Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. —Joseph Schreiber
Growing up in a broken home is rarely easy. Too often children become pawns on the emotional battlefield as their parents face off against one another. This is the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity in which the eponymous narrator of Life in the Court of Matane and his sister find themselves at an early age. So it’s little wonder that they would recognize their predicament in the feats of a certain young Romanian gymnast swinging between the uneven parallel bars at 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But Nadia Comaneci is only one of a number of personalities evoked in this inventive coming-of-age story. She joins the re-imagined court of Henry VIII, key figures in the debate between Québec Separatists and Federalists, and a menagerie of assorted birds and beasts in Eric Dupont’s engaging account of a childhood defined by divorce.
Originally published as Bestiaire in 2008, Peter McCambridge’s translation of this acclaimed novel heralds the debut of QC Fiction, an ambitious publishing initiative dedicated to introducing readers to an new generation of Québec literature. Their goal is to be able to offer “surprising, interesting novels in flawless English translation” to a wide audience through a subscription funded model inspired by publishers such as And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, and Open Letter Books. With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine a more enchanting and original novel to launch this new imprint than Life in the Court of Matane.
Eric Dupont was born in 1970 in Amqui, Québec and, like his protagonist, grew up in Matane, a town on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River some 400 kilometres east of Quebec City. He completed his post-secondary education in Ottawa, Salzburg, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto and presently he lives and works in Montreal. A bright light on the Québec literary landscape, he has been called “one of the province’s most daring and original writers” by La Presse. An eager reader, haunting the town library from an early age, Dupont lists Apollinaire, Anouilh, and the surrealist André Pieyre de Mandiargues among the writers that first delighted him when he began to study literature in university. He would go on to encounter Calvino, Cortázar and, with particular enthusiasm, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. As he confesses: “We each take our secret weapons where we can find them.”
In keeping with its original French title, Life in the Court of Matane takes its structure from the medieval Bestiary, a series of allegorical or moralizing fables based on the appearance and habits of real or mythical creatures. Each chapter is named for and features a different bird or animal. Some take on magical qualities, engaging young Eric in conversations that may or may not be imagined, whereas others have more grounded, albeit symbolic, roles. However, the English title speaks to one of the most provocative features of Dupont’s childhood reality as he presents it—his fragmented family is governed by a skewed reincarnation of a Tudor king and his despotic queen. In this portrait, he invites the reader to imagine his police officer father as a woman-obsessed Henry VIII collecting wives “like others collect cars.” His mother, the fun-loving and playful Micheline Raymond, professional cook, as her children refer to her, is cast as Catherine of Aragon, the first queen who has been deposed by decree of the Family Court system. In her former throne sits wife number two, Anne Boleyn, a woman enamored with science, numbers, and order. In the newly reformed household, she sets the tone:
It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded. Thanks to Anne Boleyn and her books, I foresaw the chance to walk toward the future a new man. Memories would be no use to me. They compromised my relations with the crown. Before the monarchs, it was simply a matter of feigning approval of all their dreams and projects, all the while imagining their disappearance behind their backs and the day when Henry VIII would come to his senses. I waited and learned.
Our precocious protagonist is but seven years of age when the summer of 1977 brings the Great Upheaval and a life once delicately balanced between the uneven parallel bars of the post-divorce parental gymnastics routine is suddenly disrupted by placing an impossible distance between the two bars. With the impending arrival of an heir apparent, a younger half-brother, the court decides to relocate 300 kilometers to the east from Rivière-du-Loup to Matane. Eric will find himself marooned on the Gaspé Peninsula for nearly a decade, facing a new existence marked by years of relentless school bullying and daring dreams of escape until, at the age of sixteen, he will finally manage to fly the coop.
Lest there be any doubt, the king’s children from his first marriage quickly realize that the past is past. Over the years, new rules of memory are introduced through a series of royal edicts. Edict 101 strictly forbids the utterance of the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook. Beyond that, along with the expected edicts extolling cleanliness and academic achievement; Cadbury chocolate products are outlawed, all talk of religion is banned, and unconditional support for the sovereignty movement is commanded. Under the reign of Anne Boleyn, the vassals must learn to adapt or, at best, disguise their transgressions.
Blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a near photographic memory, Eric Dupont—the author that is, not his narrator alter ego—has a deep and abiding interest in remembering and forgetting in literature. Memory is a theme appears repeatedly throughout this novel. Edicts notwithstanding, the queen can no more force the children to forget their mother than young Eric can fill his theoretically finite mental real estate with facts and figures in an effort to drive his memories of her into the distance. The longing he and his sister feel for their mother is, quite naturally, profound and heartbreaking. But, in the spirit of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and Melville’s Bartleby, they embark on their own form of passive resistance. If the name of Micheline Raymond, professional cook, cannot be spoken, it can be celebrated through a collaborative effort to reproduce their mother’s infectious idiosyncratic laugh. Memory contained in the joyous eruption of sound becomes remembering as inability to forget.
The corollary of being unable to forget someone you love, is the fear that they will forget you. This concern is echoed in the longest and most magically inclined chapter, “The Dog (1980).” As Eric bonds, however uneasily, with Anne Boleyn by mastering the Rubik’s Cube and sharing her interest in stamp collecting, he invites the reader to imagine a series of late night encounters on the wharf with a stray dog who will talk if one cares to listen and comes well stocked with meatballs to encourage her to engage in conversation. This dog, it turns out is the ghost of Laika, the ill-fated proto-Cosmonaut, somehow rescued miraculously from her doomed Sputnik mission in the late 1950’s to be forever condemned to wander the misty streets of Matane steadfast in her faith that Oleg, her beloved trainer, is searching for her and will soon arrive to take her home to Moscow. She cannot relinquish her memories of the one human she believes ever truly cared for her. Eric’s dreams of Laika, whom he first discovered on a Romanian stamp, will fuel his own fantasies of stealing away aboard a ship bound for the USSR, to heroically sacrifice himself to the Soviet space program. Six years later, when at last he truly makes good his escape, this time to study in Austria, the narrative once again turns to the magical, involving memory and a Baudelaire quoting owl. By that point though, he is fully prepared to move on and, if he is anxious to forget anything, it is his long years of subjugation under Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the succession of erstwhile queens that follow in her wake.
Life in the Court of Matane is, first and foremost, a very funny novel. It is rich and intentionally enthusiastic in the bold effort to stuff in everything including the kitchen sink. The ins and outs of a Catholic education, fallout from Québec Referendum, Cold War politics, the reproductive strategies of the brown-headed cowbird, Grimm’s fairytales, Heidi, the economics of egg production, Micmac folklore and much more are all washed down with copious amounts of Château Rancour. However, there are distinct challenges and risks involved in sustaining a consciously comic tone over what can be painful personal terrain, and successfully navigating excursions that extend from exaggerated metaphor to tip into the realm of magical realism then pull back again. Dupont manages all of this with an admirable measure of control. There is the sense that the royal imagery he is playing with, within a structure derived from the Bestiary template, allows him to blur the line between memoir and fiction, and tell a story that may in truth be very close to home. The real sorrow of growing up in a divorce fractured family rings through, and serves to solidly ground the wildly imaginative tales that he delights in spinning.
Voice is also critical. Narrated from the perspective of early mid-life, this novel strikes the just right balance between the adult’s telling and the child’s logic, or the adult’s sarcastic humour and the child’s naiveté. This is wonderfully illustrated in twelve year-old Eric’s long standing confusion around the epitaph “faggot,” as in this scene from a time during which the family lived in a village outside of Matane:
The school yard was a sad place where tensions between the village and rural parents were atoned for on a smaller—albeit no less cruel—scale. I learned all kinds of fascinating things there. Some children’s parents, for instance, were convinced that police officers pocketed the fines they handed out for themselves and that this was how they were paid. And so the day the king came home with a second-hand Volvo, they shouted at me that the car had been basically stolen from the people of Saint-Ulric. Or rather they didn’t shout. They grunted, and the grunting was followed with a shove to the ground. As a narrative epilogue to the violent episode, they shouted “faggot,” a word whose true meaning I was unsure of and that never failed to spark a deep epistemological crisis. For the longest time, I thought that a faggot was someone who knew how to read. I tried to explain that, in point of fact, police officer’s salaries were paid by… But really, what was the point?
Literature is littered with dysfunctional families. Tolstoy’s dictum about happy families aside, unhappy families often have much in common, and their stories can run the risk of falling into a certain routine, with a sameness that blunts the edge of the drama and emotion. Not so with Eric Dupont. His penchant for story telling allows him to create a world that brims with larger-than-life vitality while capturing the tensions of growing up in a family divided by divorce, ideology and distance. The result is a remarkably sensitive and intelligent coming-of-age story told with an irresistible blend of heartache, humour and magic.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts