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Unlucky Quebec dazzlingly detailed

Award-winning Quebec author Raymond Bock's Atavisms, translated from French by Pablo Strauss, contains 13 compelling stories. The superstitious choice of that number is a pointer to his vision of an unlucky Quebec, whether as a collective nationalist dream or an individual's daily reality.

The stories are masterfully placed in the collection. Contemporary realism abuts historical fiction that melds into dystopian science fiction, yet there's an odd unity that's hard to pin down.

Still, one reads in each story of how the recurrence of memory and its relentless crushing of the human imagination overpowers the lonely, often-frightened, mordant characters and their situations.

Bock cuts through the political-historical headlines and conventional nationalist clichés to present a Quebec society — past, present, and future — always in the winter of its discontent.

For one thing, the personal is relentlessly political. None of his characters — from the failed writer stuck in Dauphin to the suicidal history teacher in The Bridge to, significantly, an archivist, guardian and explorer of Quebec's history in A Canadian Story and The Still Traveler — escapes that burden.

Jean Marc, the archivist in A Canadian Story, discovers his ancestor — a doctor of almost-sacred memory hanged for his role in the 1837 Rebellion — had murdered a perceived traitor, and believed he deserved to hang. Jean Marc doesn't like the conclusion, but presents it to his adviser almost as an offering, to be put as a corrective in the core memory of Quebec.

The archivist is also the protagonist of the great time-travel story The Still Traveler, floating through human history and recognizing the myths of all cultures are simply a way of explaining that many have time-travelled.

He sees the world itself as we know it isn't real, but rather a reflection of time as we think we know it. He ages a lifetime in the short years of his time leaps, but believes it is worth it to escape the age.

Two other stories set in New France — Eldorado and The Other World — have a compelling power and immediacy, and show Bock could write great historical novels if he chose.

Here the encounter between the many First Nations and the French (as they become Québécois) is shown as an encounter between divergent civilizations.

Bock doesn't sentimentalize either side of this dance of distrust. The fortresses built by colonists to keep the world out (or their world in) continues in Quebec and, one could argue, throughout Canada — as reflected in the story Raccoon.

Rendered as a monologue (another form Bock excels at), Raccoon tells of an underclass nationalist father who builds a metaphorical fortress against a changing society of illegal immigrants, gays and vague unseen threats, determined to protect his wife and son.

Again, Bock doesn't judge his characters, but ruthlessly points out this microcosm of society's dark side. Memory is important here for this impassioned father, who creates the false one of a golden age that never existed.

The stories are cold in feeling while still evoking an emotional response. There are no weaknesses — only the strengths of a superb, fearless talent.


Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.


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Updated on Monday, June 8, 2015 at 4:21 PM CDT: Formatting.

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