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Still Searching for New Babylon

It’s easy to see why Dominique Scali’s first novel, In Search of New Babylon, was a finalist for the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award, the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal, the Prix des libraires du Québec, and winner of the 2015 First Novel Award at the Festival du Premier Roman de Chambéry in France. The story is tightly woven and executed with masterful shifts in chronology and narrative focus. The characters are quirky and compelling. The language of W. Donald Wilson’s translation sings with rich detail. Short, staccato-like chapters propel the story forward with the pacing of good television. This is in no way meant as an insult – seamless storytelling is difficult to achieve, and Scali accomplishes that with virtuosity in this novel.

In Search of New Babylon
Dominique Scali
Translated by W. Donald Wilson

Talonbooks
$19.95
paper
312 pp
781772011241

At the same time, In Search of New Babylon is a conventional Western. The central characters don’t stray far from what we expect to find in these narratives. Thankfully, they are wrought with enough depth and personality to avoid being two-dimensional stereotypes. There’s the Reverend Aaron, an atheist preacher; Charles Teasdale, an outlaw and bare-knuckle boxer; Russian Bill, a sharpshooting cowboy claiming to be of Russian royalty; Pearl Guthrie, an adventurous young woman on a misguided search for the perfect husband; and the Matador, a Mexican bullfighter turned bounty hunter. These are restless souls, weaving in and out of each other’s lives, moving from frontier town to frontier town in search of their own version of perfection, tightrope-walking the gap between their idea of the West and its reality.

The constant jumps of time and place convey the dizzying pace and scale of development in the West. Each town exhibits its own unique state of growth, stagnation, or decay, embodying the turmoil of free market capitalism in its infancy. The arsonist Charles Teasdale revels in the chaos, becoming a force of destruction, repeatedly evading execution at the last possible moment. With everything changing so fast, success means staying one step ahead. As Pearl and Russian Bill discover, you can make a profit by moving from town to town, getting married for the free-land-for-newlyweds offers, and then selling the real estate after sitting on it a while. Russian Bill observes: “The future isn’t hatched from domination anymore, but from deliberate servitude.” What makes this book feel so contemporary, even though it takes place in the nineteenth century, is the fact that very little has changed. The rules of the game are still constantly shifting, and the losers continue to far outnumber the winners in the game of capitalism.

Like any Western, In Search of New Babylon is framed from the settler perspective. Scali doesn’t question the brutality that birthed America, but leaves it up to the reader by exhaustively detailing the everyday violence that plagued the West. As one Mexican saloon patron laments: “Problem is, no one’s willin’ to pay any more. When I was young there was governors in the South would give a good fat purse to anyone brought in savages’ scalps still warm, no questions asked. Nowadays they pay us to shoot stray dogs, and that’s it.” The Indigenous peoples had already been “pacified and parked on reservations” by this time. Nevertheless, the struggle remains in the settlers’ collective memories, plaguing their dreams, feeding their paranoia, and justifying all acts of barbarity. (“But with the Indians it was like with ghosts: you didn’t need to see them for them to keep you awake at night.”) The trauma and inequality borne of this would come to define the soul of an entire continent. As beautifully written as In Search of New Babylon is, these ghosts haunt the narrative, much as they haunt the stories Canadians tell ourselves about the nature of our own history, and who we are as a country. mRb

Dean Garlick is a fiction writer living in Montreal. His novella Chloes launched in the spring of 2014, and a French translation of his first novel, The Fish, was published by Les Allusifs in the fall of 2015. He is currently working on a new novel.

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