Hamidou Diop is a bit character in Hubert Aquin’s novel Prochain épisode (translated into English as Next Episode). A Wolof double agent, he occupies only a few lines in the novel, but in the last fifteen years, he’s reappeared at least three times in the works of other writers. Kaie Kellough and Alain Farah have both revived Aquin’s minor spy for their own ends, responding to Aquin’s representation of race and using Diop to reimagine the role of racial minorities in the narrative of Quebec nationalism.
The narrator of Next Episode, an unnamed man sitting in a psychiatric institute in Montreal, is writing a spy thriller about an FLQ agent sent to Switzerland to track down a man named H. de Heutz who threatens to have the FLQ’s Swiss bank account shut down. As part of this spy thriller, Aquin’s locked-up narrator invents the character of Hamidou Diop and puts him on a counter-espionage mission. Diop supplies the protagonist (of the spy thriller within the novel) with an indecipherable cryptogram. When the protagonist is captured by H. de Heutz, he nearly sells him on a cover story that he turned to robbery after going bankrupt and ran away from his family. But then de Heutz discovers the cryptogram, and the protagonist’s cover is blown.
Aquin’s narrator makes it clear that Diop is an unlikely invention, that introducing Diop may be “overdoing it … falling into the trap of the Afro-Asian bloc, giving in to the African and Madagascar Union lobby.” Aquin makes him sound like an affirmative action hire, begrudgingly included to appease the African independence movements that inspired the FLQ.
Poet and novelist Kaie Kellough first revisits Diop in a short piece called “Postscript,” included in his 2003 poetry collection Lettricity (the piece was originally commissioned by Canada Reads). He adopts Aquin’s hyper-analytical narrative voice and tells us that he has been hired to account for Hamidou Diop, a task he will accomplish by comparing two translations of Aquin’s original description of Diop: Penny Williams’s 1967 translation and Sheila Fischman’s from 2001. After all, Kellough writes, “Hamidou exists solely in words.” Between the two translations, there are only fifty-one words.
Neither translation is especially flattering. Williams’s reads, “This good African is wilier than a Chinese. Ceaseless chatter and athletic negroid features hide too well his cunning and amazing intelligence.” Fischman tries to make her translation more palatable to a twenty-first century reader, given the source material: “This handsome African is more cunning than a Chinese. With his unbridled loquacity and his athletic negritude, he masks all too successfully his wiles and his awe-inspiring intelligence.” Kellough can’t resist making fun of it, though, wondering if this is a reference to Frantz Fanon and what the relationship between Négritude and athleticism could be.
By the end, Kellough is convinced Diop is a masked trickster, “the site upon which all shifts in perception are played out.” From these fifty-one words, you can’t stare Diop in the face and figure him out. Aquin’s narrator never tries to understand Diop’s motivation. All we get are the narrator’s desperate conjectures as he attempts to solve the cryptogram. Kellough concludes:
There is no such character as Hamidou Diop. He is a clever diversion created to confuse the counter-revolutionaries. … The instant I discovered Hamidou Diop’s non-existence, I took his place, and here I am, a trickster, a dissembler with only 51 words in my arsenal, 51 words! 51 words that my revolutionary comrades have given me to mask and remask myself, to divert anyone who dares to search for me!
Unlike the spy in Next Episode, Kellough’s revolutionary work is not for Quebec sovereignty. It’s the work of an artist imagining a different society. To find out to what end he might use these masks, we have to fast-forward to his 2016 novel Accordéon.
Accordéon’s narrator is the man who panhandles outside the Jean Coutu on Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Mathieu. But he too constantly masks and re-masks himself, shifting through so many identities that he belongs to every timeline and group of Quebec’s history. He says, “I worked in call centres and massage parlours. I led the soldiers across the Plains of Abraham. I was the only brown Patriote, and I’ve been ignored by history.” Kellough parades an endless cast through his novel: Nelly Arcan, Dany Laferrière, René Lévesque, Marie-Joseph Angélique, Mohawk warriors, and Hamidou Diop. They all appear in the flying canoe, “an Indigenous-futurist time machine” and a revolutionary symbol that represents “the unity of all peoples on this territory.” The canoe appears with a new cast of characters each time, rising up toward the moon. It is even “rumoured that the canoe is the island. One day it will lift itself up out of the intersecting rivers … uprooting the entire island, and tilting itself so that all of the buildings, highways, automobiles, and other human constructions slide off.” If there is any practical hope for revolutionary unity, it comes from the city – living elbow-to-elbow with people who are different.
When Hamidou Diop has his turn in the canoe, he is dressed like a habitant (a French settler in rural Quebec) in a Krieghoff painting. He is “wearing a red sash, a red toque, leather moccasins, and … smoking a pipe. A pile of pure wool is in the canoe. He is running his hands through it and delighting in the coarseness.” This act of sartorial subversion reads like a direct jab at the hypocrisy of Quebec’s nationalist discourse. On the one hand, there is the official line that everyone who is a citizen of Quebec is “Québécois.” On the other, it is impossible for anyone from outside to ever be more than a guest who needs to be “accommodated.” A Black habitant is only possible in the flying canoe, the reimagined society where all peoples in Quebec are united, where Black Québécois are not ignored by history.
It’s worth noting that the habitants in Krieghoff’s paintings have nearly the same dress as his Indigenous figures, such as the man in Following the Moose. The sash, the moccasins, the coat – the habitants appropriated indigeneity through clothing, appearing in Krieghoff’s sentimental winter scenes as a people connected to the land. Dressing Diop in habitant clothing insists on a Black history of Quebec, one that has been erased or appropriated by nationalists like Pierre Vallières, whose book Les Nègres blancs d’Amériques erased Quebec’s own history of slavery in order to compare the exploitation of the Québécois with that of Blacks in the American South.
Alain Farah’s Hamidou Diop is a noteworthy dresser as well, in garish suits in the style of La Sape, a sartorial subculture known for both its elegance and eccentricity based in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. Ravenscrag (originally Pourquoi Bologne) is a novel about how past violence and trauma cannot be rewritten or forgotten, whether it’s personal or political violence. A narrator named after the author must confront Dr. Ewen Cameron, the man behind the 1960s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal (part of the top-secret CIA project), to retrieve traumatic childhood memories that Cameron’s experiments erased. As Alain recovers memories of his mother’s gambling addiction and being sold to a north-end gang, he recalls an insult hurled by one of the gangsters: “Farah, even if you go to school for the rest of your life, you’ll always be a fucking import, a Cartierville loser.” You can never be invisible in Quebec if you look different.
Diop enters the story as the watchman of the Allan Memorial Institute grounds. When Alain finds himself barred from the institute, Diop smuggles him in to use the pool. By swimming in the pool wearing an electric swimming cap, Alain recovers his lost memories.
Farah uses Diop as a Jungian shadow who guards access the unconscious. Later on, Alain must sneak into the institute again. This time, he enters through the McTavish Reservoir, somehow connected through plumbing to the pool. Emerging from the water for a final showdown with Dr. Cameron, first Alain must shoot his way past Diop. Once dead, Diop’s face pales and morphs into other characters and historical figures, then Alain’s own. Diop has covered his face with black shoe polish. As Alain rubs it away, the face loses all its features entirely, “as when a mirror is cleaned to the point where the reflection itself is wiped out.”
This blackface, doppelgänger Diop turns into a nothing, a diversion in Alain’s mission to recover his traumatic past from the white authority who erased it. Whose side was Diop on when he snuck Alain into the institute? Whose side was he on when Alain shot him? If there is one thing Farah has kept from Aquin’s original character, it’s that Diop is no one’s ally. Compared to Kellough’s revolutionary uniting of peoples, Farah is less allegorical. Farah’s Diop has a more complicated relationship to power, a double agent in the service of a Scottish-born Anglo elite, both aiding and opposing a protagonist trying to assimilate in contemporary Quebec as he discovers his childhood traumas. Kellough and Farah give Diop more masks to try, and with each one he switches teams, always a double agent, a wild card that neither the revolutionaries nor the counter-revolutionaries know how to play.
I’m far from an authority on fictional representations of visible minorities in Quebec, but Hamidou Diop’s reappearance in Lettricity, Accordéon, and Ravenscrag was too exciting to ignore. For several years, I’ve been reading every book set in Montreal I can find, and these books are gifts to anyone interested in Montreal in fiction. As far as I know, no one else has critically engaged with Kellough and Farah’s adaptations of Diop, though I hope I’m mistaken. Kellough and Farah are both complex writers and I don’t believe that this short essay has fully unmasked Diop. These two authors have given new life to one of the more curious characters to come out of Quebec’s literature. They’ve taken Hubert Aquin’s Diop, a caricature and a reluctant concession to the post-colonial movements that inspired Quebec nationalism, and made him the kind of complex character Quebec literature needs. mRb