8 September 16 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the Cardinal family, and left me wishing I could stay for more. With its elegiac prose and sensitively developed characters, the novel is an original, emotionally potent, and heartbreakingly real exploration of the forces that bind and break families.

In addition to Saucier’s nuanced portrayal of a unique family dynamic, the inventiveness of her various characters and settings kept me constantly intrigued. The Cardinals are a fierce and feral clan of twenty-one siblings who grew up together in Norco, a now desolate and poverty-stricken mining town in Quebec. Norco was built on the short-lived prosperity of a zinc mine discovered by their obsessive and elusive prospector father; in the original, instigating tragedy of the family, he would never see an ounce of the wealth that came from his discovery, an event that would spiral into the family’s demise. As a consequence of this underlying anger, the siblings grew up united in a war against anyone outside their exclusive, isolated family: for most of their childhoods, it was Cardinals against the rest of the world. They despised the outsiders that profited from the mine and ridiculed any sign of weakness within their own ranks. The Caboose, the youngest boy, romanticizes his family’s history more than anyone (but also knows the least of its secrets):

There are plenty of parts of our story that I can’t tell. People are too narrow-minded to accept such a lust for life. We don’t belong to the same species. We never wanted their lives, and I can see in their eyes that our defiance sends them scurrying back to their doghouses the second a particularly Cardinal episode comes up. Over the years, I have figured out which things are most remarkable, and I don’t pour it on any thicker. I stick close to what’s deemed acceptable.


With fire and dynamite as their weapons of choice, they were an intrepid, scrappy tribe of child bandits, terrorizing the town, mercilessly tough on each other but unconditionally united. The Neverland that Saucier creates as the Cardinal children’s domain is as interesting and imaginative as the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of the siblings themselves:

I was five, maybe six, and the town seemed to go on forever. Yet I simply had to stand on the sheet metal roof of the dynamite shed, which we would slide down winter and summer, and I could see the entire expanse of it. From the disused fire station that gleamed white in the sun (it was built just before the mine closed) to the flimsy hovels scattered along the forest’s edge, there were three large, square, grassy plots of land and, lost in the desolation, a few houses in ruins or well on their way. It was the same when you looked along the other axis: space, tall grass, grey asphalt roads full of potholes, a few forsaken buildings and, just about anywhere you looked, the mounds left by houses that had been transported elsewhere: the cement foundations, the sagging sheds, the body of a car that didn’t want to follow. And sometimes, lo and behold, a smart, tidy house cultivating flowers and hubris. Like the Potvins’, which had once been the city hall. Just two children. The son was going to college, the daughter to convent, and their mother played the organ at church. Rich people we cheerfully despised.


The novel actually takes place years later, though, once the “golden age” of the Cardinal children has passed, and their clan has grown up and all but dissolved. For the first time in years, the entire adult family is reunited, forcing them to come to terms with an event that has haunted them all for decades: their involvement with (and as we learn more, perhaps responsibility for) the mysterious disappearance of one of their own.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different sibling, consisting of introspective, intimate monologues and memories from several members of the family. The novel owes much of its suspense, mystery, and thought-provoking ambiguity to this multi-perspectival form. The fragments of the Cardinal family’s unusual past are pieced together through these accumulating shards of memory and knowledge: their story cannot be fully told by any one member, and the troubled past that poisons the family can only be resolved through bringing together the combination of secrets, big and small, that all of them keep. It is immensely satisfying how Saucier strategically unfurls the details of the Cardinal saga through the lenses of the different “generations” of its children; from the oldest child, Émilien with perhaps the most perspective, having had the full view of the family history, to the youngest, The Caboose, who, in his worshiping naïveté relishes the romanticized stories of the Cardinal children’s peak years. It is fascinating to see how the Cardinal children’s lives have diverged, and how they have each dealt with the aftermath of their former life together—they are scattered around the world, all living in drastically different ways. Each glimpse into these lives yields a depth and investment in the characters that is remarkable for the brief chapters they inhabit; I often found myself wishing that I could dive even deeper, linger a little longer, in each of their divergent worlds.

Saucier’s melancholy family mystery has a natural flow and an intimate, dream-like atmosphere that kept me reading, hypnotized, to the end. It was intriguing to read along as the Cardinals literally put together the pieces of a former life that often seems too surreal to be true. I loved how, on so many levels, this novel approached the simultaneous strength and weakness in the inescapability of family bonds; even living their separate adult lives, decades later, the Cardinals cannot avoid the pull that brings them all together to confront their once-shared lives. It is this same inescapability that leads to so many of the family’s tragedies, yet also some of the tender and vulnerable moments they share. Offered an opportunity by a wealthy family to get an education and participate in the “finer” parts of life, Angèle, (the sister who disappeared) was mercilessly teased and tormented by her siblings. Nicknamed “The Foster Child,” she was a misfit in her gentle nature, but she always returned to her siblings: “The keys to the world were handed to her with all the honors due to the first class. Why would she agree to leave that peaceful world for the den of the deranged, who started quarreling over the scraps of her soul as soon as she set foot in the house?” Her simple, perfect answer, and a summary of Saucier’s powerful message: “‘Family is an encounter with the deepest parts of your soul.’”

19 October 15 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by reader, writer, and BTBA judge P. T. Smith. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

For my first BTBA post, I wrote about sci-fi in translation, using reading habits as a pathway into the topic. For my second post, I’m going to repeat the pattern, except this time the topic is Quebecois literature in translation. Six or seven years ago, I obsessively read from one country at a time. For a year, it was only Japanese literature, and then after that it was German literature. If I still read that way, then around two years ago, I would have begun reading only Quebecois literature. There may be less ground to cover, a province instead of a country, and simply less translated, but it is still a vast and varied arena, and one that at this moment, is vibrant, healthy, and growing.

In Vermont, I’m only an hour from the border with Quebec, only an hour from the language of another culture, and yet oftentimes, Vermont’s greatest exposure to Quebec is either Quebecois coming here to vacation, shop, or Vermonters going to Montreal, and only Montreal, to do the same. The exchange is economic, and based on one small aspect of the province. It makes for a disheartening cultural connection, and one person reading translations from the province may not do a single thing to change that, but in my own life, and what it’s done for friendships with the Quebecois I’ve been fortunate to connect with, translation has been heartening, human connection. So often, we think of reading translation as reaching to the other side of the globe, instead of to a culture so close, yet with the language barrier in the way. That’s not to put some edifying factor as the motivation. Though these tangible, liberal arts, reasons are admittedly satisfying, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Quebecois literature were the falling not a deeply pleasurable reading experience.

There is some strange form of sentimentality at play. Outside of genre reading, for years now I’ve mostly only read translations. There’s been little choice in the matter: it’s simply where I’ve found the most compelling books. The absence of American literature has been replaced by the dark, funhouse-skewed mirror of Quebec. The landscape, the cultural habits, the experiences, especially as a New Englander, are in so many ways familiar, but foreign, not just across border, but across language, with parallel traditions, and ever aware that it’s looking back across the mirrored plane. Reading the novels and stories on the other side of the mirror, it’s obvious how self-conscious Quebecois are in their relationship to the rest of Canada, and to the US, aware of the dominance on the other side, and as the accept the influence, remain resentful and determined to prove that they, the reflection, is a living, powerful creature.

It also happens that this is a good time for love of Quebecois literature to spring. As I mentioned, literature in Quebec is on an upward swing right now, with young publishers establishing strong reputations, and older standbys finding new authors. Step-in-step with that, English-language publishers, like House of Anansi, Biblioasis, Coach House, and Talonbooks, are publishing these authors at a growing rate. Beyond that, websites like Quebec Reads and Ambos, both run by translators, keep English-language readers in touch with reviews, translated excerpts, and interviews. So it’s easy to write and think only about such contemporary work, but there is a history that takes it to the current state.

If you’re a fan of lists, CBC Books offers “15 Translated Books That Are Essential to Canada.”: http://www.cbc.ca/books/Translationlist_CBCBooks.pdf Before going into what is absent from that list, I’d rather acknowledge two of its best choices: Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska, translated by Norman Shapiro, and Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode, translated by Sheila Fischman. The latter was published in 1965 and the former in 1970. Both are modern classics. They come with a reason to be on that list, to be considered Important and taught in classrooms. Kamouraska is a historically inspired novel, telling a version of the true nineteenth century story of the murder of a seigneur by his wife and her lover. It’s a feminist work; it’s a book about power and economy, and the way those under it squirm to find life. None of that prepares you for the prose. From the start, the reader is on unsettled ground, with a third person narrator that alternates, from moment to moment, with first, until the latter takes hold. It moves in time and perspective till Elisabeth D’Aulnières is able speak her story.

Aquin’s Next Episode is a political novel about the Quebecois separatist movement, of which Aquin was a part. Yet here too, the narrative layers are complex and intertwined, the structure and the prose more compelling than any message, while being completely conjoined. His narrator is a separatist, held in a psychiatric ward: his acts of protest against power, his desire for a free Quebec, what he sees as salvation and personal freedom, condemn him to be a madman. It is mad to want to be free. There, he tries to write, to write a spy novel and a confession, and to make that writing a protest too. It’s a thriller that fights with the rules of a thriller, because those rules too this separatist cannot stand. Aquin packs madness, intrigue, violence, desire into this tiny little novel.

The most significant absence from the list is likely Réjean Ducharme. He too established himself in the 60s, then continued writing through the 70s. Ducharme then went quiet, going fourteen years without publishing a novel. Like Aquin and Hébert, his prose is abstract, strange, unsettled, springing away from normal sense. Yet they are earthy in their subjects, whether it is love and passion, rebellion against those with power, in political or personal relationships. And they are ever-Quebecois, writing tied to place and to land. In ways, this is the legacy of Quebecois writing in the 60s, the formative authors for many writing today, which brings us to the BTBA.

For the 2016 BTBA, there are six eligible books from Quebecois writers: Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated by Donald Winkler (Biblioasis); Atavisms by Raymond Bock, translated Pablo Strauss (Dalkey); Guano by Louis Carmain and Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier, both translated by Rhonda Mullins (Coach House); Keeper’s Daughter by Jean-François Caron and translated by W. Donald Wilson (Talon); and Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (House of Anansi). This little list of course leaves out those translations that unfortunately go without US distribution. Without that barrier, even more Quebecois books would be eligible for the award, and I’d be willing to bet that next year more will be.

In that list, only one Quebecois publisher has more than one entry: Le Quartanier, with Arvida, Atavisms, and Ravenscrag. The two story collections, Arvida and Atavisms (a selfish moment, my review is here) are excellent, and distance themselves from many American collections in that they are not stories written in an MFA program, work-shopped and work-shopped, not scattered stories written over some length of time between novels in order to maintain a magazine or lit journal presence. Instead, they are careful collections, stories that reach far beyond Montreal, expressing the strange land of rural Quebec, stories that are dependant on oral storytelling, of people and their strange pasts, of the visceral reality of the supernatural, and the ineffable mundane. They are meant to be read in order, each story weighed against the other, discomforts and suspicions carrying though, leaving you uncertain whether a new character deserves them or not.

These three are markedly different from the classics mentioned above in that their prose does not have the excess, the experiments and the fractures of Aquin, Hébert, and Ducharme. The beauty in the prose is simply a different one, pushing the strange beneath the surface instead of in your face. They carry forward other traditions, though. They are about Quebec, and look at their province with both pride and anguish. Many of these Quebecois novels hide what they’re about. Their realism is deceptive: a thriller is not just a thriller, a woman murdering her land-owner husband in the nineteenth century may be about something much more contemporary, a monster story may be about a man, and a story of a man may be about a monster, when a story introduces itself, look for the other one.

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