A Fin de SiFcle Tapestry Thunder and Light:
Translated by Nigel Spencer

by Marie-Claire Blais
190 pages,
ISBN: 0887841767

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Point de vue
by David Homel

Marie-Claire Blais, in her early sixties now, has been remarkably true to her vision from book to book, and that vision is of a tragic world delivered in fabulously lyrical prose. The crime rate may be falling (a dirty little secret our governments don't want us to know, because cultivating their citizens' collective sense of insecurity is one of their goals), but in Blais' fiction, man is still wolf to man¨and woman. The book opens: two boys, Carlos and Lazaro, barely teenagers, are locked in a squabble over a watch. The setting is Miami, or Key West, the latter being Blais' winter residence and one of her writing spots. A gun appears, a boy barely more than a child becomes a criminal, another child, a victim. The miracle in all this, and Blais' specialty, is that she can carry it all off with amazing lyrical deftness, and that in the end, you manage to feel good about the world where these things happen on a regular basis.

Marie-Claire Blais has something of a reputation in Quebec. She is supposed to be morbidly shy, and almost too delicate for this world. That gossip is far from the truth. In real life, she's generous and community-minded, while being one of those people whom the world's reality truly does touch. Though part of her reputation is justified: she cares nothing for literary convention, and believes that the reader should work as hard as she does.

The result is Thunder and Light, a 190-page-long paragraph with only the occasional period where the reader might stop. But it soon becomes clear that the reader does not really want to stop. Once you find your feet in this book and learn to be rocked and carried by its rhythms, which demands an act of surrender, you're in for the duration.

What goes on in this giant paragraph? The sensuality of decay, a love for the underdog, and a dazzling array of settings, often within the same sentence. A sparrow is caught in a prison of steel cables; it is a metaphorical sparrow, and stands for the many characters in this work, all from the margins, or heading that way. The ultimate subject is "victory or death, the millennium's only topic," as Blais has one of her figures say. Arnie, a choreographer, "frequently used deformed dancers, as long as they danced well, listen to the song of your body, Arnie told them, it's a hymn to beauty and danger." Beauty and danger¨Blais' favorite themes. No wonder she's so attracted to AIDS as a jumping-off point for her explorations.

At times there is an overly great insistence on the tragic aspect of all things. When a young woman named Jessica sets out to learn to fly, you just know her Cessna Cardinal is going to crash. And indeed it does. And hers is not the only plane crash in this book. But what keeps us going is the sheer variety of settings and characters, and also the amount of knowledge contained in Blais' writing. From the life of a pilgrim in Sri Lanka to di Chirico's painting, she knows a lot about a lot of things, and she weaves her knowledge effortlessly through her narrative.

Injustice is where Marie-Claire Blais returns to, especially racism, and she doesn't let us forget Doumadi, the African street vendor shot nineteen times in the Bronx by police officers; or those murderers who briefly sat in the electric chair, and from whose heads bursts of flame shot; or Our Lady of the Bags, a street person just trying to stay out of harm's way. But Blais' sense of justice never veers into self-righteous wailing, thanks to her lyrical pen. Without contradiction, I'd say she takes true sensual pleasure in the evocation of the world's ills.

This translation is, perhaps, less successful than previous English versions of Blais' work, though Nigel Spencer and she have worked well together in the past. "She had a constant need to combust and to flower," Spencer writes about one of Blais' women. At times the translator doesn't make a large enough leap away from the author's French. But then again, as a translator myself, I'd think twice before taking on a book this challenging!

I spoke to Marie-Claire Blais in Key West, Florida, where she is working on the third part of this trilogy (the first was These Festive Nights, focusing more on individual fates than collective ones). She knows she's often been accused of harbouring a dark vision, but replies that "it's a shame if people think that way, because in what I do, the rhythm of life always takes over." Besides, she points out, "the twentieth century is remarkably rich when it comes to human plagues." Then again, perhaps that can be said of every century.

Meanwhile, she goes on writing in Key West, ten minutes by bike from the sea, in a Spanish-style house with a hidden garden. Her community is helpful, she says, but reserved, and never invasive. The town must be full of literary ghosts, for it was the home of Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and others. For writers, it's always good to have a few ghosts around.

David Homel is a novelist whose most recent work is Get on Top (Stoddart).


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