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Book Reviews Review: What do these works of Francophone fiction reveal to the Anglophone reader? Thankfully, nothing cohesive

Arvida

By Samuel Archibald
Translated by Donald Winkler
Biblioasis, 300 pages, $19.95

The Lake

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By Perrine Leblanc
Translated by Lazer Lederhendler
Arachnide, 208 pages, $22.95

Guano

By Louis Carmain
Translated by Rhonda Mullins
Coach House, 160 pages, $19.95

A few months ago, the Swedish publisher Bokförlaget Tranan released an anthology, in Swedish, of 25 short stories by Canadian authors. Kanada berättar: Minne av vatten ("Canada says: Memory of water," alleges Google Translate) includes some expected names – Boyden, Gallant, Gowdy, MacLeod, Moore – and, refreshingly, nine writers whose work has been translated from French.

That more than a third of the entries are from Canada's "other" official language is notable when one considers similar collections published here with nationalistic intentions. Both Oxford's and Penguin's Book(s) of Canadian Short Stories suffer a dearth of Francophone representation, and Michael Ondaatje's From Ink Lake includes just five Quebecois writers among his 50 selections. The annual Journey Prize anthology claims to showcase "the best of Canada's new writers," though that statement would be more accurate if it added "in English."

Few things reveal our nation's supposed two solitudes more acutely than our literature. If you ask most Anglophones to name their favourite Quebecois writers, expect blank stares (and no, Yann Martel doesn't count). While two of the finalists for the 2015 Canada Reads competition were books translated from French, and Samuel Archibald's Arvida is currently in contention for the Giller Prize, we've seen these blips before. Gaetan Soucy's Giller shortlisting in 2006 didn't exactly inspire widespread attention for Franco-Canadian writing.

The relative absence of Quebecois literature on the national stage is, obviously, due to language, though not just the discrepancies of translation. "Samuel Archibald's stories come from over there: way, way over there," begins the Giller citation for Arvida, and adds that "it tells us everything we need to know, the real dirt, about this place and about all the people." Perhaps the intention is innocuous enough, meant only to convey the stories' depth of focus in relation to a small town like any other, English or French. But as the sole book in translation on the list, and considering the broader politics at play, that kind of anthropological othering risks casting Arvida as not just representative of a particular town and its populace, but of an entire province.

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It's a false assumption, of course, that Quebec is somehow more culturally and ontologically harmonized, and as such easier to define than the rest of Canada. As with most false dichotomies, "we" understand "them" through a singular narrative, one playing out in this election cycle in its most insidious form: The right exploits an issue that strikes at the heart of cultural insecurities; the left bemoans the intolerance of an allegedly backward electorate. As with language politics, the intracacies and nuances of an entire province are subsequently reduced to the crude binary of yes/no referenda.

Enter fiction, which, one hopes, offers something a little more complex. Arvida, translated by Donald Winkler, is an intriguing collection of short stories set mostly in and around the eponymous smelting town in Quebec's Saguenay region. Established in the late-1920s as an industrial hub, the town's name derives from Alcoa/Alcan's then chairman, Arthur Vining Davis, a fabrication mentioned explicitly in the book and explored as a locus of invention – and reinvention. As it is framed in Archibald's stories, Arvida, that "town of leisure and forgetfulness," lends itself innately to narrative.

And yet, "To tell the story," warns the narrator of Madeleines, "is already to rob it of its power and fascination." Many of these attempts at reclamation are often ironized with loss; a melancholic tone haunts each retrospective recasting of the past, and the vain project of reminiscence is examined with intelligence and emotional acuity. "When I think about it now, the comedy darkens," explains the narrator of My Father and Proust. "The more I age, something tragic makes its presence felt, the sense of a bitter nostalgia at the core of things … and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret."

The residual pain of the unachieved colours the book, whether the story is about two friends driving the Cabot Trail in search of something ineffable, or a failed human-smuggling caper down to the States. In Winkler's translation, Arvida's sentences are conversational, lending the collection the tenor of local lore, though they do turn occasionally inward or explode with poetic flourishes – in A Mirror in the Mirror, Gemma "[wanders] through the house like the hush between the lines of a romantic poet," while the City of Light is described in Paris in the Rain as "a large zoo where intellectuals were shut up behind café windows."

Perrine Leblanc's The Lake, translated by Lazer Lederhendler, also adopts a rural setting, on the north shore of Baie des Chaleurs. The village of Malabourg is the author's creation, but Leblanc renders it vividly, as she does the gender and generational dynamics that inform the story: "The bone-weary man looks for a young body he can wipe his grimy, hard-working hands on, a rag body fragrant with imported vanilla." Especially for young women, Malabourg is a place of entrapment and isolation, a place to escape – but also one that haunts its characters, and to which they must invariably return.

If that sounds familiar, so is the story – to a point. Girls are being murdered and dumped in the lake, aka "The Tomb," and 17-year-old Mina and a 21-year-old amateur florist named Alexis become entangled in the horrors. In its opening few pages, the novel feels rooted in a certain type of genre piece, from its physical descriptions – in keeping with the botanical themes, one adolescent victim's "figure had blossomed" – to the hand-held recorder that captures the killer's confession and forces his suicide.

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Apologies for the spoilers, but the mystery is wrapped by the midway point of the novel, anyway, when things shift gears: Alexis heads to France to learn the perfumer's trade, and he and Mina, inextricably linked by the murders, become lovers. The 200-page novel spends a good portion of its latter half detailing Alexis's olfactory gifts, offering side bouts of romance and even, presumably to sprinkle a little grit into the sweetened waters, evoking the Montreal student protests of 2012. Meanwhile, Alexis fine-tunes his piece de resistance, a fragrance that incorporates the scent of a "silent flower that does not open naturally for the perfumer and whose scent he must recreate."

Unlike Archibald, Leblanc seems to believe that art can regenerate and even restore the essence of what is lost. And then there is Guano. Louis Carmain's outstanding first novel, which won the prestigious Prix de Collégiens, abandons the province of his birth altogether for the shores of Peru. The story begins in 1862 with Spain's global influence sagging and Queen Isabella II intent on reasserting her nation's dominance in South America. Under the auspices of a scientific mission, she dispatches a squadron of ships across the Atlantic; aboard the lead boat is Simón Cristiano Claro, who defaults into the role of official scribe due to his lack of interest in pretty much everything else.

Once ashore in Callao, Simón falls for the mysterious Montse, daughter of a brutally murdered local dignitary, for whom he writes "the most beautiful letter ever," which he fails to ever send. Guano echoes Arvida 's view of language: incommensurate with the passions and disappointments of real life, capable mostly of distortion. While tensions between the colonialists and their former subjects escalate – "Finally a real war was coming together, with the numbers to back it up" – Simón struggles with its depiction, obsessed as his thoughts are with Montse, "whose face was becoming a mere spectre."

In Rhonda Mullins' elegant translation, Guano is funny, strange, smart, beautifully written and hugely entertaining, and certainly one of the best Canadian novels of postmodern historical reimagining since Douglas Glover's Elle. (Though Lee Henderson's The Man Game was pretty terrific, too.)

So what, collectively, do it, a halfway murder mystery and a collection of Proust-inflected short stories impart to the novice Anglophone reader about Francophone culture? Nothing cohesive, thankfully.

We are still haunted in this country by the archaic notion that our solitudes are linguistic. Perhaps in Hugh MacLennan's time it was easier to ignore the bounty of other languages spoken from Victoria to St. John's, be they indigenous or immigrant.

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I mention this mostly to implicate myself. I spent three years at Concordia University, and my dad lives in Montreal, but I'm still very much a clueless outsider when it comes to Quebec. And yet, having suggested three recent works of Francophone fiction for this column, I had grand designs on the threads I might isolate and weave between Arvida, The Lake and Guano, and in so doing stitch some grand tapestry illuminating Quebecois literature and cultural identity.

And then I read the books, which are as varied in plot, style, structure, character and content, and as taxonomically diverse, as any national literature ought to be in 2015.

Pasha Malla's most recent book, Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion (co-written with Jeff Parker), has just been released.

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