Under the Volcano

Geology and love are linked in Dominique Fortier’s three-pronged tale

In the spring of 1902 on the Caribbean island of Martinique in the town of St. Pierre, a man named Baptiste Cyparis survives a devastating volcanic eruption. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean in England, at more or less the same moment, mathematician Edward Love proves the existence of the surface seismic waves that cause the Earth to shift during earthquakes. A century later in Montreal, two people meet on top of a mountain rumoured to be a dead volcano and fall in love.

What, if anything, links these three stories? Montreal writer Dominique Fortier raises the question by presenting them as a triptych in her second novel, Wonder (ably translated by Sheila Fischman from the French original, Les larmes de Saint-Laurent). While she declines to answer the question directly, she does provide clues allowing readers to formulate their own hypotheses.

In French-speaking Quebec, Fortier is a rising literary star. Her first novel, On the Proper Use of Stars (Du bon usage des étoiles), recounts the final voyage of 19th-century explorer Sir John Franklin as he tried to navigate the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Upon its release in 2008, it was widely praised and eventually shortlisted for a host of prestigious prizes including a Governor General’s Award for French fiction. Film rights were optioned by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, C.R.A.Z.Y.), who invited Fortier to co-write the script with him.

Les larmes de Saint-Laurent followed in 2010, again to great acclaim. Fortier’s timing was eerie, for that year turned out to be a record breaker for seismological disasters. In January, a powerful earthquake ripped through Haiti, killing more than 200,000 people. In February, a second deadly quake hit Chile, and in April a volcano erupted in Iceland, covering northern Europe in ash and causing havoc for air travellers. Not only could Fortier write fiction, but she also appeared to have her finger on the Earth’s tectonic pulse.

This year promises to be another strong literary year. Wonder has just been released for English readers, and a brand new novel was launched in French (La porte du ciel). Like most of Fortier’s fiction, this latest offering is set in the 19th century, but the location this time is New Orleans, during the American Civil War. English readers can hope that Fischman, who translated Fortier’s first two books, will soon be at work on it.

But back to Wonder. The novel’s first section, “Monsters and Marvels,” opens prophetically on Ash Wednesday, 1902. It is carnival time in Martinique, which the local islanders celebrate by turning their lives upside down. Masters and servants trade places for the day, dispensing with habitual hierarchies. During their revelries, however, strange noises are heard on nearby Mount Pelée (Bald Mountain). Although the authorities insist there is no danger, a layer of fine white ash falls from the sky belying their words and foreshadowing the blast of Nature that will obliterate distinctions of status and race once and for all.

The lead-up to the eruption is described with arresting sensuality. Smouldering Mount Pelée is “pierced with vents from which escaped now and then putrid fumes that smelled of eggs left out in the sun. Those stinking holes were lined with the prettiest lace: festoons of red or ochre, concretions similar to those that grow secretly in the silence of grottoes, drop by drop, but here, in the sun of Martinique, they appeared overnight.”

The scene turns increasingly biblical, an apocalyptic vision reinforced by Fortier’s omniscient voice:

Creatures never before in human memory seen in broad daylight—hairy spiders that lived in burrows, eyeing their prey; red scorpions; foot-long millipedes that didn’t hesitate to attack the hens … fearsome carpenter ants, green grasshoppers with legs like twigs, innumerable cockroaches, all came down the mountain slopes to storm the streets of Saint-Pierre.

The central character in this drama is someone who actually existed, Baptiste Cyparis. Fortier explains in a note at the book’s end that Cyparis is “the only human to have survived the deadly eruption of Mount Pelée on May 2, 1902.” Wikipedia claims that there were, in fact, two other survivors in St. Pierre, but we will allow for poetic licence. Cyparis was in jail that day for wounding a friend with a cutlass (another fact culled from the internet). When Mount Pelée blew, he was locked away in a poorly ventilated, dungeon-like, underground cell that undoubtedly saved his life.

Fortier makes him out to be an amiable guy, and follows him across the ocean to the United States after he is recruited by the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Thanks to his burned black skin he becomes “The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday,” one of the circus’s prize attractions, and tours with a caravan of exotic animals and human “phenomena,” falling in love with a stunt rider and possibly fathering her child.

The second part of the triptych, “Harmony of the Spheres,” features another real-life character, British mathematician A.E.H. Love, best known for discovering the most murderous waves during an earthquake, which now bear his name. In interviews, Fortier has admitted that this man, whose name and accomplishments she first heard about on Jeopardy, was the spark that inspired this book.

She presents a fictionalized account of Love’s childhood, his unsettling precocity and propensity to “press his ear against anything that interested him, as if he were trying to locate its breathing or its intimate palpitation.” He ends up studying mathematics, and falls in love with Garance, a musician who listens, just as he does, for “the secret song in all things.” Early in their marriage the couple travel to Italy and visit Pompeii, the ancient Roman city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pompeii piques Love’s interest in the Earth’s crust. It is also where he learns that his adored wife is pregnant.

Fortier packs the novel with facts about volcanoes and earthquakes, and the science underlying them. We learn about the excavations at Pompeii, and techniques used by archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli, who, in 1863, filled the spaces between ash layers with plaster, creating casts of human bodies in the exact positions in which they had died. (The casts, by the way, can still be viewed in the “Garden of Fugitives” at the Archaeological Museum of Naples.) We are also told about Pliny the Younger, who witnessed and wrote about the destruction of Pompeii, and about his uncle who died trying to rescue others. But for all this accretion of fact in these pages, Fortier is actually more interested in magic—those invisible forces of chance and connection at work below the surface of our lives.

In the triptych’s final section, “Love Waves,” these forces become manifest in present-day Montreal when two strangers meet. Fortier divulges nothing of their past and little of their present beyond the fact that she is a circus performer recovering from a trapeze fall and he is passionately interested in … earthquakes and volcanoes. What is going on here? Fortier remains frustratingly coy in the final pages of Wonder, leaving readers to do the math and create meanings and stories on their own as they follow her unique trail of fact and fancy to its end.