Hubert Aquin: Prochain épisode (Next Episode)
In 1964, Hubert Aquin, who was already involved in the Quebec liberation movement, was arrested for terrorism, as guns had been found in his possession. He was sent for trial but pleaded temporary insanity and was sent to a mental institution for observation. It was during this process that he wrote this book, his first novel and clearly based on his own experiences. It is told by an unnamed narrator who is currently in Switzerland, primarily in Geneva and also going now and then in Lausanne. The book is written with an intensity which makes you think that he was in a hurry to get his story out but, at the same time, there is a clear air of impending desperation. He clearly seems adrift, unsure of what he is doing here and wondering what is happening to him. We often see him scurrying around, not sure of where or, indeed, why he is going. Initially, though, he muses. He muses about his unsettled life but also about other things. He thinks of previous revolutionaries that have been here, from the Helvetii and their planned migration to Lord Byron, who stayed here before heading off to Greece. He thinks of other revolutionaries and other revolutions. He tells us that he is going to write a spy novel and then starts one, featuring a Wolof spy, called Hamidou Diop, who may or may not actually exist. Just as we are wondering where this novel is going, we meet K.
Our narrator was adrift but the one thing that kept his mind focussed was the woman he loved, whom he had not seen for a long time. She suddenly turns up. We know her only as K. She is his lover, as we see, but she also seems to be his handler in the revolutionary movement. She gives the narrator a job of tracking down and killing a counter-revolutionary, a man who may be masquerading as a Belgian banker called Carl von Ryndt, who is also a historian and gives a lecture on Scipio Africanus, or may be masquerading as a Swiss banker called de Heute or de Heutz. Following instructions, our narrator sets out to follow von Ryndt and drives around the Swiss countryside doing so. However, he is not cautious enough, because he finds himself attacked and wakes up in a château, with a man holding a gun on him. Is the man de Heutz? Maybe. Our hero manages not only to escape but capture de Heutz, put him in the boot of his own car and then drive off to a forest he knows, with the aim of killing him. But then a car turns up.
This is not a James Bond style novel. The spy stuff is fairly basic and our hero does not do it particularly well. Much of the time when he is after de Heutz is spent in his various ruminations, about what he is doing and why, about his life and his activities, about other revolutionaries and, above all, about K, whom he cannot wait to see. He is a man who is completely lost in his world and it is these thoughts of a man who is essentially a prisoner of his fate and his situation and who faces being an actual prisoner that make this book interesting. The thoughts of a man hunting another man and who himself is hunted are far more interesting than the James Bond shoot-him-up approach. Some Canadian critics have hailed this book as a great Canadian novel. I do not think that I share that view but I certainly think that it is an interesting read and a book that gives us something of a different perspective on the spy and terrorist game.
First published 1965 by Editions du Renouveau Pédagogique
First published in English 1967 by McClelland and Stewart
Translated by Sheila Fischman