||A Review of: The Mermaid of Paris
by Michael Greenstein
Cary Fagan never steps in the same river twice: The Mermaid of
Paris, his fourth novel, brims with history and surprises from 1900.
As inventive as his protagonist Henry Church, Fagan recreates a
period piece, unabashedly indebted to Turgenev and Doctorow, among
others. Set initially in small-town Ontario, the novel moves at a
brisk pace, beginning with the opening bicycle sequence, which
features one of Henry's inventions.
Cyclical and seasonal, the novel opens in the spring of 1900 with
an idyllic scene in rural Ontario. Henry speeds across his country
lawn on his monocycle and immediately crashes into a maple tree,
the first of many accidents in the novel. Though the mood is solemn
rather than slapstick, farcical undercurrents intrude at times in
the narrative. Yet Fagan is capable of Jamesian prose in the
description of the serene lawn scene, and more generally in the
Victorian/Edwardian atmosphere recreated in The Mermaid of Paris.
Henry's interest in aviation extends to birds as well, for he is
an amateur ornithologist who soon adopts a pet crow. Since the crow
or raven has by now become a clich of Canadian fiction, it is
difficult to determine whether Fagan employs this trickster fixture
as a means of parody or as a deus ex machina.
Henry's wife, Margaret, has also suffered accidents. Her brother
was killed in the Boer War, and before that she lost her mother in
a shipwreck, which she herself barely escaped. Ever since that
accident Margaret develops pains in her legs that mysteriously link
her to some kind of mermaid status, part of the novel's magic realism
and melodrama, as she often takes midnight dips in the river. Henry
tries to soothe her by reading Romantic and Victorian poetry to
her, but their sexual life together is completely unsatisfactory.
Henry manages his father-in-law's bicycle factory where unionizing
forces begin to play a role. One of the political undercurrents in
the novel is anarchism, and one of the Italian employees at Dawes
Bicycle Manufactury, Giancarlo Caporale, introduces Henry to the
works of Malatesta, Proudhon, and European anarchism.
"Summer 1900" opens with the heroic anti-hero speculating
on the superiority of inventors over poets, soldiers, and statesmen.
He remembers his childhood dreams of performing some heroic act,
or "of simply escaping, opening the window and lifting into
the air on wings made of paper and wax and feathers taken from
pillows." This Icarus levitation in turn opens the door to the
appearance of Count Anatole Belinsky, the world's strongest man,
also known as the human whale for his underwater endurance. The
entire town is mesmerized by Belinsky's performance, and he decides
to remain for the entire summer because he is attracted to Margaret.
"Fall 1900" introduces another exotic European figure,
Doctor Karl Fruhauf of the University of Vienna, who lectures in
Toronto on sexual deviancy. Henry consults this Freudian figure,
and when he returns home, he discovers that Belinsky has fled with
his wife to Europe. "Spring 1902" finds Henry amidst
anarchists down and out in Paris, as he desperately searches for
Margaret. To alleviate his despair, he fashions three puppets for
a play he stages: The Stolen Wife re-enacts the triangle of his
situation in the hopes that it will attract sufficient audiences
who will eventually lead him to the whereabouts of his wife and her
lover. Purely by chance, Henry discovers that Belinsky is also
performing simultaneously "The Mermaid of Paris" at another
theatre. Henry challenges the Russian count to an absurdist duel
The novel's penultimate section, "Summer 1902", reveals
that Belinsky has returned to Russia while Henry (with his right
hand wounded) wakes up in a small French village, where he is tended
by the family of Clothilde, his anarchist Parisian lover. Meanwhile,
Belinsky's peasants murder him on his estate.
In the final section, "Fall 1903", Henry experiments with
a flying machine that crashes. In the twilight between life and
death Henry thinks he sees Margaret: "She was not far, on a
rock rising out of the water some twenty yards out. The first line
of scales began just below her navel. She waved the fluke back and
forth." Fagan's novel is filled with flukes, and is on the
whole a successful period piece; his sleight of hand avoids being
slight of hand. The author's note at the end of the novel freely
acknowledges the influence of his betters-Turgenev, Doctorow,
Flaubert, and Marquez. Ultimately the novel's greatest mystery is
why its author-despite his "mots justes" and adherence
to "Mermaid Margaret, c'est moi"-fails to rise to the
achievement of these betters.