All that Glitters / Martine Desjardins; trans. by Fred Reed & David Homel
Vancouver: Talonbooks, c2005
I recently read Desjardins' extraordinary Fairy Ring, so looked up her second book. This is a shorter novel, set in Flanders during WWII. It is the story of Canadian and inveterate gambler Simon Dulac, who is enlisted in the military police. His interest in the war is that it gives him the chance to roam around an unsettled France, looking for the treasure that the Knights Templar left buried somewhere in Flanders centuries before. It is a nod to the codes and mysteries of books like The Da Vinci Code, but told in the surreal manner of her previous novel. The two supporting characters are Dulac's Lieutenant Peakes, a man obsessed with metalwork as well as rebuses and secrets, and nurse Miss Nell, who became a field nurse in order to practice suturing wounds, something nurses were not normally permitted to do at the time. She sutures them not with neat black stitches, but with fanciful embroidery, usually in a form of a rebus related to the patient's name. She also practices on herself; she has a feather stitched into the interstice between her thumb and forefinger, and eventually shows Dulac the rebus embroidered within her cleavage - a many-rayed sun with an "N" in the centre.
Dulac struggles to interpret the clues he serendipitously comes across, and thinks he has figured out where to look for the fabled treasure. His lieutenant, injured by a bomb blast and then fitted with a metallic half mask, is now behind lines and has time to use his genius at codes to puzzle out the revealed clues. He finally reveals to Dulac the 'true' interpretation of these clues, and it is a sudden revelation of how the things Dulac struggled to invest with meaning can be seen in a completely different manner. He should have kept in mind the proverb suggested by the title! It's a bit of wink at the obsession with mysterious treasures and conspiracies, but it does feel a bit abrupt, leading to a quick and dire conclusion.
I liked the war setting; it made sense to use this time period for this story, and she paints a clear picture of opportunists at war. The writing style is brief and unsentimental, which adds to the feeling of dissociation from society that all the participants seem to feel. The combination of war, secrets and codes, hidden treasures, and the strangeness of embroidered skin are woven together to make a fascinating reading experience. I actually enjoyed Fairy Ring more, but perhaps that was because I enjoyed the form (epistolary) and arctic themes more directly. Still, I'm glad I made the effort to seek this one out, and was rewarded by discovering something unusual.