The surrealist novel begins life at a disadvantage: it must work hard to gain a reader’s trust. In place of mimesis it offers a dreamscape, a tilted horizon, a distorting lens. It sacrifices the depth of its characters for an oblique commentary on character in general, its mutability, its constituent elements, its materialist foundations. The surrealist novel insists we lack agency; stripped of our anchors we are all fated to drift in strange waters.
Ghostly and hollow, the central characters of Pierre-Luc Landry’s slim second novel, Listening for Jupiter (originally published in French in 2015 as Les corps extraterrestres), drift in this way, existing in apparently parallel worlds, meeting only in an undefined space, possibly in dreams, each character unsure whether the other is real until an unexplained convergence dissolves whatever membrane of space and/or time had divided them. Xavier is a professional man, a pharmaceutical sales rep, although his heart is not in his work. He is a borderline nihilist, and the chief appeal his job offers seems to be his ready access to the products he hawks. “Nothing much gets me going,” he says, “other than food, booze and DVDs” (a full accounting would have to include pills). The second central character, Hollywood, is younger, an aspiring poet whose day job is digging and tending to graves in a Montreal cemetery. Drugs get him going, too, as does the music of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Hollywood is also, apparently, “the only human being on Earth to live without a heart,” his doctors having removed it to “cure that weariness and gloom” that had proven resistant to other treatment. In Hollywood’s Montreal, winter has failed to come, with sunshine and summer-like temperatures persisting, whereas in Europe, where Xavier is doing business, as well as in Toronto and other parts of North America, a snowstorm has raged for weeks.
The novel is told in alternating first-person chapters, and the trick here was to have commissioned a separate translator for each voice: Arielle Aaronson for Xavier’s sections and Madeleine Stratford for Hollywood’s. The effect is of differentiation—the two characters feel distinct, even amid the base text’s paucity of development. The translations result in language that reads as authentic and natural, even when the action they depict is opaque or when, perhaps limited by the novel’s form or Landry’s disinclination, Hollywood and Xavier are underdeveloped literary creations.
Jupiter is a cockeyed chronicle of a world only slightly different from our own, or perhaps just a few years into our future, when climate change has accelerated and done permanent harm to the old seasonal rhythms. Weather is destabilized, and with it seemingly these characters’ sense of reality. Dreams are indistinguishable from memory, and characters disappear without warning, only to turn up halfway around the globe, still retaining intimate knowledge of one another’s lives. And down atop all of them rains a steady celestial precipitation—meteorites, shooting stars, bits of space debris that fall to Earth, leaving craters, damaging buildings, frequently setting off explosions.
Amid all of this, the only tangible artifact linking Xavier and Hollywood is a documentary about the planet Jupiter, which both seem to stumble across with remarkable regularity. The film, in part, discusses the radio emissions radiating outward from the gas giant, signals detectable from our planet. Both Xavier and Hollywood attempt to tune into this frequency, seeking to listen to the droning noise it produces, a sound like a restless sea breaking on the shore, which communicates nothing but Jupiter’s presence. Like the meteorites, the waves suggest the fragility and impermanence of our world, an intrusion upon our reality that is the source of both comfort and anxiety for the two protagonists. The novel’s tone suggests that the planet’s namesake—god of the sky and of thunder, king of the Roman gods—has tired of our shortsightedness, and that the timeline of the novel rests at the dawning of a Jovian reckoning.
“Reality is harnessed through language,” observes Xavier, and indeed, in the instance of literature, reality is built through language. Xavier and Hollywood are constructs of language, shaped and separated by it. Layers of meaning accrete like coats of paint. Character, relationships and forms of narrative all build up their meanings through a combination of intent and accident. Bodies may be divided, either by language or cultural difference, or millions of miles of interplanetary space.
Oftentimes it is literature that succeeds in bridging such gulfs, creating understanding where before there was confusion; wielded deftly it is among our very best tools of understanding, and toward this end the Montreal-based Baraka Books last year launched its QC Fiction imprint, with the stated goal to “publish the best of contemporary Quebec fiction in idiomatic, readable translations.” Jupiter is among their second raft of offerings.
As Canada enters the second half of its second century as a country, it is worth remembering the magnitude of the linguistic divide in the heart of our officially bilingual state. Statistics Canada reports that, as of 2011, better than 42 percent of Quebecers possess proficiency in both French and English, while the rate of English-French bilingualism in the rest of Canada remains below ten percent. The result is that a startling number of us are not able to comprehend the bulk of the cultural material produced in our second-most populous province, a fact that hints at a terrific imbalance of power. QC Fiction, then, is part of a small-scale movement to correct that imbalance by making contemporary Quebec literature available to English readers. English-Canadian publishers such as BookThug and Biblioasis are also a part of this trend, the former amplifying such works as Vickie Gendreau’s Testament (translated by Aimee Wall), the latter publishing Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) and Samuel Archibald’s Arvida (translated by Donald Winkler), both of which were shortlisted for a Giller Prize. Also contributing to the project are media sites such as Québec Reads (quebecreads.com), which publishes reviews, essays, news and excerpts of Quebec lit in English in order to “bring the best of Québec literature to the English-speaking world.”
The value of presenting to the English-speaking majority artists such as Landry via the work of their translators lies in the creation of a new familiarity, a comfort with the presence of a necessarily outward-looking literature, unique unto itself and yet drenched in the cultural products of the English world by which it is geographically and digitally surrounded, bombarded from all sides and yet resilient. It will prove vital to remain aware of such work if we are to have any hope of knowing ourselves.