Good Mourning

A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning

By X. I. Selene

A review of A Cannibal And Melancholy Mourning by Catherine Mavrikakis

Published on October 1, 2004

A Cannibal And Melancholy Mourning
Catherine Mavrikakis

Coach House Books
$18.95
paper
160pp
1-55245-140-2

Mourning means getting used to non-appearance. “But how does one get used to what isn’t?” runs Catherine Mavrikakis’s unasked question in A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning. The belongings of the dead never wrinkle, shrink, fritter, or splinter with grief. To the friends of the dead, these familiar surfaces remain cruelly and uncannily taut, impervious to decomposition. Perhaps more so than the dead, modern mourners occupy a middle place, stretched between the moral sphere, where death is an aberration, and the physical one, where the moral response to death – mourning – is foreign.

For the book’s narrator, also named Catherine, grieving becomes a challenge to death’s metaphysical and cultural status. She observes a negative logic in objects surrounding the dead (an empty hairdressing chair, an orange sheet, rice-stuffed vine leaves). The living and the dead interact via these negative spaces, sharing oblivion. In the strange allure of these objects, the dead say to the living, “Look at us, absent.”

However, the metaphysical dimension of death’s absence is complicated by repressed attempts to evacuate death from all aspects of social life. For instance, the narrator notes that in Quebec such repression takes the form of prohibiting cut flowers in cemeteries, on the grounds that they “rot, make a mess.” A cultural practice such as leaving cut flowers to rot for the dead may serve as a pact between moral and physical spheres, but even this possibility has been denied mourners.

A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning offers some imaginary solutions to cultural and metaphysical problems of death’s non-appearance. The book is a sort of “anthanatology”: a collection of deaths in which there is nothing flowery about the writing. Every week another one of Catherine’s friends named Hervé dies, usually of AIDS. The dead Hervés proliferate absurdly, occasioning social critique, philosophic observation, frothing lamentation, and even depraved ingestion of hair-care products. The rapid accumulation of death has the effect of publicizing mourning, exteriorizing the mourner’s private trauma.

Dreams are another way in which mourners negotiate the metaphysics of death, allowing them, in Guy Maddin’s words, to “grieve on the installment plan.” While dreams do offer a practical way of portioning an unendurable absence, the dream sequences in Mavrikakis’s book can be forced, popping up like instant epiphanies. The final dream sequence, with its invocation of the body of the mother, the sea (mère-mer), cryptic messages, and God, is overdetermined to the point of cliché, as if widespread reading of Jung could be proof of the collective unconscious. While this seascape is drawn fantastic and indelible on the reader’s imagination, nothing justifies its parvenu dream status.

A far more successful strategy of thinking death comes in “cannibal mourning.” Mavrikakis writes: “Before our dead we must be ravenous, we must be cannibals and swallow them whole or tear them apart with our voracious teeth.” A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning does just that, feeding on Hervé Guibert’s harrowing, sleep-depriving novel À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie. The latter concerns a certain Hervé Guibert, who writes against his ticking AIDS clock. Concern isn’t a matter of preserving a human look, but of taking on too human a look, writes Guibert, invoking the prisoners in Nuit et brouillard. Mavrikakis supplies the corollary: “Barbarity exists in the lack of proximity to dead flesh.” Cannibal literature shows a way of incorporating the dead, of assuming the death of authors. It is a welcome practice in a culture that wishes to vanquish mourning.

Nathalie Stephens adeptly translates Mavrikakis’s impressive palette of acerbic, disgusted, horrified, vindictive, pensive, and melancholic tones. It would be pedantic to quibble with Stephens’ few quirky choices, such as translating “métro londonien” both as “London subway” and “London Underground,” or making the verb of a compound neither/nor subject agree with the first element rather than the last, as is habitual. mRb

X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.

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