A review of Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

Published on May 1, 2008

Nicolas Dickner

Random House

Nicolas Dickner’s fine debut novel is the improbable tale of three young people who find themselves in Montreal at the tail end of the 1980s, and whose various odd pursuits and interwoven storylines make for an utterly pleasurable read. A Quebec sensation when first published in 2005, Nikolski has now been elegantly translated into English and it isn’t hard to imagine it becoming that elusive and unlikely phenomenon – a national bestseller in both official languages.

By alternating the chronicles of Noah Riel and Joyce Doucet, sandwiched between brief accounts from the unnamed narrator, Dickner creates a kind of modern pirate story, in which everything takes place on land and all the buried treasure consists of garbage. (Rum, however, is still the drink of choice.) United by their common relative, Jonas Doucet, and by an odd, stitched-together book known variously as the “Book with No Face” and the “Three-Headed Book,” the protagonists each end up engaging in their own unique forms of discovery: Joyce Doucet Dumpster dives for old computer parts, Noah carries out university-approved archaeological fieldwork in aboriginal prehistory, and the narrator glories in the refuse bin of forgotten desires that is the soul of a used bookstore.

Named for the remote Aleutian village where Jonas Doucet was last spotted, Nikolski provides few details about this shared and absent ancestor. Heir to a long line of buccaneers, corsairs, and freebooters, Jonas (the Greek rendering of Jonah) is born in Tête-à-la-Baleine, and once sprung from this whale’s head, begins an itinerant life of sporadic procreation and badly scrawled postcards. In one unprecedented fatherly act, he mails the narrator a gift of a wonky plastic compass.

Just as the compass stubbornly points a few degrees west of North (to Nikolski, in fact), Dickner’s novel unfolds in a world only slightly more fantastic than the standard. This is clear from the stated origins of the “Book with No Face”:

>It had crossed thousands of kilometres in various bags, travelled amid the cargo in damp crates, been thrown overboard but continued on its way in the acidic belly of a whale, before being spat out and retrieved by an illiterate deep-sea diver. Jonas Doucet finally won it in a poker game in a Tel Aviv bar one wild night.


The novel is thus heavily and not unsatisfyingly steeped in coincidence. But when Joyce stumbles on a corpse during her midnight scavenging and betrays only momentary surprise before identifying it as an “employee tossed out for downsizing,” it strikes a jarring, dystopian note. The discovery feels like a misstep in an otherwise cohesive tale, for though the Nikolski universe is not quite our own, it does not mostly seem like a colder one, either. The novel on the whole is very funny, from the Lenin-look-alike trucker who gives Joyce a ride, to the narrator’s massive oil furnace dubbed “the Beast” and manufactured by “Levi Athan & Co.”

Dickner is interested not only in pirates, but also in castaways: from the three young people themselves and the runaway parents who abandoned them, to the very objects that people toss out-artifacts languishing in garbage dumps, blank paper chucked into recycling bins, ancient buried shards and cinders, used books passing from one hand to the next. In Nikolski , “finders-keepers” is not just a maxim but an edict. In a book populated mostly by abandoned and neglected children, refugees, and the dispossessed, Noah’s landlord Maelo advises him that the immigrant “must never stoop to being an orphan.” The bonds of blood run deep, but friends can become family and destiny can be shaped by initiative and sheer desire.

Like the “Book with No Face,” composed of the pages of three separate texts, sNikolski ‘s storylines feel like fragments, pages torn from narratives that could each easily span the length of an entire book. But when what’s on offer is so charming, asking for more just seems greedy. mRb

Saleema Nawaz's first short story collection, Mother Superior, will be released by Freehand Books in Fall 2008.



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