Forty-three years ago this month, Montreal was transformed into a battleground by the October Crisis. For most Canadians, then as now, the narrative was simple, if shocking: a small group of terrorists of the Front de la liberation du Québec – the FLQ – attempted to “accelerate history” using guerrilla tactics: they kidnapped two politicians and killed one. The imposition of the War Measures Act, the invasion of the island of Montreal by the overwhelming force of the Canadian army, and the rounding up of 500 intellectuals and artists was welcomed across the country, especially when it brought so swift a resolution to the Crisis. Having handily put the French Canadians back in their place, the Rest of Canada turned its attention away and quickly forgot. Today, few Canadian high-school graduates have even heard of the events.
But Quebec has never forgotten, even though few were ever in favour of terrorism. Nationalist sentiment has risen and fallen over the decades, but the Parti Québécois, elected to hold a referendum on separation in the aftermath of 1970, have retained a permanent position in provincial politics and, of course, form the government again today. They are still championing policies that enrage the rest of the country.
Because politics and culture are so often the same phenomenon in Québec, the events of October, 1970, took a prominent place in its literature, its music, its cinema. In other words, in Quebec, the narrative of the Crisis is more complicated, more important and much more equivocal.
Out of this, Louis Hamelin has fashioned an enormous, intricate and equivocal masterwork that straddles living memory, history, conspiracy theory and literary imagination. In October 1970, Sam Nihilo is a freelance journalist in a slump who’s asked to oversee the papers of his old literature professor, Chevalier Branlesque, a famous nationalist ideologue and poet. He begins investigating the death of one of the FLQ hostages, and slowly uncovers a decades-long conspiracy involving just about every player on every side of the October Crisis. He also falls in love with an actress, Marie-Quebec, who takes him with her to Maldoror, a town in the northern Abitibi region of Quebec. Hamelin’s portrait of the landscape binds his characters to a sense of place that is, of course, part and parcel of their whole identity. The undeveloped suburbs of Montreal’s South Shore in particular, seen through the childhood eyes of Coco, a corrupt cop, are hard, empty places of struggle and violence. By contrast, the forests and lakes of the north are primeval psychological forces that shape the people. In an early scene, the fugitive FLQ, hiding in a shack in the woods, dig their beds into the ground and share the space with a porcupine. It’s not the last time they’ll retreat into the land itself.
On the one hand, Hamelin brings to life the personalities with a deft novelistic control, creating living characters whose individual, daily existence convinces absolutely. On the other hand, they’re so obviously based on the actual participants, it’s hard to escape the feeling he might as well not have invented new names for them. Research and history are the master of events in this novel, even when so much of the action is imagined in the gaps of the records. In these instances, conspiracy theory reconciles hidden motivations and unexplained inconsistencies – and does so convincingly, for the most part.
But the relationship between history and narrative is strained; the chronology, for those who know it, constantly threatens to undermine the narrative suspense, and the generally accepted version of events flattens the characters’ motivations. Hamelin’s solution is to adopt a fractured, post-modern stance that jumps across time and place, delivering scenes in pieces and glimpses, forcing readers to resolve the connections on their own. This makes the book perhaps slow to start, and, with its large cast of characters, seem sometimes aimless, but the payoff is worth it. In the end, Hamelin’s canvas is enormous and vibrant and completely overcomes the liability of working with a history so familiar. We see his characters not just as actors in a pre-determined tragedy, but as protagonists of their own lives: politicians, cultural figures, criminals, spies, cops, students, mobsters.
As a novel that orchestrates the forces, large and small, that compete to dominate and control both personal and public lives, it’s masterful. It successfully captures the feeling of the time and place, it allows the people, the ideas and the actions to speak for themselves, it moves the reader with suspense and tragedy. It’s a rich and evocative novel, about which much more could and deserves to be said than space allows. English Canada doesn’t do engaged novels like this. Pity.
Michel Basilières is the author of Black Bird, the only English language novel about the October Crisis now in print. He is currently completing a new novel.