Fiction vs. history

Black Bird

By X. I. Selene

A review of Black Bird by Michel Basilieres

Published on October 1, 2003

Black Bird
Michel Basilieres

Alfred A. Knopf Canada
$34.95
cloth
311pp
0-676-97527-5

Black Bird commences with a caveat:

Readers with long memories or a command of Canadian history will complain that the following pages contradict known facts. Facts are one thing but fiction is another, and this is fiction.

This author’s note bears analysis, since its premise, that a knowledge of Canadian history impairs one’s ability to appreciate fiction on its own terms, informs Black Bird as a whole. Whether or not they have “a command of Canadian history,” readers are also historical beings who already inhabit a world, and one that is never wholly detached from that of fiction – the constitution of meaning in art does not occur in a pure sphere, for there cannot be sense, not even in fiction, without socially, temporally, linguistically, and culturally situated beings. The idea of readers turning off their historical selves in order to appreciate fiction is idealistic and, moreover, impossible. While it is understandable that an author who chooses terrorism for some of his content and the name “James Cross” for one of his characters may have some qualms over misrepresentation, such an injunction against cultural memory is both naïve and narcissistic.

The hermeneutic anxiety evident in the author’s note later takes the form of an insupportably intrusive narrator. Instead of allowing the characters to act, to speak or to move freely through time, the narrator rather explains these personalities into being, as if to prevent the readers from having the wrong impression. The first chapter, which largely details the Desouche family’s complex web of relationships, reads more like the author’s preparatory notes than the novel itself. For example, readers are informed that “while Marie was convinced of the necessity of political action, considering their problem the fault of the English, Jean-Baptiste felt the answer was internal and spiritual.” Copious interventions like this one reduce the book’s scope for reader inference and interpretation.

The philosophical viewpoint expressed in the author’s note has other consequences. This paradigm, where fiction is wholly removed from “facts” or “known events,” would imply that readers come to novels empty: they do not then constitute meaning together with the writer, but rather, receive meaning from the author. This outlook would account for Black Bird‘s numerous didactic passages, in which the narrator passes judgement on Jean-Baptiste’s poetry, explains Quebec linguistic politics, or points out errors in felquiste thinking, for example. The question is not whether the portrayal of the Montreal Anglophone literary community as incestuous and ignorant is accurate, or whether Michel Basilières knows Canadian history. The question, rather, is whether total narrative control is a desirable aesthetic choice, given that the effect is an expedient, expository style that reads like an arts grant application.

Perhaps the greatest sign of hermeneutic anxiety occurs at the novel’s close. Jean-Baptiste has a creative breakthrough.

He vowed he would never again write down a single thing in a realistic mode, because whether it had ever actually happened to him or not, everyone would think it was the literal truth.

By coincidence, the first words of Jean-Baptiste’s projected work also happen to be the first words of Black Bird. Thus, it becomes extremely tempting to read Jean-Baptiste’s literary convictions as Basilière’s artist statement. This is an unfortunate parallel, for the double insistence on art for art’s sake, first in the guise of fact (in the author’s note) and then as fiction (in Jean-Baptiste’s closing thoughts) comes across as the book’s moral, message, or meaning, and an outmoded and disingenuous one at that. mRb

X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.

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