QC Fiction is a new imprint of Quebec’s Baraka Books and is dedicated to releasing English translations of new and up-and-coming French Quebec writers. Life in the Court of Matane is the first release of 2016 for QC Fiction. Previously available only in French, Life in the Court of Matane (Bestiaire is the French version’s title) was one of the three finalists for the 2009 Prix Littéraire France-Québec, a literary prize awarded to French readers’ favourite Quebec novels, and was one of La Presse’s top five Quebec novels of 2008. Peter McCambridge, the translator and head of QC Fiction was kind enough to send me an advance review copy to read.
QC Fiction has done a great service to English readers everywhere by translating this popular Quebec novel for us.
The Court of Henry VIII
Eric Dupont is a child of the seventies and life in the court of Henry VIII (his father, a police officer) and Catherine of Aragon (Michiline Raymond, professional cook) is all well and good, but not without its problems: “Our mother could find intelligence in a barking dog. Our father saw stupidity in every living thing.” Soon, in the mid-seventies, Eric and his older sister (Christian names are not always used) find themselves living with their mother after the King departs the scene with “Anne Boleyn”. Then the King is given (or takes) custody of the children, so Eric and sister are again back in the King’s Court which changes addresses almost yearly until settling in the town of Matane.
Matane is a town on the southern side of the St. Lawrence River and is considered by many to be the start of the Gaspé Peninsula (la Gaspésie), a large lower-lip type of landmass which is part of the province of Quebec and protrudes out into the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Matane is a town that in the late 70’s and 80’s has very little going for it (other than the annual Shrimp Festival) and a place that a young Eric Dupont wants to desperately escape from:
“Looking toward the town, I wished it would just disappear”.
Eric’s story (you’ll soon forget it is a novel, it reads like a memoir) takes us through his separation from his mother, a temporary placement with the Thénardiers (“The Great Terror”), schoolyard bullying, life with an unloving stepmother, being forced to listen to Jacques Brel, obeying (or disobeying) various despotic court edicts and so on. The book’s French title Bestiaire translates to Bestiary in English which means “a collection of moralized fables…..about actual or mythical animals” and the book follows this theme, each chapter entitled with the name of an animal and corresponding year of Eric’s life that the chapter is centred around. My favourite is chapter 4, The Dog (1980). The dog in question is Laika, the former Russian cosmonaut dog sent into space (in 1957) and who now wanders the wharf of Matane on misty evenings awaiting the return of her master Oleg aboard the Pavel Ponomarev. Yes, the book is full of such interesting animals (mythical and real), and they usually serve as a take-off point for Eric’s accounts of his life in that particular year. In fact, Eric has a better rapport with animals than he does with humans, which in retrospect may be true of many of us.
I altogether enjoyed reading this humorous and intelligent look at growing up in the eighties in rural Gaspésie. Eric is definitely an introvert and this along with his love of books, gets him picked on in the schoolyard (for the longest time Eric thought the epithet “faggot” meant someone who could read!). His conversations with animals, especially Laika the Muscovite dog and the Baudelaire-loving great horned owl are so inspired that you will find yourself re-reading the passages again and again. As I was getting close to the end of the book, I was so engrossed in Eric’s personal quest to escape Matane that I found myself saying “Wait! It can’t end yet”! Trust me, you’ll find yourself hoping that Eric Dupont is, at this moment, somewhere in la belle province writing a sequel to Life in the Court of Matane.
While it is always preferable to read a work in its original language, it would appear to me that nothing was lost in the translation of Bestiaire. QC Fiction has done a great service to English readers everywhere by translating this popular Quebec novel for us. I certainly look forward to reading more of their translations as they are released. Bien fait!