Sunday, December 21, 2008

Currently reading Nikolski

Nikolski / Nicolas Dickner; trans. by Lazer Lederhendler.
Toronto: Random House, c2008.
304 p.

Another book I received from Mini Book Expo, this marvellous novel recently won the Governor General's award for translation. Despite the author's surname not sounding particularly Quebecois, this was written in French. It was a highly entertaining read, taking us all over Canada, from the Prairies to BC to Montreal, and includes stops in South America and Nikolski, Alaska. I almost expected it to head up to Yellowknife, as the feel of the book reminded me of Steve Zipp's Yellowknife, in its structure of interwoven lives and slightly odd people and places, and in the fact that there is no neat conclusion to the story. And like Yellowknife, it also concludes right around Y2K.

The main action of the story is in Montreal, where the 3 characters intersect. The nameless narrator and two others, Joyce (from Acadian stock) and Noah (from the Prairies) end up all situated in Montreal at the same time: Noah to go to university, Joyce to fulfill a long-cherished dream of following her family's tradition of becoming pirates and the narrator because he is a used bookshop employee and a native of Montreal. What they don't know, and what we as readers eventually puzzle out, is that they are all connected through the figure of Jonas Doucet, a mysterious relative last heard of as residing in Nikolski, Alaska. This book is hard to describe briefly; these three characters' stories are told in alternating chapters, and while they do meet up once or twice, their stories never really meld. Each remains on their own specific trajectory and pass each other by. The novel is filled with fish, books, garbage dumps and archaeology, maps, compasses and navigation; it whizzes across geographical boundaries and ethnic identifications; it carries us along with its rhythm, excellent writing and mysterious plot. It is playful and thoughtful and intriguing. The only thing that threw me a bit was that the voice of the nameless narrator and that of Noah sometimes sounded so similar that I had to go back to recollect which one knew which facts.

I found each character and their background fascinating, and of course having lived in Montreal for some years I liked reading about their surroundings and trying to figure out where they were, exactly, or what might have been the author's inspirations. Certainly the narrator, working in a bookstore, seemed familiar; I think I have spent time in every used bookstore in Montreal. Although there were many quoteable sections (I must mention again how entertaining and admirable the writing itself -- and of course the translation -- is in this book) I really enjoyed some of the ruminations on the used book trade. For obvious reasons, I suppose, having run our own shop for a few years. Here are a couple:

My job is more like a calling than a normal career. The silence is conducive to meditation, the wages are consistent with a vow of poverty and, as for my work tools, they're in keeping with a sort of monastic minimalism... Every shelf holds three layers of books, and the floorboards would vanish altogether under the dozens of cardboard boxes, but for the narrow, serpentine paths designed to let customers move about... Our classification system is strewn with microclimates, invisible boundaries, strata, refuse dumps, messy hellholes, broad plains with no visible landmarks -- a complex cartography that depends essentially on visual memory, a faculty without which one won't last very long in this trade.

I am a clerk in a bookstore whose life is devoid of complications or a storyline of its own. My life is governed by the attraction of books. The weak magnetic field of my fate is distorted by those thousands of fates more powerful and more interesting than my own.

This was a fascinating read and one I think I will have to return to; I am sure that a second reading would bring out elements I missed in my first, headlong rush to the end. Very entertaining and simultaneously puzzling, this is well worth spending time with. And the design is perfect; I love the jacket. The paperback which is soon to be available has a similar design but I think the simplicity of this one is just what's needed.

For another view of this novel, here are some other reviews, of much more literary merit than this one:

Steve Zipp, at his eponymous blog
Kerri at
Pickle Me This

1 comment:

  1. Lovely review! So glad you liked it too. Though I've still yet to meet anyone who didn't.


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