Right Out of Tosca

The sprawling, multi-generational history of a family
that is a window to the strangeness and richness of Quebec

It has been nearly three-quarters of a century since Hugh MacLennan’s emblematic novel about French-English relations, Two Solitudes, provided Canadians with a metaphor for our dual existence. And since that time, in the field of Canadian literature at least, it feels as though little progress has been made in breaking down the barriers that keep us in our respective linguistic silos. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose title MacLennan borrowed for his novel, was thinking of interpersonal relations when he wrote, “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” A hopeful sentiment when it comes to lovers, but it loses its magic when applied to the realities of the Canadian cultural divide.

Now a vibrant and original voice from Quebec has given us a chance to revisit that relationship.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Giller prize, Eric Dupont’s epic 608-page novel, Songs for the Cold of Heart, which as La Fiancée américaine has sold a whopping 60,000 copies since it appeared in 2012. Dupont, who teaches translation at McGill University, is an established literary star in his home province. He’s won Quebec’s version of Canada Reads and nabbed the province’s two top literary prizes. This, his fourth novel, has found its way into almost every serious reader’s home in
the province.

Yet, despite its formidable presence in Quebec, readers in English Canada knew nothing of the novel until the translation (deftly executed by Peter McCambridge) made the Giller short list, thereby introducing them to a master storyteller. Songs for the Cold of Heart is so layered and multifaceted that it defies elevator pitches. The sprawling multi-generational tale spreads across two continents, through two world wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination, and many other major twentieth century events. Among many, many other strange and wondrous occurrences, there are nuns who appear out of thin air, a grandmother who defies death, and a lunch with Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels. Its themes are universal: the ways in which we create family legends, how stories become myths, how coincidences we barely register in our lives take on greater significance as time passes. Add to the mix jealousy, betrayal, tragedy, and violence all tempered by an underlying current of great wit.

Opening in 1953 in Rivière-du-Loup, Songs for the Cold of Heart is the story of the Lamontagne family as told by the patriarch Louis “the Horse” Lamontagne. Aided by more than a few warm gins, Louis begins his tale by describing to his three children the story of his dramatic birth while trapped in a church by a blizzard on Christmas Eve during the annual re-enactment of the Nativity. Louis’s mother, Madeleine, a red-headed teen imported from the United States to marry his father in order to comply with the family rule that every ­generation must have a living Madeleine, dies giving birth to Louis. The boy grows up to become a legendary strongman capable of lifting horses into the air. Later he operates a funeral home out of the house he shares with his wife, Irene, and his grandmother, also Madeleine, who despite being dead continues to live with them and greets the mourning relatives who come to the funeral parlour.

That is only the beginning. As insightful as it is absurd, this book celebrates storytelling in all its forms. Louis Lamontagne proves to be no ordinary storyteller. His tales—even his children request specific favourites like “the one about the dune” or “the lady with the big melons”—are non-linear, filled with asides and digressions, coincidences, and mistaken identities. His colourful and fantastic narratives are characteristic of the novel as a whole. One section of the book is epistolary—letters between Louis’s twin grandsons. Another section is the personal notebook of a German girl who steals an earring from Goebbels’s wife during a party. Another section is a diary by the same girl about the Soviet army siege of Königsberg in 1945. The novel is rife with tall tales, asides that feel like winks from the author, and frequent references to the potency of gossip. In part, Dupont is showing us how stories connect us to one another. And as chaotic as they are in the telling, they are critical to our sense of who we are and where we come from.

Dupont has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and John Irving, and, indeed, the accepted presence of the living dead (Old Ma Madeleine) is magic realism at its best. The book’s subversive humour, too, is reminiscent of Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. And there’s a deadpan absurdity that brings to mind the novels of Patrick deWitt. But there is nothing derivative about this book, which is original in every sense, operatic in its ambition and passion, and astonishing in its vast complexity. Somehow Dupont manages to weave the chaos into an enduring whole, in part through the use of leitmotifs (teal-green eyes, gold crosses, a birthmark shaped like a bass clef, songs by Schubert and Bach) that act as colourful threads recurring again and again and finally pulling the whole crazy narrative together into a satisfying and coherent tapestry.

The most significant and fitting leitmotif is a recurring nod to the opera Tosca. For example, there are characters described as being like Tosca, a woman named Floria (Tosca’s first name), a restaurant called Tosca that is pivotal to the plot, and an ill-conceived film version of the opera starring one of the aforementioned Lamontagne twins. The ending is practically a scene right out of Tosca.

Like the opera, the novel is melodramatic and over the top with murder, attempted rape, torture, suicide, political intrigue and betrayal. And even though Songs does not try to recast Tosca or recreate its plot, the opera is nevertheless an apt analogy to Dupont’s epic story. The author, who speaks Portuguese and German as well as French and English, studied classical singing for four years and carried out extensive research, interviewing people who lived in 1960s Quebec, as well as survivors of Russia’s incursion into East Prussia during the Second World War in order to add authenticity and depth to his novel.

There is no doubt that Songs for the Cold of Heart deserves a wider reading, but English Canadians are not renowned for their love of reading translations of Quebec literature. One reason may be that we don’t believe Quebec is exotic enough in the way that literature from other parts of the world, say France or West Africa, are. We assume we already know the province, when, in fact, many of us have a passing familiarity that is likely outdated. For those readers, Songs for the Cold of Heart is a revelation and a window on to the strangeness and richness of a province we hardly know.

Dupont’s small publisher, QC Fiction, has high hopes for the book both in the rest of Canada and internationally. The so-called Giller bump is the opportunity they have been waiting for, but a question lingers: Do we need to wait for Songs to achieve the success it deserves overseas before we here in Canada fully embrace this spectacular novel?