mRb Montreal Review of Books Tue, 20 Jun 2017 19:21:46 +0000 en-CA hourly 1 34066144 The Tundra at last Wed, 07 Jun 2017 13:00:52 +0000 Resound my heart
Your music, the river
Your light, the stars
Your carpet, the lichen’s tender green
The Tundra at last
Resound my heart
Your music, the river
Your light, the stars
Your carpet, the lichen’s tender green
I cannot y but you bear me in your arms
Your vision goes beyond time
This night I have no more pain
The city beguiles me no more Mushuau-auass
Natuta nit
Ship nikamuat
Utshekatakuat tshuashtenamakuat
Tshitakushkaten uapitsheushkamiku
Tshipapamipanin tshishikut
Tshititutein anite tshe nikan-tshissenitaman
Uetakussiti apu kassenitaman
Ninakaten utenau


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Hostage Thu, 18 May 2017 18:22:41 +0000 Guy Delisle made his name by spinning a modern variation on the theme of the innocent abroad. Making the most of his role as a househusband accompanying his NGO-employed wife on extended international assignments, the Quebec-born, France-based cartoonist and filmmaker took notes and made sketches about his experience getting to grips – or failing to, as the case may have been – with a series of foreign places and cultures. The result was a string of books – Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Burma Chronicles, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City – that attracted a large and devoted following.

Having shown, using first-hand experience, how a visitor’s best intentions can go awry, Delisle now tells someone else’s story of the same scenario taken to an alarming extreme. Hostage is the account, as told to Delisle, of how a Doctors Without Borders worker in Nazran, Russia, was kidnapped by Chechen rebels in 1997 and held for three months in an undisclosed location. And there, handcuffed to a radiator in a bare room with a boarded-up window, trying to maintain hope, is where we find Christophe André for most of this remarkable book’s 400-plus pages.

Guy Delisle
Translated by Helge Dascher

Drawn & Quarterly

By plunging us straight into André’s crisis and limiting us to his perspective, Delisle sets himself some daunting challenges. How do you convey monotony, that least dramatic of concepts, in a way that is somehow dramatic? How do you represent the passage of time when all the usual markers have been taken away? Finally, given that it’s a true story and we know André is now free and alive, how do you sustain narrative tension?

The solutions, for Delisle, are both visual and textual. Hostage employs a very different look from the one Delisle’s readers have come to expect. Realistically rendered settings populated by highly stylized human figures were the norm, but now the contrast has been smoothed out and the people made less cartoonish, which is fitting for a story with very little scope for the comical.

For whole pages at a stretch panels are rendered in tones so dark you have to strain to see the images within them, but that is the point: André had to strain, too. At times we see literally what he saw: the corner of a ceiling at an askew angle, a bare, dangling light bulb, nothing at all. He’s in a vulnerable state where almost anything can take on the darkest implications, or be spun into cause for desperate hope. One of his captors appears in the doorway holding a small knife, but he may just have been absentmindedly holding the same innocuous implement he had just used to butter his toast. And so it continues, with no end in sight.

Big as this fifteen-years-in-the-making book is, its relative paucity of text means that it can be worked through fairly quickly. But readers are best advised to take it slow. Linger over it, contemplate these images, even if many of them might appear nearly identical to the ones that precede and follow.

For a true story with historical and geopolitical ramifications, Hostage is light on context, and some Chester Brown-style endnotes beyond the bare-bones epilogue might have been useful in filling out the picture. The Chechens in the story remain ciphers, and many questions are left dangling. What is the role of the seldom-glimpsed woman in the house where André is being held? How would a child at home feel about stumbling onto the knowledge that a man is handcuffed in a room down the hall?

We never do find out, and are left to work out the story’s political implications for ourselves. But to ask for the answers is, in effect, to ask for a different book. Delisle has set himself a strict set of parameters, and, within his remit, he succeeds completely. More than telling a gripping story, Hostage opens up whole new possibilities for where Delisle might go next. mRb

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Spacetime Wed, 03 May 2017 07:15:18 +0000 We Twitter, Tinder, Tumblr through eternity. Loquacious
text messages flit from fingertips, waves of data spill
through our skulls. Every cm2 of oxygen overflowing
with bank PINs, girls in yoga pants, the frequencies
of whale cries. Digital clouds brim with selfies and rain
videos on how to cook coconut shrimp. Sepia filtered
photographs prowl for leaks in blood brain barriers. Outside
our windows tree roots evolve into wires and trilling birds
sing the world electric. Every night we Facetime kiss perfect
glass lips before bed and utter our sincerest prayers to our daily
blogs. We travel the world from screen to screen (breast
to breast incognito.) The shortest distance between
home and work is a TV episode. Each hour is twenty songs.
We have lived a hundred lives in a breath and court ten lonely
women with a click. Emails trundle on invisible tracks of sky,
racing sexting winks and viral videos for our attention. Air
is composed of pixels and a radio bleeds white static. The world’s
digital heartbeat only slows when I face the empty stare of a dead
battery. A boy on the subway scans my image without blinking.
Women download my face in a glance. A minute is tortured.
Lifetimes breed under each fingernail and wait to explode.

Polynya Mon, 24 Apr 2017 19:52:04 +0000 With the continuing popularity of Scandinavian noir, it was only a matter of time before someone tried their hand at outright Arctic noir. With her second novel Polynya, Montreal author Mélanie Vincelette gamely steps up to the plate with a murder mystery – of sorts – set in Nunavut. Published in French in 2011, this Governor General’s Award nominee is only now appearing in English.

Ambroise, a cook at a gold mine on Baffin Island, is crushed when his brother, Rosaire, is found dead in an Iqaluit hotel room. There’s only one suspect – Rosaire’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, local star stripper Lumi – and a mysterious phrase is found written on his arm: “The Chinese discovered America.”

Ambroise suspects that the local police are taking the easy way out by accusing Lumi and Vincelette teases out the connections between a host of colourful characters as Ambroise struggles to find out more about the murder: Lumi’s rival stripper Marie-Perle; Marcelline, a researcher and Ambroise’s unrequited love interest; Inuit pilot Tommy (also a rival for Marcelline’s affections); the mine’s owner, flamboyant French aristocrat Brixe de Saxe Marjolique (who, like Charlie Brown, is inexplicably yet humorously almost always referred to by his full name), and others. The characters are drawn in broad strokes, but as Ambroise declares: “In the North, people are always larger than life.”

Mélanie Vincelette
Translated by Shiela Fischmann and Donald Winkler

Mosaic Press

I say that the novel is a murder mystery “of sorts” because it’s more than that – and yet less. There’s a mystery, but the tightly woven plots and breath-catching thrills of the typical crime thriller are not to be found here. The story is constructed around a murder, but loosely. The structure is a skeletal one, onto which Vincelette hangs her poetic turns of phrase, abstract metaphors, and arresting Arctic imagery.

At times the prose is awkward or halting. I might have suspected a dicey translation, but with the local super-team of Sheila Fischman and Donald Winkler (both multiple award winners for their translations of Quebec novels to English), I have to assume that every choice is a deliberate one to reflect the style of the original. The self-deprecating Ambroise often talks about being hesitant, feeling inarticulate, or lacking insight, so perhaps the occasional peculiar phrasing is meant to reflect his inner state.

The plot contains a lot of threads that Vincelette leaves hanging, including a fairly spectacular scene near the book’s halfway point in which Ambroise gets word that a man jumped out of an aircraft in flight, with a hostage in tow. But having set up this intriguing action piece, Vincelette never returns to it; presumably it’s one of several red herrings to keep the reader guessing.

In a way, the book is as much a romance as it is a mystery, with a lot of time spent on Ambroise’s melancholy longing both for his lost brother and for Marcelline. Pining in jealous self-pity, Ambroise imagines murdering Tommy over their romantic rivalry: “As a final despairing gesture I’d write her a farewell letter in mustard on the wall of my prison cell.” The mustard is a nice touch, and key to Vincelette’s style: cutting through the melodrama with a touch of absurdity, the kind of dark, understated humour you might miss at first glance.

“To survive in the Arctic you have to tell great stories,” Ambroise states. “Our only capital is our legends, skillfully contrived.” And Vincelette spins some great yarns here. The way they’re woven together is more poetic than narrative per se, and throughout, her vivid phrases evoke how history, global politics, geography, and especially weather dominate the collective psyche of the far north.

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Job Opportunity at mRb Thu, 06 Apr 2017 15:07:02 +0000

Are you passionate about books, high-quality writing, and serial commas? Then we want to hear from you! Join the team putting together the only journal reviewing English-language books from Quebec.

The Montreal Review of Books seeks an experienced and dynamic Associate Editor to work with the Editor and Publisher on all aspects of the journal. The Associate Editor participates primarily in selecting books for review, commissioning reviews, and working closely with reviewers on substantive and copy editing. Other areas of focus include social media and website development, event planning, and distribution.

The successful candidate will, above all, have excellent knowledge of English, proven editing skills, and familiarity with editorial standards and practices. Other essential traits include a keen eye for detail, excellent time management skills, experience with online engagement, diplomacy, and the ability to work autonomously and as part of a team. Knowledge of the local and national literary landscape is an important asset.

This is a part-time position; 3 to 15 hours per week, with peak periods of activity that may exceed these hours leading up to publication dates (July, November, March), and occasional weeks off outside of active production periods. The majority of work can be done at home, with obligatory meetings taking place a few times a year. Remuneration for this position is $17.50/hour.

Deadline to apply: April 24

Interested applicants should send cover letter, resume, and editing samples to Only those selected for an interview will be contacted.

Tabagie Arsenault, 1920–1972 Mon, 03 Apr 2017 03:00:29 +0000 Arsenault’s Tobacco Magazines Novelties is closing:
everyone has locked arms and is dancing.
The Arsenaults have given away flags, trinkets,
greeting cards from the ’40s. Everyone dances
so that the floor shakes like the floor of a boat
while musicians huddle in a corner,
hardly noticing the audience,
and young men shouldering film cameras
as they circle the dancers
record for reasons known to film students
a rum bottle changing hands,
the singer’s face, the girl next to me,
her blue eyelids and fingernails —
and there’s a small dog here unseen by the cameras;
as the floor shakes, as the floor rolls, he jumps
straight up and barks at the noise everywhere.

Accordéon Fri, 17 Mar 2017 04:18:41 +0000 Standing on the stage at Casa del Popolo, surrounded by blinking sound mixers and effects controllers, Kaie Kellough begins reading from his debut novel Accordéon in a low, even tone. It is a snowy night in late January, but the dimly lit room is warm and full of affection for the Montreal poet and self-identified word-sound systemizer. Soon a recording of Kellough’s own voice reading the novel overtakes him. The live sound performance intersperses distortion and other effects, at times contorting the recorded voice, an unnamed Montrealer’s anxious monologue about the city. Audience members nod their heads in agreement, laugh, and finally erupt into applause.

It was an ideal launch for a book that practically leaps off the page, its long careening passages and rhythmic, precise language demanding to be spoken. It also revealed the seamless connection between Kellough’s ongoing work as a poet and performer and this, his first foray into fiction.

Accordéon is a smart experimental novel with a timely message. Our narrator is an anonymous itinerant who stands downtown, at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Mathieu Streets, delivering monologues mostly ignored by passersby. Having come to the attention of the ominous Ministry of Culture, which seeks to catalogue and thereby shape and control Quebec culture, the narrator has been kidnapped and their monologues have become testimony about the state of Quebec society. What readers have before them is a transcript, sporadically annotated by three ministry agents, each of whom has their own ideas about national culture.

Kaie Kellough, author of Accordéon, was photographed at Monastiraki in Montreal by Terence Byrnes for our Spring 2017 cover story.

Over espresso in Little Italy the week before his book launch, Kellough tells me the novel was inspired by events of the recent past, particularly the tensions that exploded around the proposed Charter of Values. “That whole moment was very dramatic and I think it really resonated deeply with a lot of people in Montreal,” Kellough says. “It was an attempt to curate a vision of society, down to reaching into people’s personal lives.” Readers in Quebec will recognize the fictional Ministry of Culture as a thinly veiled version of efforts by the real government to police acceptable forms of cultural expression. Kellough imagines his narrator as someone who has been acutely affected by these conflicts, and whose testimony dramatizes the tensions of contemporary Quebec.

Kellough, who has lived in Montreal since 1998, was born in Vancouver and grew up in Calgary with family roots in Guyana. He tells me much of his work has been concerned with how people move – or are restricted from moving – through the city. People of colour, immigrants, and particularly those without citizenship, experience Montreal very differently from white, middle-class Quebeckers. Kellough says he wanted Accordéon to express the “presence and contributions that different people have made to the society we live in” but also to highlight that “people’s positions are often very precarious.” Montreal is not one place but many. Early on, the narrator of Accordéon declares their monologue “is about the city right now, as a dynamic entity.” It is this dynamism – the sense of a city narrated in multiple registers – that drives the novel. While the Ministry of Culture wishes to isolate one true version, Accordéon reads as a counter-archive, emphasizing the multivocality of Montreal.

Kaie Kellough

ARP Books

The conversation that emerges among the annotators creates the book’s forward narrative motion, but the testimony itself is non-linear, a series of looping, self-reflexive fragments full of non sequiturs, sense and nonsense, a clairvoyant stream-of-consciousness that weaves details from the present into those of the distant and recent past. The narrator insists that everything in the history of the province is happening at the same time – has happened and is still happening. The ease with which Kellough blends past and present is extraordinary; the first two pages of the novel left me breathless. They include references to buying moisturizer at Jean Coutu, the Plains of Abraham, the École Polytechnique massacre, the martyrdom of Brébeuf and Lalemant, a video posted to YouTube of an Arab boy being beaten by police on the metro, the fur trade, the student strike, and the mythical chasse-galerie, or flying canoe, soaring over the city.

Countless references to real historical and contemporary people, places, and details in Montreal litter the prose. These are not characters or settings; rather, they are invocations that energize the psychogeography of the novel. Anarchopanda, Bixi, Marie-Joseph Angélique, Fredy Villanueva, Ellen Gabriel, Nomadic Massive, Lafleur, Pop Montreal, Jaggi Singh, Stéfanie Trudeau, the list goes on and on.

“I didn’t set out deliberately to include certain people or entities,” Kellough tells me. “They appeared naturally. They are part of the popular imagination of Quebec, like cultural landmarks. And they also stand for more than themselves. They’re like little chaos machines in a narrative, because you never know how they’re going to explode.” Depending on a reader’s personal history, certain names will bring to mind any number of memories, emotions, or ideas. “That adds additional sub-narratives and subplots I might not have intended.”

“[Certain people and entities] are part of the popular imagination of Quebec, like cultural landmarks. And they also stand for more than themselves. They’re like little chaos machines in a narrative, because you never know how they’re going to explode.”

Among the historical and contemporary figures who appear in Accordéon are numerous Montreal writers, whose presence has a particular resonance. For instance, an early scene in which the narrator sees Dany Laferrière floating through a metro station evocatively mirrors Laferrière’s own description of seeing Henry Miller in How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired. But Kellough also had a more prosaic reason for including it: it really happened. “I saw him – in the metro,” he tells me with a laugh. “People in the arts in Quebec are part of the physical landscape of Montreal. Montreal’s a small place. So that’s part of the reason for putting them in the book: you will run into them.” Throughout the book, this combination of playful intertextuality with fantastical elements and realistic details of contemporary Montreal – a short scene in which the narrator eats a croissant is magnificent – underscores Kellough’s ingenuity and thoughtfulness as a writer and is among the great joys of the novel.

Kellough mentions Nelly Arcan, Hubert Aquin, and sound poet Claude Gauvreau as Montreal writers whose work he admires, but he is more inclined to position his own writing in a broader tradition of African American and Caribbean poetry. Kamau Brathwaite and Harryette Mullen are among his favourite writers, and the label word-sound systemizer comes from Jamaican dub poetry. He also feels a kinship with Laferrière: “he was an immigrant, living here, and a writer, and I kind of identify with that. I’m not from Quebec, but also part of my family is not from Canada either. So I feel like I’m an outsider here writing within and about this culture, and he was in a similar position.”

The many voices of the outsider are central to Accordéon. This finds its clearest expression in recurring stories about the flying canoe, which Kellough represents as an Indigenous technology and a decolonial space, rather than beholden to Quebec mythology. The numerous canoe trips – diverse collections of people paddling up and over the moon – include some of the most lyrical writing in the book. Importantly, the canoe also confounds the annotators from the Ministry of Culture. Whereas we’re told “one of the main functions of the Ministry is to maintain a hierarchy among narratives,” in Kellough’s version of the canoe, “all stories are equal.” “The flying canoe baffles them,” Kellough tells me. “They lose their proprietary hold over Quebecois culture.”

Kellough’s vision of the canoe is embodied by Accordéon. It is a remarkable work of experimental fiction that pushes back against those who would forward a singular narrative of this unabashedly contradictory city, celebrating instead the messy multiplicity of Montreal.

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Arabic for Beginners Fri, 17 Mar 2017 04:17:32 +0000 Israel has always been a complicated place. With the occupation of the Palestinian territories entering its fiftieth year and the most right-wing, racially divisive, and pro-settler government in Israeli history poised to retain power in the upcoming elections, it’s more complicated than ever.

Arabic for Beginners is Montreal writer and scholar Ariela Freedman’s attempt to explain some of these complexities. Which is not to say that she simplifies things. Her book is a nuanced and penetrating exploration of life in Israel today. Billed on its cover as a novel, Arabic for Beginners reads more like a memoir than fiction. But whatever the genre, it’s well worth reading.

Its genesis was a year Freedman spent with her young family on sabbatical in Jerusalem in 2008–2009. Freedman had visited Israel as a child and adolescent, but now, returning as an adult after a long absence, she found herself experiencing two versions of the country: the Israel of her youthful, idealizing imagination and the country actually before her. Contradictory feelings of intimacy and ambivalence, connection and distance, compelled her to sit down and write.

From the start, form was an issue. What kind of book could possibly contain all of the conflicting experiences, memories, and ideas assailing her? Freedman, who teaches modernist literature at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College, took inspiration from Samuel Beckett. “He has this phrase I love about finding a shape to accommodate the mess,” she tells me over tea in a west-end Montreal café.

Arabic for Beginners
Ariela Freedman

Linda Leith Publishing

The shape she eventually found for her book is borderless, which is ironic given her subject matter: a country where lines in the sand are sacrosanct. Arabic for Beginners is part of the current literary trend of genre-crossing. “I read a lot of autofiction,” she explains, “writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, and Rachel Cusk, who shift between memoir and fiction and also incorporate other genres in their writing, like art criticism and travel literature. I wanted the plasticity of fiction, the ability to create composite characters, to shift timelines, to invent.”

At the centre of this shape-shifting fictional narrative is Hannah, a thirty-four-year-old PhD student from Montreal, who, in a slight twist of fact from the author’s own life, follows her professor-husband to Jerusalem, where he’s been invited to teach for the year. Hannah’s own career is on hold, sidelined by childbirth and motherhood.

She enrolls her youngest son in “The Peace Preschool,” an institution located in West Jerusalem that boasts Muslim and Jewish students and a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic curriculum. Hannah is Jewish. She speaks Hebrew but is keen to lear Palestinian Arabic and to have her sons learn it too. As it turns out, Arabic has been dropped from the curriculum. Not enough Arab children attend the school to warrant it, and the local Jewish and Christian families aren’t interested.

Hannah befriends one of the few Palestinian mothers at the school, Jenna al-Masri, ten years her junior with three children already in tow. Friendships between Arabs and Jews are rare, Hannah learns. She also learns why.

The first barrier is language. People aren’t offered the tools to communicate. After scouring the city, Hannah discovers that it is “oddly difficult to find beginner Arabic classes in Jerusalem.”

It turns out that Israel’s Jewish and Arab school systems are segregated. From a young age, Jews and Arabs are separated physically from each other. And within their separate schools, second-language training is low on the priority list. “A child growing up in West Jerusalem will learn only rudimentary Arabic,” Freedman says, “while one in East Jerusalem may not learn Hebrew at all.”

Soldiers in the Israeli army are required to learn a little Arabic. But what they learn isn’t exactly conducive to amicable relationships. Machsomite, it is called: “Checkpoint language.” Machsomite consists “only of commands,” Freedman writes. “‘Open your bag. Take the car seat out of the car. Step outside. Hands up.’”

The Arabic Hannah ends up studying, once she manages to locate a teacher, is a more inviting, poetic language than the one the soldiers speak. She delights in “the many modes of greeting: ‘good morning,’ ‘bright morning,’ ‘rose morning,’ ‘jasmine morning,’” and appreciates that “when someone fed you, you ‘blessed their hands.’”

“The kinds of encounters that people had enjoyed for more than a generation with their neighbours disappeared. … When the Wall was built, all these natural humanizing encounters ended.”

The second barrier separating Arabs from Jews is literal: a seven-hundred-kilometre wall running along the Green line in the West Bank. “The Wall was built to improve security,” Freedman explains, “and in certain ways it succeeded. But at a price. The kinds of encounters that people had enjoyed for more than a generation with their neighbours disappeared. There were all kinds of other really serious consequences to the Wall, but that was the one that concerned me. You couldn’t visit anymore. You couldn’t see people. When the Wall was built, all these natural humanizing encounters ended.”

Hannah’s movements are not curtailed the way those of an Israeli or a Palestinian would be. Thanks to a Canadian passport, she is able to explore cities in the West Bank like Bethlehem and Ramallah, and visit Jenna’s home in East Jerusalem. On these trips, she meets people, listens to their stories, and shares her own in faltering Arabic.

As the months go by, her friendship with Jenna deepens, despite the fact that she and Jenna have little in common except for motherhood. Relentlessly curious, hyper-educated, ironic Hannah sometimes wonders what she is doing with an uninstructed woman full of unexamined superstitions. And Jenna’s mothering style appalls her. Jenna routinely gives her kids Red Bull energy drink in their baby bottles, refuses to strap them in while driving, and smokes like a chimney in front of them.

By comparison, Hannah and her friends back home in North America are a bunch of perfectionists, mashing only the best ingredients for baby food, installing water filters on their taps and all manner of safety gadgets in their homes. Eventually Hannah concedes the delusional nature of these efforts. “The organic baby food and the obsessive baby proofing had the quality of magical thinking,” she admits. “We might as well have hung charms against the evil eye on their doors, or tied red strings around their chubby wrists.”

When war breaks out in Gaza, the truth of human vulnerability hits home for Hannah. During three weeks of Israeli bombardments, she is stunned by the devastation she witnesses, and by how “the flattened buildings of Gaza City, the children without water, the hundreds – soon over a thousand – Palestinians dead,” go unreported in the local news.

When asked how much has changed since the events recorded in her book, Freedman averts her eyes. “I wish I felt that more had changed. Netanyahu, who was elected for a second mandate in 2009, is still in power. Abbas has been Palestinian President since 2005. The Gaza wars seem less like separate conflicts than the resumption of an existing one, with periods between not of peace, but stalemate. It’s been an extremely interstitial period, with flare-ups of conflict and terror. The longer things don’t change,” she adds, “the harder it is to imagine change.”

Despite the current political climate in Israel, Freedman remains hopeful that peaceful coexistence is possible. Arabic for Beginners hints at what is needed for that hope to be realized.

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Tumbleweed Fri, 17 Mar 2017 04:16:16 +0000 In the title story of Josip Novakovich’s new collection, a Croatian immigrant, near-indigent after failing to secure expected seasonal employment, hitches a ride with a drunk driver in the American Midwest, gets drunk himself, and winds up in a small-town jail. If this is an allegory for the immigrant experience in contemporary America, with the titular weed serving as a metaphor for the transplant who can’t quite find purchase in new soil, the image it calls to mind looks a lot closer to a scowling Donald Trump than to the Statue of Liberty.

The prolific Novakovich, a Montreal resident and professor of creative writing at Concordia University, left his native Croatia in 1976 and had a lengthy odyssey through American academia, garnering multiple literary accolades before moving to Canada in 2009. His profile was given a considerable boost in 2013 when he was named a Man Booker International Prize finalist; the honour brought added attention to 2015’s Ex-Yu, a stylistically varied collection unified by the common thread of war and exile.

Tumbleweed at first appears to be a logical continuation: when an introductory vignette set in Belgrade is followed by the story described above, it seems we’re in for another collection of finely wrought tales spinning variations on what is probably the central theme in contemporary world literature. But then, quite unexpectedly, comes a long sequence of stories, broken up by a few interstitial bits of autofiction, where the focus is on animals: a rat in a squalid New York apartment shared by music students in “Strings”; another rat in another home, this one granted a first-person voice in “My Hairs Stood Up”; an unspayed rural troublemaking cat in “Byeli: The Definitive Biography of a Nebraskan Tomcat”; a cat named for a Soviet dictator in “Stalin’s Perspective”; a far-ranging farm dog in “Son of a Gun”; a ram named for a head-butting soccer immortal in “Zidane the Ram”; and an orphaned kitten saved from the streets of St. Petersburg in “A Cat Named Sobaka.”

Josip Novakovich

Esplande Books

It’s an unconventional strategy, and a risky one. But Novakovich, equipped with a deep writer’s arsenal – a sharp eye for the telling detail, a subtly rhythmic prose style remarkable for a non-native English writer, deadpan humour – makes it work. You can expend as much energy as you like looking for hidden meanings here. Are the narrators of these tales, men whose backstories in most cases resemble the author’s in significant ways, sublimating their new-arrival anxieties by obsessing on their pets? That’s for readers to decide, or at least to mull over. Rest assured, though, that a more literal reading can be just as rewarding. This reviewer, for one, has seldom felt so invested in the emotional well-being of dogs, cats, rats, and sheep.

“They’re a mirror for humans. How we treat animals tells us a lot about what kind of people we are. I also think animals have adventurous lives.”

“They tell us about us,” says Novakovich in a Laurier Avenue café near his Plateau home. The subject is animals and their profusion in Tumbleweed. “They’re a mirror for humans. How we treat animals tells us a lot about what kind of people we are. I also think animals have adventurous lives. If you really follow what an animal does, you’ll have a lot of stories to tell. I’m in favour of total freedom, and when I was living in some of these isolated settings I couldn’t have it, but my animals could. They were living my dream in a way. We live such sublimated, unspontaneous lives, so it’s admirable to see an alternative – something that is actually in us, after all. We’re all animals inside.”

It should be pointed out that the menagerie thins out a bit toward the end of the collection. “Crossbar,” about the aftermath of a hotly contested soccer match in Zagreb, is a study in the pathology of sports fandom that’s all the more effective for having been written by an actual sports fan. Until the scene that involves a beheading, it actually had me thinking it might be a true story. (And even here animals play a part, in this case two bears in a zoo.)

The closing story, “Café Sarajevo,” named for the now-defunct establishment in Montreal’s Petite-Patrie, is an affecting retelling of an encounter with a fellow émigré, a man who had remained in Sarajevo throughout the siege despite being a Serb, and who now suffers a form of PTSD, walking the streets of his new city eight hours or more every day because he can’t stand confinement. The image of two former Yugoslavians being unsure of the other’s ethnicity is a poignant one. “It’s kind of symbolic that there was a Café Sarajevo here and now there is just its ghost,” said Novakovich. “There also used to be a Serbian café. A couple of Slovenian delis still exist, but in general there aren’t enough people from the former Yugoslavia to maintain an ethnic business like that.”

“It’s kind of symbolic that there was a Café Sarajevo here and now there is just its ghost.”

As an established writer with a growing profile, does Novakovich ever feel himself perceived as a putative spokesperson for Croatians in North America? “During the war, maybe,” he tells me, “when I was in the States and Croatia was in real trouble and really did need people speaking for it. NPR once called me, but they didn’t call me back. Esquire was going to send me to write a story, but they ended up sending a Brit, I think because they were concerned that they were going to get a biased view. There was a lot of that at the time – people deciding they would rather have unbiased ignorance than biased knowledge on the subject.”

For Novakovich, having what amounts to a pre-sold readership, even if it’s not a huge one, comes with advantages and disadvantages. “Publishers always ask ‘What’s your platform?’ and if you have an ethnic audience, that’s a plus,” he said. “But I don’t always get along with the community. Promoting Ex-Yu in Toronto didn’t turn out well. I was asked to do a talk as well as a reading, and in that talk I quoted (Samuel) Johnson saying, ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ As far as I’m concerned, first be a good human, then be good at what you do, then worry about the other stuff. The best Croatian is someone who’s a bad Croatian. They didn’t like that. I sold six books before the speech, and none after.”

Novakovich has written relatively little fiction set in his adopted country, but says that may well change: “Sometimes it takes years before you feel you are ready.” In the meantime, he’s keeping up his exemplary pace. Not long after we met he was due to leave for a six-week writing retreat in Bulgaria, where four of his books have been translated; while there he’ll be making side trips to some old Croatian haunts and doing revisions on an almost-finished novel set in Putin’s Russia. But for all his international interests, he’s looking settled in Montreal: he obtained Canadian citizenship three years ago and even wrote a book of essays, Shopping for a Better Country, about the process. Choosing against our southern neighbour may not have been easy at the time, but it’s a decision he doesn’t regret. “Trump has made Canada great again. If I had any doubts about being here, they’ve been lessened.”

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In on the Great Joke Fri, 17 Mar 2017 04:15:17 +0000 “Right words sound wrong,” Laura Broadbent opens in her latest book, In on the Great Joke. Borrowing Lao Tzu’s words, Broadbent explores this “wrongness” of language, its limits, mistranslations, and shortcomings.

Underpinning the collection is the problematic first line of the Tao Te Ching, which poses a number of paradoxes. Firstly, Lao Tzu tells us right off the bat that the Tao (or “Way,” referring to the mysterious, essential process and structure of the universe) cannot be named. Language, as Broadbent remarks, “is a limited system.” If there is already an inherent disjunction between the word and the thing, or naming the unnameable Way, then there is a challenge when it comes to the tricky business of translation. As Broadbent notes, there are over 170 English translations of the Tao Te Ching, each of which translates the first line differently, and often with a note about how the Way cannot be talked about. Nevertheless, the Tao Te Ching (a text that has been translated more frequently than any work save the Bible) continues to be discussed. Thus, “the Great Joke” about language and human endeavour (and inevitable failure) emerges. Broadbent, aware that she, too, has been caught in this conundrum, participates in this ongoing Joke.

The first half of the book, “Wei Wu Wei / Do Not Do / Tao Not Tao,” is a poetic engagement with Lao Tzu. The latter half, “Interviews,” celebrates the collaborative task of reading and includes imagined interviews with Jean Rhys, Clarice Lispector, and W. G. Sebald. Treatments for five short films are interspersed throughout the book. The joke defined in Broadbent’s introduction touches on an overarching question of identity and definition. How – in a “limited system” – does literature push limits? Where are the borders between genres? How absolute are the categories? When asked, Broadbent replies, “Fuck ‘lines’ or borders! Everything flows.” Indeed, Broadbent lays bare the lines that encompass “Poetry” as she departs from traditional verse to dabble in essay, interview, and cinema. “‘This is That’ / is a phrase I attempt / to understand,” Broadbent reiterates.

In on the Great Joke
Laura Broadbent

Coach House Books

While the book is described on its cover as “a palace of hybridity,” Broadbent admits, “in my head it more resembles a Bosch painting, a cacophony, a tower of Babel except in one language.” Her poem, “Getting in the Way of the Way,” aptly illustrates this cacophony as excerpts from the Tao Te Ching are splintered with dialogue, anecdotes, and observations. But the title also offers an alternative reading of “getting in the Way” – not so much Broadbent impeding the flow of Lao Tzu, but accessing the Way. Her careful juxtapositions generate and offer a concrete base for the otherwise difficult and cryptic Tao. For example, between excerpts in which Lao Tzu makes reference to the infant and primal mother (principal symbols for the Tao), Broadbent inserts her own image:

A mother with a bountiful ass
chases her toddler who runs,
maniacally, toward the busy street,
his arms raised in suicidal delight,
the mother’s ass moving in all directions at once
as she runs and grabs the lifted arm so violently
he hovers and dangles at an odd angle
and for a moment we can see
how the mother wants to kill the child
she just rescued from being killed.
How does the heart even.

The final line touches on not only the immensity and complexity of maternal love, but also love in general. (Broadbent echoes an earlier sentiment in the poem in which someone explains that “the heart is able to hold so much / because of its holes.”) The paradox of the heart and its capabilities work together with Lao Tzu’s excerpts, sharing recognizable borders of mystery and ineffability. But Broadbent is not naïve in believing that she has so easily clarified or “accessed” the Tao. She modestly undercuts her efforts, such as when she writes:

Let’s just take a moment
to honour the Great Joke.
Is this an allegory?
Absolutely nothing makes sense.

“Language binds – it can at once be a tool for bonding or one of imprisonment. Language is a magic I think we are all aware of enough to use carefully because of its power.”

Perhaps the sharpest execution of “the Great Joke” is the anachronistic letter, “Lao Tzu Applies for a University Teaching Position,” in which Broadbent cleverly yokes the ancient philosopher with the rigid and formulaic structure of the institutional letter of application. (The real joke may be that scholars formulate exactly such a letter when applying for university positions.) Broadbent’s imagined Lao Tzu describes his syllabus and pedagogy – typical of the “genre” – and the result is hilariously enigmatic:

… sometimes I will come to class with a clay pot; the lesson is called ‘Where the Pot is Not.’ It is said you can double the size of the universe by understanding where the pot is not. Hollowed-out clay is where the pot is not and where the pot is not is where it is most useful.

Lao Tzu’s description of the sage as being “detached, thus at one with all,” rings true for Broadbent’s view of the poet: “The poet speaks – ideally – from ‘where the pot is not.’ Emphasis on ‘ideally.’ Speaking from where the pot is not is obviously intensely more elusively difficult than it sounds. A difficult effortlessness. Oxymorons get close to describing this.”

In on the Great Joke plays along with the contradictory position of the poet. While the first chapter, “Wei Wu Wei / Do Not Do / Tao Not Tao,” highlights a negation, a “not” that cancels something out as a way to emptiness, a zero-sum, or a Taoistic “detachment,” the second chapter emphasizes attachment. The introduction to “Interviews” pays homage to “the alchemy of reading” and includes a number of binding elements and relationships: reader/text/author, interviewer/interviewee, and film/viewer. The pull between the two chapters is, for Broadbent, two sides of the same coin: “Language binds – it can at once be a tool for bonding or one of imprisonment. Language is a magic I think we are all aware of enough to use carefully because of its power.” The transformative magic of language is described by Broadbent as having the “effect of a fragrance.” Reminiscent of Anne Carson, who also describes reading in synaesthetic terms (“a fragrance of understanding you come away with”), Broadbent distills and blends with the “fragrances” of other writers in a series of inventive and beautifully elliptical interviews.

When asked to describe her own scent, Broadbent replies, “My fragrance of writing probably stinks if speaking literally. It stinks like toil.” This stirring and captivating collection is no doubt marked by her erudite and intimate engagement with other texts and writers, but the scholastic and creative “toil” is also boisterously amusing and witty. Broadbent adds, “in that stink is also a lot of play – donkeys saunter by, things fall from the sky … what would ‘play’ smell like? I suppose it would maybe smell like a fresh breeze carrying the scent of berries and citrus maybe.”

In on the Great Joke may be read alongside notions of imperfection, paradox, and joy – “the perfect soundtrack / to the mockery of all things” – where nothing is off limits: scholars, dogma, love, death, even the poet herself:

I am the marching band and
I am what the marching band
perfectly mocks, off key.



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