In which our blogger researches for his own fiction by reading fiction about real events, and thereby discovers a big, important, difficult book.
In case you didn’t know, I’ve been busy this year writing a novel largely about a nationalist terrorist cell in Montréal, and so I did a bit of research into the FLQ and the October crisis, which is one of the darkest chapter’s in Québec’s history. During the 60s a number of leftist terrorist organizations including the Front de libération du Québec set off some bombs in and around Montréal. In October 1970 one of the FLQ cells abducted James Cross, a British diplomat, whom they would hold hostage until late December. A few days later, a second FLQ cell kidnapped Québec’s vice-prime minister, Pierre Laporte, whose body was left a week later in the trunk of a car. Meanwhile, the Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau called upon the War Measures act, which allowed the suspension of the Habeas Corpus and resulted in the occupation of parts of Québec by the Canadian army and over 500 unquestioned arrests of left-leaning intellectuals and activitists of the time.
It was a sordid affair, and one that is summarily studied by anyone who grew up in Québec. Yet it’s also a historical event that’s been largely written in stone: there’s an accepted version, and it doesn’t get all that questioned, despite the fact that there are some obvious holes in it. One of the big questions remaining has to do with how much the police knew before and during the events of the October Crisis, what they did do and didn’t do, and how well they had infiltrated the terrorist’s network.
In his novel La constellation du Lynx, which was translated last year by Wayne Grady under the more prosaic English title October 1970, Louis Hammelin uses fiction to explore the historical events of the October crisis. His narrative is wide ranging, but he focuses mainly on three characters: Richard Godefroid, one of the terrorists back in the 70s (renamed, but very much inspired by one of the real-life terrorists who abducted Pierre Laporte); Samuel Niholo, a present day writer and journalist type who’s bent upon finding the truth about what really happened in 1970 (and, of course, a kind of foil for the writer himself); and the fictional Chevalier Branlequeue (a salacious pun that’s rather hard to translate), who acts as a connecting agent to the plot’s different strands as he was one of Richard Godefroid’s teachers, one of the victims of the rounds of arrest during the october crisis, a mediator between the police and the terrorists during the crisis, and finally, much later, the literature professors who leads Samuel (and a group of other beer-drinking bachelor students) on the trail of the truth about October, 1970.
Hammelin’s book, something of a doorstopper and a very complex achievement in terms of both form and content, is hard going at first. The chapters are short, but the novel takes a polyphonic—if not kaleidoscopic—approach to its story, following almost of all its characters, from the most minor to the most important, and moving almost at random between different time periods and places. For a few pages we’re in the Jordan desert where a Québecois journalist meets two FLQ terrorists receiving guerrilla training with feyadeens (this really happened, by the way), then we’re flying a plane over the suburbs of Montreal with a Canadian army colonel. Eventually, with a little bit of wikipedia searching on the details of the real story, and a better grasp on who everyone is, the novel comes together and the different points of view start to form a knotty mass that is both the question at the heart of the novel an a multiple-attempt to answer it: what really happened that fall?
After the halfway mark, and thanks mostly to Hammelin having focalized a large part of the story through the perspective of Sam Nihilo, his young journalist, the novel speeds up and achieves the necessary epiphany when he meets up with the old terrorist, Godefroid, in Mexico, before fading out again with a series of one-page chapters from a disintegrating number of other perspectives. The effect is actually quite nice, and one sees that, when dealing with a history so shadowy and already, supposedly, well-understood and shelved for good, Hammelin’s best solution was indeed to break apart his novel’s form and chronology, dig through the facts in an apparently haphazard way with the mining pick of his hard, lyrical prose.
So, while I accept the formal deconstruction—the broken chronology, shifting perspectives and so on—the one criticism I had was that many of the short sections that explore varying points of view often fall a little flat because nothing really happens in them. The novel is largely obsessed with animals (especially lynxes, but many others, such as a snowy owl, make appearances), and what actually goes on in many sections is just someone watching a wild animal. This is very nice thematically, and creates a kind of visual pattern that gets cyclically repeated throughout the book, increasing the depth of its texture, but at the same time I yearned for these sections to operate a little more powerfully on other levels. In other words, I wanted them to be more straightforward in pushing the story forward, instead of merely interrupting the story and making it more complicated and half-hidden by giving us a glimpse into someone’s mind, a bit of a conversation. But then, I hesitate to make even that criticism, because La constellation du Lynx is an important book that takes a lot of risks, and I’d much rather a loud book that takes risks and succeeds in a messy way than a neat, timid little book that does what it does well, but stays too clearly within the margins. And so, Louis Hammelin, I salute you.