Word Limit

Two poets write debut novels in which words can only do so much.

In Don Coles’s first novel, Doctor Bloom’s Story, Marianne Logan, a psychotherapist struggling to understand a woman’s rationalization of her husband’s abuse, asks her lover, the cardiologist Nicolaas Bloom, “how do you press language out of grief?” This question is at the heart of both Doctor Bloom’s Story and Maggie Helwig’s Between Mountains. In the former, Daniel Bryant, a war correspondent, and Lili Stambolovic, a professional translator, both press grief into language for a living: Daniel every time he writes another tragic account of the war and Lili, half-Albanian and half-Serbian, as she translates for recalcitrant diplomats, “charged only with accurately conveying words, as the pieces of her heritage ripped each other apart.” Both Coles and Helwig question the act of writing, and implicate the writer in the very events he or she strives to convey.

When Doctor Bloom’s Story opens, Bloom is attempting to abandon medicine for literature. In a Ryerson College writing workshop in Toronto, he becomes intrigued by Sophie Führ, a quiet and enigmatic Swiss woman; shortly after meeting her, Bloom sees a woman he takes to be Sophie beaten in a ravine. The question of whether this woman was or was not Sophie, and whether the man who beat her was or was not her husband, becomes a mystery for both Bloom and Marianne. Just as both questions seem to point to the affirmative, Sophie’s husband arrives on Bloom’s front porch requesting cardiac care. Bloom considers whether to violate his medical oath to compromise the husband’s health while Marianne, in a series of visits, tries to understand Sophie’s unwillingness to abandon a husband who beats her. By chronicling Sophie’s abuse, Bloom finds a release from his own writer’s block; at the same time, the question of whether Bloom will act rather than simply observe provides the dramatic crux of a wonderfully rich, beautifully imagined novel.

What might have seemed a strained conceit—Sophie’s violent husband coming under the direct care of the first witness to her abuse—works because Coles writes so elegantly and so convincingly that we would follow him anywhere (anywhere being, most often, up Toronto’s Yonge Street between Ryerson University and a short street east of Mount Pleasant, with occasional jaunts into the ravine). The writing is always beautiful and often hilarious. Bloom decides to join the writing workshop after a series of small events makes him particularly aware of his own mortality; reflecting on dying, he realizes that his authorial ambitions have become hopelessly stalled. “The fact that I wasn’t sure what genre I was working in might have tipped me off earlier,” Bloom admits, disarming us with humour for just a moment before we are reminded that this particular struggling author writes with the power of a poet:

The reason there was this confusion between novel and memoir was that my narrator/protagonist… kept on covertly directing his steps towards me, he kept on disclosing minor interests that were quite close to mine, now and then he would even lift his face into a shaft of street light which would have made it easy for anyone within half a mile who had known me thirty years ago to start saying to whomever he or she was with,“Don’t look now, but—”or “Isn’t that—?”

Coles plays with the boundaries between his novel and Bloom’s memoir throughout the book. Bloom vows never to reveal his actions against Sophie’s husband, yet he writes a story that carefully recounts each one, thereby violating the limits of the fictional world he inhabits. But if Coles is guilty of, in the words of one of his own characters, “feckless post Modernist arseing around,” his novel is so disarmingly elegant that consuming it becomes more compelling than unravelling it. Toward the end of the book, Bloom reflects on Marianne and Sophie’s meetings, writing that for both women the conversations meant “a sensibility at full stretch” and that “you can’t ask for better than that.” Doctor Bloom’s Story provides just such a sensibility, sensitively told.

At the outset of Coles’s novel, Bloom promises that he will not be a passive observer, “nose pressed to the windowpane.” In Helwig’s Between Mountains, Daniel and Lili find themselves, time and again, watching through glass as events unfold that they can observe but never affect. The novel opens with Daniel peering out the window of a dingy Bosnian hotel room; when tanks pass beneath his window, he follows them, becoming a witness to the arrest of Nikola Markovic, a Bosnian Serb official whom Daniel has profiled. Lili will eventually find herself across a table from Markovic, where, as a translator for the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, she will strive for “transparency, a self-effacement thorough enough that no one in the room would remember they were there.”

Lili and Daniel’s relationship is from the start timid and insecure, as befits two individuals who observe rather than act. After their first meeting they do not see each other for three years, until Lili tries to avoid Daniel at the Paris peace talks— translators should not socialize with journalists, she insists—but, after the talks, when she glimpses him through the glass of a café window, she is caught looking and forced to say hello. This tense situation continues for another two years in a confusing chronological back-and-forth, finally culminating when Daniel arrives at the Hague to cover Markovic’s trial.

Helwig drops hints throughout about the eventual consequences of this strained romance, yet the climax not only lacks momentum, it is hardly believable. Lili has spent years keeping Daniel at a professional distance, refusing to meet him except in large groups. Yet when Daniel moves to the Hague, and into Lili’s apartment, he inexplicably sets up shop in the courtroom lobby where he is visible to judicial employees who know he is both a reporter and Lili’s lover. Early in the novel, Lili theorizes that Serbia’s poets are responsible for the Balkans’ collapse, telling Daniel that “this whole war was invented by writers.” But when Daniel compromises Lili’s career by writing an article about Markovic’s lawyer, he is surprised at its impact. While it is unclear why Daniel would not anticipate the effect of his story on Lili, it is clear that Daniel has written the destruction of their relationship.

Helwig is at her best when chronicling Lili and Daniel’s uncertain relationship, but she often moves away from them to peripheral characters: Markovic’s French lawyer, an academic unprepared for the nationalist fervour of his young Serbian Canadian colleague, a millennialist priest in London preaching the promise of Armageddon and, in what feels like a lesser imitation of Virginia Woolf, a shell-shocked young Bosnian pacing London, convinced he is culpable in the coming end of the world. On New Year’s Eve 2000 Daniel is on assignment in a London hospital emergency room, once more scribbling griefladen field notes: “All that Daniel could do was watch, from a small distance, his hand against glass, as helpless as he had always been.” The new year takes one more Bosnian victim; Daniel’s war, as he has known all along, is still not over. “We have damaged our history from the first possible moment,” Daniel writes, and yet, even as he does so, he moves toward Lili, offering his own fragile hope for “something new.”

“How can they talk of genocide,” Markovic asks at one point, “when each of us dies alone?” In the end, neither of these novels answers the question of how language can express grief, and in both books it is not words but longing that fills that silence: characters reaching for one another, risking the loss of self-control in order to forge a corner of peace.