibility that is outside the humdrum quotidian, and very unlike the experience of the nameless and still despairing man/spirit who saw his life as "a kind of imprisonment, as though I was enclosed inside an airplane mid-flight."
Much in this tale is left unexplained, unmodified. Bits of wisdom are dropped into the narrative like pennies into a fountain; they glint up at the reader, mysterious, and we are never entirely sure where or who they've come from, or whether their wish or message will ever hit its intended mark. The rules that govern Daigle's world seem to rely on something bigger than coincidence but also more playful and porous than traditional notions of fate. The novel is full of anecdotal evidence and pieces of plot that, in the hands of a less assured writer, might simply devolve into meaninglessness. But Daigle's prose demonstrates a lightness of touch that belies her control over the material, and a lightness of spirit that recognizes, as does Claudia's pope-rabbi, that "Humour is almost as important as love." In this case it would be remiss not to credit translator Majzels. When the woman who only smokes in public "lacks the energy to tilt against clichTs," we are reminded of the value of a surprising yet unstilted turn of phrase. A Fine Passage is everything its title promises. It is a "passage": a course, an opening, a ritual. But it is also undoubtedly "fine": elegant, delicate, and subtle. ˛
Heather Birrell's work appears in She Writes: Love, Spaghetti, and Other Stories by Youngish Women.