Dead Man's Float

Dead Man’s Float

By Sarah Steinberg

A review of Dead Man's Float by Nicholas Maes

Published on October 1, 2006

Dead Man’s Float
Nicholas Maes

Véhicule Press
$22.95
paper
440pp
1-55065-211-7

Nathan Gelder has suffered a stroke. Elderly, paralyzed, and unable to communicate, he is accused of murdering the world’s most popular rock star. In Dead Man’s Float we tag along as Gelder reviews his memories. The novel is a life sewn together through remembrance. We travel with Gelder through his earliest recollections: his birth in Holland to a Jewish mother and Gentile father, his childhood in The Hague, his escape to Canada at the onset of World War II, his life in Montreal, his years in university, his career, wife, children, and on into old age. Gelder is a complex character, riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, and traumatized by the loss of his parents to the Nazi regime. He is conflicted – hyper-aware of his religious liminality, and haunted by the sense that he does not quite fit in anywhere. Holland, with its attempt to remain neutral during the war, provides a fitting backdrop for his inner turmoil.

Maes in interested in how language can alienate or unite, and the act of translation plays a large role in this novel. Gelder, though an articulate and eloquent narrator, is forever translating from his native Dutch. Phrases, for instance, are often inverted. As a professional translator, first in an advertising firm and later with works of non-fiction, Gelder is acutely aware of the power of words and language’s role in shaping identity, and this underlines his sense of being an outsider. He very rarely speaks Dutch once he leaves Holland, so he is separated from his past except in memory. In his later years he attempts to avoid even that, something which proves challenging if not impossible.

Maes’s first novel is an engaging read. He tackles big subjects – language, identity, religion, history, place – and does so with a light touch, a fluid style, and an ear for cadence and dialogue. He draws rich, precise, portraits of character and place: the sharp tongue of a childhood nemesis, the optimism of his rich assimilated uncle, the back alleys of The Hague, Montreal’s post-war ghettos, the lights and loneliness of big-city Toronto. There is an excellent rhythm to the novel, too, as it shifts back and forth between past and present, revealing more and more of this interesting man’s complex and relevant life.

However, when we do reach the present day and begin to deal with the murder of which Gelder is accused, it’s disappointing to find that suddenly the world Maes has presented is abandoned and replaced with a new one in which, to appease riotous fans, the prime minister of Canada announces the release of the murdered rock star’s collected writings for use in elementary schools, the government plans to erect monuments in the star’s image, and a reporter covering the story is quoted as saying “World stability is hanging on our broadcast.” The reader is abruptly confronted with a series of philosophical what-ifs.

But up until this point Maes has recreated the world as we know it; we understand the rules of the novel’s universe because they are the same rules of the world we live in. We must, without warning, suspend our disbelief in a novel that has never asked us to do so until it is too late. mRb

Sarah Steinberg is a Montreal writer.

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