Augustino and the choir of destruction

Augustino and the Choir of Destruction

By Anne Chudobiak

A review of Augustino And The Choir Of Destruction by Marie-claire Blais

Published on November 1, 2007

Augustino And The Choir Of Destruction
Marie-claire Blais

House of Anansi
$21.95
paper
221pp
978-0-88784-752-3

In her new novel, the last in a trilogy set on an island in the Gulf of Mexico, Marie-Claire Blais poses a difficult question – What constitutes a successful life? – in a retro stream-of-consciousness style that may raise eyebrows today.

Friends and family gather to celebrate matriarch Mère’s 80th birthday. The party is “a triumph,” with free-flowing champagne and inter-generational dancing. But conversation veers, in typical Blais fashion, to darker topics, such as the plight of AIDS-infected orphans in impoverished regions of Africa.

“I really don’t think I deserve all this when you consider the world as it is,” says a chastened Mère, who suddenly wonders how she could have made it to such an advanced age without having lifted a finger to help a single orphan. Her host, an interior designer who is often jetting off to Paris, shushes her with, “Oh why think about it all the time.”

The story ostensibly runs the course of this all-night party, but the narration flits in and out of the minds of the different characters, a cultured bunch with ties to many different countries, whose thoughts often turn to names and events from world history: Van Gogh’s “compassionate” yellow and Rosa Parks’s determination stand in contrast to the Holocaust, the killing fields, and Hiroshima.

When Mère, a family woman and patron of the arts, reflects back on her own life, she doesn’t measure herself against her immediate peers but against the ultimate career woman, Marie Curie, who famously fell into a depression shortly after accepting her second Nobel Prize. “Marie Curie was a woman of renown, the Mozart of science […] but still […] she might not have thought her life a success, it is possible she left this world with doubts.”

Mère goes so far as to take details from her own life and apply them to Curie’s, giving her own daughter’s name to Curie’s two children. This makes it difficult for readers to distinguish between the two women’s stories, an effect that does not appear to have been accidental. Blais’s style, both in this book and in the others that precede it in the trilogy, is unapologetically Modernist, with echoes of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

The punctuation. or lack thereof, is a case in point. There are no chapters or paragraph breaks and very few sentences. Instead Blais moves from thought to thought, from person to person, with nothing more than a comma to mark transitions:

…did Oliver have the right to punish and hate when he had a wife and son who adored him, what is the point to our love and our tolerance and our pity, what point, for every day hate kills, hate kills, and Ari looked at his daughter as she slept with her toys.

The author seems fully aware of the rigours of her art, making tongue-in-cheek references to characters whose artistic work is intentionally difficult, including one “inflexible” choreographer whose shows are deemed “oppressive.”

Fortunately, Blais can pull off this complicated style. A writer with a long history – she published her first novel in 1959 at age 20, and has won three Governor General’s Literary Awards for French-language fiction – she has the skill to guide the readers to the book’s gently optimistic conclusion with or without the help of conventional punctuation.

The English version of Augustino comes courtesy of Nigel Spencer, who was a finalist for a Governor General’s Award for his translation of the second instalment in this trilogy, Thunder and Light. (Sheila Fischman translated the first as These Festive Nights.) Spencer’s translation is true to the original, with all the characters – all of humanity – as guests at the same party, united by thought, history, and art. mRb

Anne Chudobiak is a Montreal writer, translator and editor.

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