by Marc Séguin
translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo
Exile Editions, 2014
My first thought when I picked up this book was to wonder how a story by the name of Hollywood could ever be qualified by the subtitle “A New York Love Story” — a geographic contradiction if ever I saw one. Give it the benefit of the doubt, I said to myself. I was tempted to brush it off as a Quebec take on living the American dream, as I steeled myself for some stereotypical descriptions of how much greener the grass is south of the border. Then I zeroed in on the discreet small print at the top of the cover: Finalist for the Governor General’s Award. This lifted my hopes somewhat, and I remembered what a treat it had been to read the author’s first novel, Poacher’s Faith. Suddenly I wasn’t skeptical anymore. I was curious to see for myself what lay beneath Hollywood’s covers.
It turned out Hollywood is full of surprises. The first thing I hadn’t been expecting was for the narrative to be in the pluperfect tense, which floods the very first page with a sense of nostalgia. Not to mention the fact that the first few words on the page are in block letters and centred above the rest of the first sentence, asserting their presence (like the story’s protagonist) and setting the tone for the brief chapter that follows.
“TENDERNESS IS LIKE ALCOHOL.”
Branka had said as she cut a lock of hair, looking at herself sideways with her eyes fixed on the upper part of the mirror.
One sentence and I was hooked. I wanted to find out who this Branka was. I would not be disappointed. A couple more pages in, the narrator reveals that Branka Svetidrva was born in Sarajevo on March 20, 1982. That, too, made her beautiful. The narrator speaks with a certain bias, of course, since he is Branka’s lover and the father of her unborn child. But there is something endearing about his description of her: She usually stuck her gum on the headboard or on the wall next to the bed because she always forgot to throw it away before we made love.
Branka is a tower of strength who survived some of the worst imaginable atrocities of war as a child. She heard the bombs. She inhaled the putrefaction of bodies and of ethnic ashes […] two soldiers calmly entered their apartment. They put down their weapons and removed their caps. Branka had just turned twelve. Through the wall she has built around herself, Branka oozes frankness. We’d known each other only a few weeks when she told me she was pregnant. “Was it me?” I’d asked. “Well, it wasn’t the Holy Spirit,” she had stated simply. Her self-confidence is some kind of defence mechanism. I understood that she wanted to kiss me. Her lips were parted. Tunnel vision. “I won’t be able to resist this urge for very long.” She smiled. It wasn’t a question.
The narrator’s choice of the pluperfect soon becomes apparent. A whisker shy of Christmas, just days away from her due date, Branka is shot dead, the victim of a stray bullet in one of America’s deadliest cities. And thus begins the intrigue: The police report will say that there must have been someone with her when she was killed because the baby, found alive, had been delivered from her belly before the ambulance drivers arrived.
The circumstances surrounding Branka’s death are revealed to the backdrop of news reports on an astronaut who has just condemned himself to certain death in a bold statement about humanity. It rapidly transpires that the narrator has a deeper connection to Branka than first meets the eye.
Is Hollywood a tragic love story, a parable of strength in the face of adversity, or a seething social commentary? No matter how you see it, Marc Séguin keeps us guessing until the final twist in this story’s tail. And through Branka’s words, Séguin pokes fun at the “perfect” endings we so often see on the big screen: “My favourite movies are the ones where the hero dies before the end, but preferably right at the beginning. That way, there’s less bullshit.”
Review by David Warriner