“Les peaux cassées,” a review

by Richard Dallaire

Éditions Alto, 2013

“‘Markets were up this morning despite the forecast depression and the expected loss of 3,500 retail jobs. The central bank lowered its key interest rate by…’ Carole switched off the radio. News has an absence of poetry that tends to bring us crashing back down to the harsh reality of our existence.”

It’s this lack of poetry that Richard Dallaire tries to make up for with Les peaux cassées, a story that unfolds between a Great Depression and the “Great Upheaval” (the birth of a couple’s first child), dancing on the border between the universal and the personal, between magic and realism, throughout.

The title is a pun. “Pots cassés” means “pieces” or “consequences” (as in “picking up the pieces” or “suffering the consequences”) but in this charming, inventive little novel its homonym is taken literally: Richard works at a clinic repairing “broken skin.” As with much throughout, details remain vague, but pleasurably so. The patients are in some way “broken” (mentally? physically?) and it is unclear whether the narrator works as some sort of surgeon or psychologist.

What is clear is that he is doing his best. In a world in which, as we read in the epigraph, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off due to lack of funds, he and his partner Carole are working to make things better, striving to make their home “a place for laughter, a haven of happiness that refused to let the gloomy drafts of glumness pierce its walls.”

We’re in an allegory. But more often than not Dallaire’s metaphors are taken literally, taking on a physical presence in this world of his imagination. “My Rose is fading away a little more each day,” complains a man whose wife is, quite literally, fading away. Their neighbour Béatrice, meanwhile, is drying up, a condition that worsens until she turns into a pile of dust. Neighbours come over to tell the narrator’s partner Carole their sob stories, leaving behind buckets of tears that have to be hauled up onto the roof. Tiny dragons flit about the Chinese restaurant. Stories drift high up into the air, “light as soap bubbles.” The clinic is lit up by tubes of fireflies. But despite the light, poetic descriptions, there’s a surprising weight behind every word. This isn’t a novel to skim through. It’s a text to mull over and consider.

Dallaire isn’t so much holding up a mirror to society as a whole hall of them, deforming and reshaping our impressions and expectations until we see the world from a completely different point of view. The result is a spectacular fairground version of our everyday existence, “a carousel of dark images drowned in a thick fog.” While made brighter and more intense with every stroke of the author’s pen, this world is closer to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen than Amélie Poulin, full as it is of feral street children, riots, cannibalistic mobs, birds falling silent, stars disappearing from the sky…

Disguised with so much novelty and beautiful turns of phrase, the images and events are nonetheless distressing:

“From her balcony on the nursing home’s seventh floor, a woman in her eighties had glided down slowly. Like a faded leaf twirling in the breeze until the hard sidewalk halted her flight.”

Is there beauty in the horror? we wonder. Or is it just that the horror is described beautifully? The book zigzags back and forth between the two extremes: Electricity cuts plunge the city into darkness. All the better to see the stars, we are told. And then the stars start going out.

The narrator’s attempts to help the foul-mouthed Scarecrow who stands at a street corner — a punching bag for the masses as social tensions rise — are met with ingratitude and derision. Religion provides no solace, only worsening morale still further. “Let us console ourselves with hope, however slim; with an uncertain paradise,” the unconvincing officiant half-heartedly suggests at a mass funeral. “Let us put our faith in the impossible as others have done before us.” Even reading provides no consolation. And violence is hardly the answer (a character who reluctantly picks up a gun in self-defence literally shoots himself in the foot). Better to “pray to the god of thirst” at the pub?

This is love in the time of the apocalypse, a social fable that is at times despairing and at times inspiring. It seems that Dallaire has set himself the challenge of peeling back the dirt and grime — the hard, unfeeling crust of modern life — and revealing the beauty and love beneath.

What can we do to make sure hope and beauty win out over the darkness? we think to ourselves. How can we make this world of ours a better place? Dallaire seems to be asking throughout. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Carole and the narrator are leading the way. If only the world had more love, we think. If only people were more like them. If only we were more like them.

Review by Peter McCambridge

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