“Le cadavre de Kowalski,” a review

by Vincent Brault
Héliotrope, 2015

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The best introduction to the strange world of Le cadavre de Kowalski is perhaps the opening chapter. So here’s a taste of it:

My name is Wiktor Kowalski and I died on February 7, 1941. It was during the war. But I wasn’t there, not in the war. It was in the middle of winter. The snow was deep, the ground was hard. The body didn’t get buried right away. Not until the mud of springtime came. The mud quickly swallowed up the fingers, then the head, torso, and pelvis. The thighs posed more of a problem, but once those two big pieces had been gulped down, the ground made short work of the rest. When summer arrived none of the body was visible on the surface. The grass was long, the daisies and bulrushes had grown back. The body dived down headfirst, going I don’t know where. But I let it go. I had confidence. Or rather, I had no confidence at all. I had neither hopes nor fears. No desires or aversions. I was bored, that was all. Or rather, I wasn’t bored at all. It was dark. It was silent. I should have been bored, but I wasn’t. How could I have been? I was dead. Or not. I wasn’t dead. Or not really. Or I don’t know. It was hard to say.

I tried to move my arms and legs but the body was already a few metres below ground level. It wasn’t easy. First I bent my fingers, then I straightened them. I bent them. I straightened them. Bent them. Straightened them. Clenched my fists. Opened my hands. Clenched my fists. Opened my hands. Just like that until I had cleared away small cavities at the end of my wrists. It was nice having a little space at last to free my fingers. Or rather, it wasn’t exactly nice. It should have been nice, it should have done my joints good, but it didn’t do much.

I carried on all the same.

Making small cavities around my hands wasn’t very complicated. But burrowing a hole big enough for the whole body, turning it around and sitting it upright, was going to require more effort.

The body was in the shape of an X below the ground. I started off by pulling in the elbows toward the stomach to make a Y-shape. Legs spread. Wrists crossed against the torso. Head down. A nice little Y. What could have been better? The hands were placed perfectly to dig out a space around the face. Perfectly placed for digging, yes, but what could I have done with the earth? To really dig would have meant putting something full into an empty space. But the empty space was already full, with earth and with the body. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to dig in these conditions. Not before having shifted some of the earth. So that’s what I did: I moved, pushed, and compacted the earth around the face and head, the neck and shoulders, the stomach, the hips, the thighs and knees, the feet and toes until I had made some kind of underground opening into which I could turn the body around without too much difficulty. It was nice to have a little space. I enjoyed it. Or rather, I didn’t. Or else I did. I don’t know any more.

So there he lies — “dead. Or not.” — in this edgy, dark, and innovative story that is bursting with originality. Kowalksi died from a gash to the back of the head, we learn, then about a quarter of the way through the narrator suddenly shifts to the present tense as he shows the wound to Myriam, his nurse.

“Do you want to take a look, Myriam?”

“You are well and truly dead,” she confirms. “But keep going. Tell me what happened underground, Mr. Kowalksi.”

So that is our narrative. A voice in a dead man’s body recounting how he made his way back above ground. How he dug a tunnel, inching his way upward, after a little tai-chi, “like a beetle through the sand,” up and up toward the scent of cocoa, vanilla, and herbs on the surface, gobbling down bites of the earth that comes apart in his fingers “like chocolate cake.”

The plot becomes increasingly delirious, even more urgent and dreamlike as it advances. Dark humour puts in the odd appearance (“I was wrong. I can breathe again. Figure of speech.”). We find ourselves in a disorienting world, apparently in the company of a zombie that surprises no one. Myriam is still trying to come to terms with the mysterious disappearance of her niece. And there are new characters, perspectives, and revelations to come as more of the circumstances surrounding Kowalski’s death find their way to the surface.

Translation and review by Peter McCambridge

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