From Patrick Coleman: Les Boys of October

The cover of Louis Hamelin’s ambitious new novel about the October Crisis, La Constellation du lynx (Montréal: Boréal, 2010, $32.95), shows a trapper’s snare set against the background of a snowy clearing in the woods. To have des yeux de lynx is to have exceptionally good vision, and so to capture the wild animal of the title would be to grasp the elusive meaning of the violent events that followed the Front de Libération Québécois’ decision in 1970 to kidnap British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte.

On another level, the snare’s looped wire also evokes another image that recurs in the novel as an insistent motif: the chain Laporte wore around his neck and with which he was strangled to death, in circumstances that have remained just as elusive to final understanding. Like the testimonies of the historical participants in the affair, the writer’s attitude seems to that any definitive account would be another kind of trap, distracting us from the larger contradictions in the official accounts of the crisis.

From a literary point of view, however, the image of the snare also serves as a warning to the reader not to miss the forest for the trees. The reviews I have seen have all focused on its presentation of inconvenient “facts” that call into question the official version of what happened, as well as the dark suggestions that CIA, British, and Canadian security forces not only infiltrated the FLQ but manipulated the whole October Crisis as a way of delegitimizing Quebec nationalism. It has to be said that the author has encouraged this kind of reading. In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Hamelin declares that he has used “novelistic imagination” primarily “as an instrument of historical investigation,” filling in the “façade full of holes” of the official accounts with the “novelist’s mortar,” mixed from the “unofficial history” he has found in books by Dan Loomis, Louis Fournier, and Jacques Ferron (p. 593). He acknowledges that accounts by participants such as Francis Simard, who was convicted of Laporte’s murder, are also full of “deafening silences,” for which, though he does not say so explicitly, he attempts to compensate as well.

How plausibly Hamelin succeeds in this is a question I must leave to the experts. Instead, I want to focus on the implications of casting this investigation in the form of a novel. Whatever his stated intentions may be, the writer who does so invites the reader to judge his work not so much by its faithfulness to specific facts but by the depth of his imaginative vision—his yeux de lynx, if you will. If that vision is not compelling, there is little reason to spend time on arguments that would be better stated in analytical form.[1] This is all the more true in that, unlike, say, Lee Harvey Oswald, whose motives are re-imagined in Don DeLillo’s novel Libra, one of Hamelin’s acknowledged influences, most of the FLQ militants are still alive and at liberty to fill in the gaps of their own story if they decided to do so. Why risk having your characters being upstaged by their real-life models?

In fact, the image of the writer as a fact-tracker is clearly at odds with the imaginative scope of the book itself, a 600-page work bursting with multiple narrators and settings, and reveling in a variety of speech-patterns ranging from the crudely colloquial to the bureaucratic and the precious. These features distinguish La Constellation du lynx from other fictionalizations of the October Crisis, notably Brian Moore’s The Revolution Script (1971) or Pierre Falardeau’s film Octobre (1994), which for all their differences of ideology, use the same tightly-disciplined, documentary approach, subordinating the artistic to the events they portray—as if to do otherwise would be to betray the truth. The complexity of Hamelin’s narrative, by contrast, implicitly invokes a different notion of responsibility. By underscoring the contingency of any individual statement or event in relation to the whole, it encourages—or should encourage—readers to test their plausibility in terms of the imaginative coherence and cogency of the book. That is to say, in terms of the novel as a work of art.

The novel combines two plots. The more original of these is the quest undertaken by Samuel Nihilo (anagram of Louis Hamelin), at the turn of the millennium, to uncover the real reasons for the kidnappings, the murder, and the imposition of the War Measures Act. Sam, a freelance writer down on his luck, was a student of the equally whimsically named poet and professor Chevalier Branlequeue (“Jerkprick”), a loose amalgam of Gaston Miron and Jacques Ferrron, who had been arrested during the October crisis but also used by the police as a go-between in negotiations with one the FLQ cells. Aging and sick, Branlequeue bequeaths the files of his own investigation of the crisis to Sam, who pursues any lead he can still find. His quest is intertwined with the ups and downs of his affair with a moody actress named Marie-Québec Brisebois (“Breakwood,” a gentler version, I suppose, of Casse-couilles), whom he follows to a third-rate theatre in Abitibi, where she is playing the heroine of Camus’ Les Justes (a play about revolutionary terrorism in 1905 Russia, in which Camus dramatized his disagreements with Sartre on the question of violence), and where Sam’s meditations on Quebec history merge with his musings on the bleak landscape where the pathetic suburbs of this declining mining town meet a vast and vaguely hostile hinterland. Hamelin, who was trained as a biologist before he became a novelist, is at his best in his evocations of the flora and fauna of this landscape. The precision of his descriptive vocabulary seems to accentuate the atmosphere of emotional deprivation. This part of the novel is reminiscent of Hamelin’s first novel, La Rage (1989), which won a Governor-General’s award for its passionate sympathy for the people whose land was expropriated for Mirabel airport, a white elephant whose fate vindicated the author’s cynicism about economic opportunity for the underclass.

Haunted by the ghost of the murdered government minister, Sam is also taunted by a lynx prowling around his cabin, which seems to represent the enigmatic violence at the heart both of nature and of murderous humanity, and whose hermeneutical significance is revealed in one of Chevalier’s remarks to Sam: “Maybe the explanations we seek are never anything other than approximations, sketches we load with meaning, like the constellations: we draw dogs and dippers where there reigns only the everlasting ice of extinct suns (p. 297). At the end of the book, Sam will unexpectedly meet one of the alleged FLQ murderers, but significantly their meeting occurs in another seedy setting halfway between nature and civilization, a cheap Mexico seaside town, and the encounter fails to provide the decisive revelation for which he hoped.

The second plot tracks the movements of various players in the drama of 1970: politicians of the Liberal party machine and their gangland moneymen, anti-terrorist cops, and most of all the members of the FLQ cell that kidnapped Pierre Laporte. Or rather, “Paul Lavoie,” since Hamelin coyly changes the names of the real people on which his characters are based. Some of these changes are transparent, like “Lavoie” for “Laporte,” or “Lafleur” for “Rose.” Others, such as “Albert Vézina” for “Robert Bourassa,” merely spin a derisive rhyme off the real thing. Curiously, the most sympathetic of the kidnappers, because he alone has a degree of inner life and vulnerability, is the character based (it would seem) on Francis Simard, who ultimately went to prison for Laporte’s murder. He is called Richard Godefroid, and is usually referred to by his nickname “Gode,” which in French colloquial speech is short for godemiché or “dildo,” echoing in degraded form the phallic exuberance of “Branlequeue.” Gode, who was born in the Abitibi Sam would later inhabit, was raised in another derelict environment: Ville Jacques-Cartier on Montreal’s South Shore (now part of the more bourgeois Longueil), portrayed as a raw new town of cut-rate construction and political payoffs (Hamelin’s Lavoie is beholden to the mafia), and where survival of the fittest is the rule. Everything that takes place in the St-Hubert house where Lavoie is held hostage is seen in terms of this South Shore background even more than of the ideological background of decolonization or revolution, just as Sam’s quest, symbolized by the lynx, is driven more by his depressive connection to the half-civilized wilderness of northwestern Quebec then by the prospect of fame or fortune. The two characters are linked by Gode’s own encounter with a lynx at the beginning of the novel. As a boy on a hunting trip with his father way up north, he watches as a trapper strangles a lynx he had captured and failed to turn into a pet. The strangling of the FLQ hostage seems to be anticipated in some way by this gruesome incident.

Hamelin’s characterization of these persons and places are as provocative in their unrelenting bleakness as his version of the actual events of the Crisis is controversial, but as yet it has attracted little comment. Perhaps it is felt to be irrelevant to the main issue, or perhaps his wordplays are downplayed as regrettable lapses in good taste on the part of an author who after publishing a dozen books as a rebellious outsider, now, at the age of fifty, enjoys establishment status as a literary columnist for Le Devoir. The first judgment ignores the seamlessness of the connection between the different parts of the novel; the second, it seems to me, should make us wonder all the more why Hamelin, and not a more “high-toned” writer, should have found it so easy to integrate the matter of the October Crisis into his own imaginative universe. Without claiming to answer the larger question—although the fact that one of his other novels, Le Soleil des gouffres (1996), is based on the Order of the Solar Temple and its collective suicides is surely relevant—I would like to conclude with a few remarks on the (Quebec) world according to Hamelin.

Its most striking feature is its flatness. Hamelin’s characters have no stature. The names he gives them preclude them from being taken for heroes, any of them. The consequence, however, is that the importance of the larger political conflict is also diminished. Hamelin makes us feel the desolation of unmoored figures such as Gode, cut off from country roots that have lost their meaning yet confined to the margins of urban development. But he makes it difficult to see how these characters, who gain our sympathy precisely because capacity for sophisticated argumentation doesn’t match the eloquence the author gives to their inarticulate wounds, could have composed a text like the FLQ manifesto, which struck a chord even with many of those who disapproved of the kidnappings when it was read on television. The Sam Nihilo of the other plot is much better educated, but he is no hero either, not only because of his personal mediocrity, but because, like Gode, he doesn’t really represent anything larger than himself. Neither character has any connection with parents or ancestors, and their South Shore or Abitibi context (even the Gaspé of the hippie summer that was a turning point in some of the kidnappers’ lives is described more in terms of squalor than of sublimity) is not one that can be described in terms of a nation or a pays, but only in terms of a landscape that has neither the majesty of Nature nor the vitality of a community caught in the dynamic of History. In speculating about RCMP, CIA, and British security manipulation of the FLQ to discredit the Quebec independence movement, Hamelin may have wanted to endow the October Crisis with international resonance, but one has to wonder why these agencies would have bothered disturbing a culture so thoroughly mired in its own abjection.

This judgment may sound harsh, since Hamelin is a talented writer with a genuine passion for his cause, but his book is remarkable as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes. We tend to think of the October Crisis as a Montreal phenomenon, in which the kidnappings become the occasion for anxiety and negotiation among political elites, and the prime site of military deployment after the proclamation of the War Measures Act, a locus of high-stakes conflict, yet it is curious how little the city itself appears in the novel. There are a few, one might say obligatory, pages on the indiscriminate arrests of various intellectuals and artists of which so much has been made by other commentators, but Hamelin spends little time on the cell that kidnapped James Cross (and which included some of the more bourgeois of the terrorists), except ironically to show us a British diplomat called Travers whose cool and whose rumored MI5 connections set him miles above the other players in the drama, not least the pathetic Lavoie.

By contrast, public figures such as Trudeau and Vézina-Bourassa appear only long enough to serve as objects of scorn. The moderate nationalists of various stripes, from Le Devoir editor Claude Ryan to politician Jacques Parizeau and union leader Marcel Pépin, or the other “eminent personalities” whose petition asking the Quebec government to negotiate the release of political prisoners in exchange for the hostages is still a matter of controversy, are entirely absent, and René Lévesque makes only the briefest of cameo appearances in disguised form. At first I thought Hamelin wanted to shield these leaders from the novel’s atmosphere of general cynicism and mockery. But the real reason, I believe, is his insistence on denying the Quebec of the Crisis with any genuine historical agency.

One wonders if in the end the novel’s resolutely disenchanted, demystifying stance is not a self-undermining one. There may well be reasons to re-open the file on the October Crisis with questions about the gaps in the historical record, but it won’t be because Hamelin has made us care about the answers more than we did before reading his book.

Quebec novelist Louis Hamelin
Courtesy Éditions du Boréal

[1] As for instance, William Tetley, who was a member of Robert Bourassa’s cabinet at the time, has done in The October Crisis, 1970: an insider’s view (McGill-Queen’s, 2007), supplemented by helpful documents on his website (http://www.mcgill.ca/maritimelaw/crisis/). Whatever one thinks of Tetley’s intepretation of the crisis, it rests on arguments and documents offered open to inspection.


This article first appeared in the Canadian journal of opinion Inroads 29; it appears here by permission.

Patrick Coleman
Photo: Candis Snoddy

Patrick Coleman was raised in Montreal and currently teaches French and Quebec literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a former editor of the journal Québec Studies. His latest book is Anger, Gratitude, and the Enlightenment Writer (Oxford, 2011).
 


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