The Secret Voice

by Gaetan Brulotte,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0889840970

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by Nino Ricci

THIS COLLECTION of short fiction by the Quebec writer Gaetan Brulotte was widely acclaimed when it appeared in French as Le surveillant in 1982, winning the Prix Adrienne-Choquette and the Prix FranceQuebec as well as being nominated for the Governor General`s Award. Certainly there is Much to be commended here: the writing moves easily from the wryly humorous to the rapturous, and Brulotte possesses a Kafkaesque flair for pushing the mundane into the realm of the menacing and the absurd. But despite moments of sharp insight and occasional passages that seem almost to glow with the exuberance Brulotte invests in their), the stories too often fall short of their promise: Brulotte Seems anxious to tender their meanings like the morals at the ends of fables. In fact, most of the pieces within the collection are not so much stories as moral allegories. In "The Sentry," a man devotes his life to guarding a stretch of broken-down %%,all whose purpose he is never told, until a breach of regulations -he is caught making notes for his memoirs -- leads to his dismissal; in "The Locks," a maintenance man spends all his working time, owing to various complicated decisions by his employers, placing, removing, and replacing combination locks on the lockers in a factory changingroom, until finally his employers decide to sell the locks directly to the workers and his job becomes redundant; in "The Open Cage," a couple who have long dreamed of escaping winter by vacationing in the tropics find that the reality is merely an extended series of frustrations and disappointments. Such use of allegorical situations is typical of Quebecois fiction, which has tended to eschew straightforward realism in favour of characters and detail chosen for their symbolic or emblematic value. But a danger of this sort of writing, one that Brulotte often Succumbs to, is that it can too easily become reductive, all paths leading finally to a single inevitable meaning. In "Exaltation," which is cast in the form of a courtroom defense, the narrator makes a passionate plea for his right to be far from the call of desire and the slurp of the everyday, from the mists of mystification and the ridiculous parade of passing problems, far from the proprieties, restrictions, measurements, far from the common rhythms and mechanical birth of concepts. But though Brulotte Succeeds in transcending "the slurp of the everyday:` the story`s ending, in which the presiding judge orders that the narrator he locked UP, seems too much the heavy-handed declaration of an Unoriginal insight, the inability of the Status quo to tolerate dissension or difference. In "The Directions," the story in the collection that most clearly Suggests Kafka, a garrulous clerk at the information desk of a labyrinthine modern building Unfolds an ominous description of the building`s complexity to a visitor who has asked directions; but while in Kafka we get a vivid sense of how complexities undermine finally the lives of his characters, here the characters are merely vehicles for what ends up seeming an elaborate joke -- the visitor, it turns Out, is only looking for a rest room. Brulotte`s point about "the mists of mystification" that have complicated the simplest of daily functions is well taken, but it is also too facilely made. The story, finally, lacks the haunting quality that a more subtle exploration of its theme might have produced. If any theme unites the pieces in this collection it is the tyranny of the mundane, a tyranny to which society acquiesces in its obsession with propriety and order. What Brulotte charts is not only the deforming effect of this tyranny but the possibility of its rupture, of the flagrant, reckless act that can suddenly break through it, as in the collection`s final story, "All Aboard," where a character travelling to see his dying mother runs off instead with a woman he has met on the station platform. Such acute tension between the oppressive and the liberating is also a familiar trait of Quebecois writing, and political parallels immediately suggest themselves; and though Brulotte himself never specifically alludes to any recognizable political context, obviously he is drawing from sources informed by one. But even seen within such a context, too many of the stories in the collection read more like demonstrations of Brulotte`s themes than explorations of them, and I often found myself wishing that Brulotte had allowed his material more of the freedom that it preaches

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