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book review

Many of the stories in Raymond Bock’s book Atavisms involved the anger and dismay about the marginalization of francophone society.Annie Lafleur.

In Another Country: Selected Stories
By David Constantine
Biblioasis, 277 pages, $28.95

By Raymond Bock, translated by Pablo Strauss
Dalkey Archive, 144 pages, $13.95

There are writers for whom place is a key component of authorial sensibility. Not for nothing is a small tract of land in southwestern Ontario's Huron County known as "Munro Country." David Adams Richards has the Miramichi River in New Brunswick; Joyce had Dublin; Faulkner and Twain had their respective portions of Mississippi. David Constantine and Raymond Bock both focus on specific locales that inform and infuse their short fiction: the windswept crags of Wales and England's west coast in the former case; rural and urban Quebec in the latter. Both authors refuse to restrict their settings to background scenery, choosing instead to fully inhabit the place in which their stories unfold.

Ice and wind are the key touchstones in Constantine's fiction, which is itself cast in a chilly mien. "The wind blew steadily hard with frequent surges of greater ferocity that shook the vast plate glass behind which a woman and man were having tea" is the opening sentence of Tea at the Midland. The strange and expressionistic Goat takes place over a Christmas that is "the coldest in living memory"; the anonymous clergyman at the centre of the tale compares the area's ice "to a sort of Xanadu" and the landscape of the story is rendered in frigid imagery: "Having quitted the street, their light was starlight, glittering frost and the dull gleams of broken glass and broken ice."

Even Mr. Carlton, a story that takes place during midsummer, is not immune to reveries of winter: "Who would deliver to such a place?" thinks the eponymous protagonist, a recent widower who has abandoned his home and his grief for an impromptu road trip. "Would a lorry manage that track? In the wet, in snow and ice?" Mr. Carlton encounters a stranger who sums up what might represent the cumulative attitude of many characters in Constantine's stories: "Fucking silly place to live."

Constantine's protagonists tend to be loners, and their strained and strenuous relationships resemble the hardscrabble land of rock and ice. The couple in Tea at the Midland reach an impasse over their respective responses to the sculptures of Eric Gill, an artist who engaged in incestuous affairs with his sisters and daughters. "And with the dog," the woman reminds her scandalized partner. "Don't forget the dog." Her willingness to appreciate Gill's art in spite of what she knows of the artist's character drives an inextricable wedge between the couple.

The protagonist of the long story An Island, meanwhile, is a former monk who retreats to the titular isle to recover from what appears to be a failed love affair. "I think these letters may still be a sort of courtship," he writes at the end of one of the epistolary story's entries. An Island is emblematic of Constantine's central concerns: the inherent challenges in understanding or connecting with others, the pain of separation and loss, and the attempt – often futile – to overcome these states through art.

This is represented by the man's reaction to stumbling across an anonymous island denizen painstakingly fashioning an arch out of pebbles. The effort and care the craftsman takes in building this edifice touches a part of the protagonist that he has been trying desperately to access: "I prayed a prayer such as I hardly ever prayed in all my time with the monks, that his keystone would hold and the two half-arches, so needing one another, so incapable of any life without, would by their meeting and their obedience to gravity (their suicidal wish to fall) over the void would hold when one by one he took his servant necessary stones away." The reference to suicide is germane: when the protagonist next sees the anonymous man's stonework, it is at a gravesite. In Constantine's universe, art, love and death are never very far apart.

Constantine's artistic vision, like the land he takes as his setting, is bleak and rugged; a hardy soul is required to navigate it. Raymond Bock's vision is similarly harsh, though his sensibility arises out of a culturally inculcated sense of anger and dismay wrought by historic marginalization of francophone society at the hands of a dominant language and culture. In Wolverine, the furious opener to Bock's debut collection, a group of discontented would-be radicals kidnap a Liberal cabinet minister (in an explicit allusion to the kidnappings of James Cross and Pierre Laporte that triggered the 1970 October Crisis). The story builds to a crescendo during which one of the kidnappers mercilessly beats and rapes his captive: "Every blow was accompanied by a manly grunt and the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation – the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the sham democracy."

The story is a seething work of righteous anger; the violation the prisoner endures a metaphor for the repeated violations endured by a segment of Canadian society that has witnessed its language become diluted and its distinct society eroded. In the dystopian Black Star, one of the violent revolutionaries at the story's centre keeps with her at all times a copy of the Refus global, the anti-establishment manifesto of Jean-Paul Riopelle, Paul-Émile Borduas and the Automatistes of the 1940s. Black Star ends with a violent confrontation during which the revolutionaries liberate a painting from Montreal's Museum of Canadian Art; the final moment in the story is simultaneously hilarious and ironic in its gesture of futility and defeat.

Wolverine and Black Star are the two most explicitly political stories in the collection, but this is not to suggest that the others don't contain similar threads of commingled anger, dismay, and frustration. All 13 entries in Atavisms – which span Quebec's history from the first contact of French colonizers with the Iroquois through to the near future – metaphorically resound with the province's shared psyche, forged in a smithy of marginalization and betrayal.

One of the most impressive of these is Room 130, which comes late in the collection and ostensibly has nothing at all to do with the history of Quebec. An agonizingly sad story told in the first person from the perspective of a son speaking to his terminally ill father, the story bemoans the lost vitality of the older man and the younger man's forfeited innocence and incipient mortality. "You don't even wake up when the nurses come to change your bandages," the son says to his insensible father. "Your tumors sweat and your gauze quickly colors with yellow humors and brown flowers, but apparently you don't feel a thing. That's what they say. I don't believe it. You were always too sensitive, too alive to ignore pain." It is only later that one realizes the story is about so much more than a son making peace with his dying father.

Steven W. Beattie's short story column appears monthly.