Fiction

The Black Notebook

The Black Notebook
Michel Tremblay

Talonbooks
$19.95
paper
224pp
0-88922-543-5

As indelibly as Mordecai Richler staked a claim to the Jewish Montreal of Mile End, Tremblay’s novels, plays, and autobiographical writings have made the Plateau, a working-class French Montreal neighbourhood, an archetypal literary setting. It speaks volumes that his work is as resonant in places as far-flung as Scotland as it is to residents of the city he writes about so obsessively.

Readers approaching Tremblay’s work for the first time could be forgiven for feeling intimidated at its sheer profusion, but fear not: one can dip in just about anywhere with equal confidence. These two new translations (Assorted Candies and The Black Notebook) one the last in an autobiographical childhood cycle and the other the first in a new fiction cycle, are proof.

Tremblay’s work has always been marked by his compassion for the underdog – women more often than not – and The Black Notebook continues that tradition. The year is 1966; Montreal is about to be officially “cleaned up” by Mayor Jean Drapeau in preparation for Expo ’67, but that doesn’t overly concern the habitués of The Sélect, a diner on the lower Main where “drag queens, bums and other creatures of the night” find refuge. Céline Poulin, a waitress there, is the voice of the novel; the notebook of the title is the volume into which she pours her thoughts, and they’re dark. The product of a troubled home – alcoholic mother, ineffectual father, unimaginative younger sisters, Céline is presented with the opportunity of escape, however small, when she inadvertently auditions for a chorus part in a production of The Trojan Women.

It’s a tough enough situation for Céline who, despite vague dreams of acting has never had the nerve to pursue them, but there’s another complicating factor, one that has coloured her life and led to her unending cycle of guilt and recrimination with her mother: she’s a midget. That’s pouring it on a bit thick, one might think, but Céline is such a vivid, deep figure that all such reservations are trampled, and The Black Notebook emerges as a powerful character study, a social history – as always with Tremblay, the political content is there, but always as an organic element of the story – as well as a love letter to the world of the theatre. And yes, to dreaming waitresses everywhere. mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette.

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