Mélissa Verreault has a master’s degree in translation from Université Laval in Quebec City and lives in Lévis with her Italian husband and their triplets. She has published three novels in French. Behind The Eyes We Meet is the English translation of L’angoisse du poisson rouge, her first novel to be translated. The translator is Arielle Aaronson.
Behind The Eyes We Meet is several stories in one, that of Sergio (a POW in WWII) and his grandson Fabio, who emigrated to Canada and now resides in Montreal, and Manue (short for Emmanuelle) who discerns that there is something missing from her twenty-something life. She has just found out from her mother Nicole that she was prematurely born a twin, but her sister Gabrielle died only two weeks after. Distressed over this revelation (“deep down she could tell that something – someone – was missing“) and the sudden inexplicable disappearance of her beloved pet goldfish Hector, she puts up posters around her neighbourhood (which she perceives is an exercise in futility, but it helps in the grieving process). She happens across Fabio, an Italian-Canadian who is putting up posters for a found kitten. Manue enlists his help and the adventures begin, taking them from the hospital emergency room to the aquarium at Quebec City to across the river to a visit with Manue’s mother (with whom she has a tentative relationship at best). Due to both women becoming enchanted by Fabio they begin the reconciliation process.
“Forgiving Nicole meant the end of her mourning over Gabrielle as if Manue’s resentment of her mother was keeping her sister – at least the image she’d created of her – alive.”
The book then shifts to Europe where the war has just ended and Sergio is on a train back to Italy. He has been a POW in a Russian prison camp for three years. Along the way, he recalls the atrocities he has witnessed in the four years since he was drafted into the Italian army. Images of bodies, the deadly cold, no rations, interminable train rides in filthy boxcars and ultimately cannibalism in the POW camps:
“He thought back to the stories his mother used to tell him when he was little, stories of ogres and bogeymen who gobbled up naughty children. He began to wonder how much was pure fiction. What he held true as a child was reduced to crumbs by the obscene realities the war had revealed.”
Sergio’s account and his desire to survive are strong, and Ms Verreault does a masterful job of recreating the bleakness of war and the solitary, horrific existence (or subsistence) of the camps. Things improve slightly when The US enters the war and sends supplies to Russia. It is at this point that Sergio sees some hope for the cessation of the war and a return back to his family in Carpi, Italy.
Shifting again to present-day, Fabio returns to Italy for Sergio’s funeral. Sergio has managed to live until ninety-three years of age. While in Italy, seeing family and old friends, he finds that he not only misses Manue (they have never had a formal date or even kissed yet), but life, as he knew it in Italy is no longer for him.
“Everything is foreign. This is no longer my home.”
Fabio returns to Canada with a gift for Manue and a shoe box of his grandfather’s that Luisa has given him that he hasn’t felt like opening yet.
“So that’s where beauty had been hiding all this time. It sought shelter along the sleepy river under a half-moon and burst forth for those who believed it gone forever, proving not only that it was still alive, but that it had redoubled its strength, ready to knock the socks off the non-believers.”
“This is how history is made: by blaming those who were not there and telling our children stories that absolve us of responsibility.”
“My mistakes will stay where they are, in the comfortable bed of my guilty conscience.”
“Existential questions are all fine and good, but at a certain point changing your underwear is more important than changing the world.”
There is much to cherish about Behind The Eyes We Meet. Beautifully written, I always imagine that in the original French language a book like this must be even more stimulating to read than it is in English. Credit must go to the translator, Arielle Aaronson as well. Ms Verreault wonderfully employs several different voices throughout the story: Sergio’s, his wife Luisa’s (via her letters to Sergio), and Fabio’s, all in the first person; Manue’s is told in the third person. However, it is Fabio’s storytelling during his time in Italy that initiates the coalescing of the storytelling from both the past and present, joining them together, giving Fabio and Manue purpose to their feckless lives.
“Everyone has an incredible story to tell. There’s no such thing as a straightforward life. We’ll never understand all the impossible things that lie behind the eyes we meet.”
A noteworthy addition to QC Fiction’s select catalogue, Behind The Eyes We Meet describes the impact of war from the viewpoint of a POW, one that is no longer fighting a visible enemy, but fighting for the memories of home and family. In the present, Fabio and Manue are fighting for a direction to their lives and may have found it in Sergio’s shoe box.