“Atavisms,” a review

by Raymond Bock

translated by Pablo Strauss

Dalkey Archive Press, 2015

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Without linking events or sharing characters, the stories in Raymond Bock’s collection, Atavisms (translated by Pablo Strauss) intimately work together, echoing one another, repeating tropes, so that reading one influences the feel of the next. It isn’t a collection meant to be dabbled in or read out of order. The thirteen stories move across time, some set contemporarily, others in the past or the future. A few take place in some uncertain time. The movement is not linear; with the start of each, the moment in history needs to be located anew. However, the place is ever the same. These are stories of Quebec, both in their location and their hearts. The concerns, frustrations, desires, and traces of lineage, whether cultural or familial, are as Québécois as can be. Bock explores them from shifting angles so that by the end there is an entire landscape, clearly perceived. Strauss is a guide, bringing Québécois French into English, letting that voice come through, something not European French and not Canadian English, and penning enough endnotes to be useful and not interfering. The final story, the longest in the book, completes the collection, wonderfully unifying everything that came before.

The style and pacing of the stories too act on each other. “Room 130,” the penultimate story, is brief, and by far the quietest, the most sensitive. It is almost a lullaby as a son visits his dying, mentally deteriorated father and in a monologue to him ruminates on living and dying, fathers and sons. The stories that come before, in their noise, in their violence, perfectly set up this slow breath before that final, thirteenth story. The first story, “Wolverine,” is its opposite, bookending the dozen as their own cycle, emphasizing the final story’s place, as something outside. “Wolverine” is a forceful, no-holds-barred opening, a ripping scream to ward off anyone who may not want to read of a culture’s anger. It is show, it is bluster, for from there, things calm a little, never quite reach that pitch, but it is sincere bluster.

In the laid-back, epistolary tone that these stories take on, even as the intensity of events and emotions rises, the narrator tells the story of a night that “started off like any other” but became entirely other, became unspeakable in its momentousness. His friend kidnapped a former Liberal cabinet minister, who would have served with Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau during the October Crisis. Years after the enforcement of martial law in Quebec during the height of the Quebec Liberation Front’s activities, these three friends don’t hesitate to kidnap and punish someone partially responsible for it. On their drive into the woods, the friends bullshit as friends do, the narrator reminiscing about their more youthful days. Their destination is a tree to tie their victim to. With the narrator as record-keeper, as if this secret act in the dark woods is a part of Quebec history, “with a capital H,” another steps up to beat their victim, and in cathartic rage, vents the past.

“Every blow was accompanied by a manly grunt and the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation — the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the same democracy — one by one they were all summoned forth, reaching a crescendo with the most recent batch of dirty deals.”

From there, the next violence is what he cannot write, what cannot be spoken clearly, only compared to a fantastic vision of a beast, that wolverine of the title.

This special form of humiliation, where the large-scale historical is no different than private injustices, runs through each and every story. Whether it is an alcoholic couple with a newborn, a priest amongst the first French settlers, militants in a future Quebec, or a schoolteacher with modern ennui, their private tribulations are monuments in this garden memorial of Quebec’s history. To hold this role, to fortify this position of being put-upon, Bock’s characters are ever outsiders. In the future-set “Black Star,” “francophones had long since been relegated to minority status and gotten used to their new identity as ‘French Quebecers’”; in “Pastel Fear” the family is “squatting on stolen land”; and the trapper narrator of “The Other World” is barely surviving encounters with the First Nations.

Yet as outsiders, they become their own group. These people are exiles, together. In most of the stories, the characters have comrades, even if just a single partner. And when they don’t, they are kept from solitariness by all they share with the other stories. In “Eldorado,” the narrator is a priest and a settler in this “new province of France.” He would have nothing in common with the others, would be a man apart, but for the inevitable turns of Bock’s world, that of ruler against ruled. The viceroy abuses his men, who are already suffering as first settlers do. Unable to ignore that, without hope in converting the damned to salvation, the priest, a true Québécois, chooses their side anyway. He confesses, “We were all alone, fugitives from justice, whores, tradesmen, sailors, and myself, the colony’s sole man of God, against the halberdiers of the court.”

That is the bravery, the earned self-righteousness that Bock grants the folk of his stories: they are driven, determined people, forceful and proud on their irrevocable path to failure. Accomplishments, the long path of history uncovered, leads to nothing. In “The Worm,” a man inherits his parent’s estate, only to find it crumbling, mushrooms growing under the sink, tree growing through plaster:

“The worms sank in with a glugging sound, dove and resurfaced with manifest pleasure, while this property that was mine by the manifold laws of inheritance, this land I worked with my own two hands­ — hoeing, planting, and watering, day after day­­ — this house I occupied, proud as any man’s son, all brought me nothing but loneliness and disappointment.”

This digging is a visceral version of what happens in the other stories, as the past is always being built into the present and the future. “A Canadian Story” is a complex, layered invocation of history. A graduate student writes to his advisor, having discovered the historical remains of an ancestor. The story blends that letter, another historian’s summary of the ancestor, Bock’s version of the story, and the ancestor’s letter. What is discovered is both a confession of crime and cruelty, but also the tortures of the Patriotes, the French Canadian rebels of 1837–38. The student, writing in 1964, just a few years ahead of the October Crisis, seeking justice for his ancestor as a rebel, can only do it by also unearthing his crime. Strauss’s translation makes the sense of history felt and continuous, the style of a story remaining the same across years, but the diction, the physical world and habits obviously changed.

These stories are history lessons, so that when person after person, despite their efforts, well-intentioned or selfish, meets failure, cynicism wins and aspiration becomes condemnation. Baptiste, the pioneer of “The Call,” wife in tow, works his way to savings, to a foundation for a homestead, owning land, cattle, and building materials. But, with the weight of Bock’s version of history, when he writes “No one could stay in the way of his miraculous achievement,” we know that Baptiste’s nature, his “Quebecness,” is the one thing that will ensure the ruin.

Not only are efforts destined to failure, but what has been grasped, what one staked out, is ever at risk. Atavisms builds fears founded in realism into fears of the unnatural. The cold clutch of winter taking hold before a homestead is finished and a father dreading “the horrible things that could tear [his] son from [his] arms,” are grounded, but other stories let that dread become strange. The narrator of “The Worm,” angry at those little creatures violating his land, spending so much time killing them that his neck and arms sunburn, is “alarmed at how far I’d gotten carried away, and even more so by what I then discovered. The worm didn’t have a mutant backbone, as I’d feared. It was a bobby pin.” Bobby pins were his final reminder of his girlfriend, the traces he comes across months after their relationship’s end.

At the most ferocious moments, like that ending of “Wolverine,” the realism becomes overwhelmed. In “The Call,” a couple argue, then fight, and “Through the thickening black cloud at the heart of the fire, as it swelled to a deafening crescendo, their struggle took on the air of a grotesque jig, their cries the responses in a liturgy of the damned.” The surreal horrors, the rational fears, and the intensities that can only be described by fantastic imagery make a permeable boundary, so all the fears simmer on the edge, crossing over always a possibility.

Fear, paternal traditions, anger, and the weight, unearthing, and repetition of history, are essential to Atavisms’ aesthetic. Along with all of that is sadness, mourning. The father of “Pastel Fear” sees his son as a reminder of the melancholy of our lives, “surrounded by the people we love so listlessly that we stop seeing them, because today overwhelms us and tomorrow looms.” Bock’s characters won’t be able to escape these lives, not in what he is able to write of here, but they can try to get by. And maybe, maybe if histories, personal and cultural, are excavated deeply and finely enough, if the origins of this condemned march of failure and melancholy are discovered, and even treasured, then maybe the pattern can change. This is what the collective stories construct: hope in the condemnation. The final story, after a set of twelve — re-telling all that has come before, itself about a man aware, and completely caught up in, of all the tropes, ideas, and passions that make up the other stories — launches off, to either stand alone, or begin something new by finding that origin.

Review by P.T. Smith

Written by

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