by François Barcelo
Coups de tête, 2014
The Plains of Abraham. The Durham Report. The War Measures Act. Conscription. Stephen Harper. The Orangemen. Rob Ford…
The narrator of J’haïs les Anglais has plenty of reasons to hate “the English,” his catch-all term for anyone who speaks the language of Yes, No, Toaster that he can’t understand. But Barcelo seems to be mellowing in his old age (the author of 60+ books, he’s now in his seventies). True, our narrator “hates” the English, but throughout this hatred is qualified plenty of times. Perhaps even an author as provocative and unpolitically correct as Barcelo realizes his first-person narrator is on shakier ground when hating a more specific group of people rather than hockey, babies, or old people.
Our narrator is, true to form, hapless and luckless. Less of a loser than Antoine Vachon from J’haïs le hockey and with a mental capacity closer to that of Sylvain Beausoleil from J’enterre mon lapin, minus the spelling mistakes and malaproprisms, but with the familiar whizzing sound of events going well and truly over his head. A loser, yes, but as always a character who is appealing enough that we find ourselves rooting for him as things go — in true Barcelo fashion — from bad to worse. Only to worse, though; not to really, really worse. There are none of the gory deaths of J’haïs les vieux; no cats in microwaves (J’haïs les bébés) here. Did I mention I thought Barcelo might be mellowing?
As it happens, our narrator is planning to rob a bank. He needs the money (to invest in a poutine startup, what else?) and would compare himself to Robin Hood, only Robin Hood was English. And he has no plans to give any of the money away.
And so he draws up a little map and the minutes tick by until it’s time (the whole novella takes place over the course of one afternoon). Why is he robbing this bank in particular? Because the Trans-Colonial Bank of Canada has just opened in town. The Banque québécoise (BQ) where our narrator works is bleeding customers to it, and it looks like he might lose his job. In other words, the English have hit him where it hurts: in his wallet.
It’s all going very much according to our narrator’s (and author’s) meticulous plan until he steps out of the bank and onto the wrong bus, a coach full of bemused Australian tourists, “frightened but stoical. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out to be from England, with their stiff upper lip. Or Ontarians who had clearly inherited their fair share of proverbial calm from their English ancestors.”
This is where the dark humour really begins. Much is lost in translation as the tourists and narrator can’t communicate with each other at all. In fact, the only person on the bus he can understand is the French-speaking GPS. This leads, naturally, to disaster, but first Barcelo reveals, a little half-heartedly if truth be told, the frustrations born of this mutual incomprehension as one of the tourists tries to bring his point across in English (or perhaps garbled French), “as if he was talking to an idiot and not someone who understands the only official language of his part of the country.” Having understood nothing, he replies “No” instead of “OK,” just to be on the safe side.
You will have gathered that the newfound reasons for “hating” the English are half-baked and not deeply rooted. He hates them all, he says, the British, Ontarians, Texans, the lot of them, for not being able to talk to him in French, “unless of course they stay at home.”
“I have nothing against a New Zealander speaking English in New Zealand, just like he can’t have anything against me speaking French in Quebec.”
A quick glimpse into a small-town, xenophobic mind and we’re quickly back on safer ground:
“But, to be fair, they can hate me all they want if I have the nerve to go touring around Scotland, New England, or Gibraltar before I’ve learned English. Which I have absolutely no intention of doing: no intention of learning English or going to any of these countries.” Maybe Italian, though, he concedes.
Mutual incomprehension. Two solitudes. It quickly becomes clear that our narrator’s detachment from the world around him isn’t merely down to his limited second language skills. His female colleagues shun him; his mother died in a bloody suicide; he lives alone with his cousin. He’s hoping that a lot of money in a swag bag and a sound investment in a poutine chain is going to turn his life around. “Otherwise I might well die a virgin,” he whines.
Perhaps he will. Or perhaps Barcelo has even worse in store for him.
Review by Peter McCambridge