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Hubert Aquin: Trou de mémoire (Blackout)

Aquin’s second novel was somewhat different from his first, though the concept of separatism comes in, not so much as a philosophical or political idea but mainly because the two main characters were involved in separatism. It is (deliberately) something of a mishmash. It starts in 1966, six years after the Ivory Coast had obtained its independence from France and one year before de Gaulle’s vive le Québec libre speech, which is mentioned in the book. We start off with a letter written by an Ivorian pharmacist and separatist called Olympe Ghezzo-Quénum. (I do not know whether this is deliberate but it immediately reminded me of the Beninese novelist Olympe Bhêly-Quenum.) Ghezzo-Quénum lives in Grand-Bassam. His somewhat rambling letter is written to a Quebec separatist called Pierre X Magnant (we later learn that the X stands for Xavier). He takes ten pages to get to the point – that he would like a copy of a speech made by Magnant on separatism.

Much of the rest of the book is written by Magnant. He starts by writing what he calls a novel but is, in fact, a rambling confession. It seems to be written by someone under the influence of drugs and, indeed, that is later borne out. Ghezzo-Quénum and Magnant have something else in common, besides the fact that both are separatists and both pharmacists by profession. They are each having an affair with an English woman, Ghezzo-Quénum with Rachel Ruskin and Magnant with Joan Ruskin, her sister. In his novel, Magnant tells us fairly early on that he has killed Joan. More to the point, he does not regret it but seems to have got a sexual kick out of it. Her murder takes place in a science laboratory and Magnant seems to enjoy the fact that the rhesus monkeys were watching the couple have sex and then Joan’s dying agonies. His novel continues in bits and pieces but with the intervention of an unnamed publisher (whose identity is revealed at the end) who comments on Magnant’s writings and, indeed, censors some of them, finding them quite horrific. We gradually get a portrait of a man who is psychopathic and who clearly enjoys violence. We also learn that he has committed violent acts of terrorism in Quebec. Indeed, towards the end, we learn that he may (it is not clear) be impotent or homosexual. The publisher plays the role of both amateur psychologist and amateur criminologist, speculating on whether Magnant thinks he has committed the perfect crime and on his motivation. It is only later on that we learn that Magnant is now dead, apparently by suicide.

But just as we think we know where we are going, Ghezzo-Quénum returns with his commentary. He now fears that Magnant is chasing Rachel to somehow reconnect with the dead Joan. The couple flee to Switzerland but when Ghezzo-Quénum tries to report his fears to the police, he is locked up and, while he is locked up, it seems that Magnant rapes Rachel. But does he? Rachel tries to tell Ghezzo-Quénum of the rape but can never seem to complete her story. More interestingly, we start to wonder if Ghezzo-Quénum’s novel is a) accurate and b) even written entirely by him. In short, the narrators are totally unreliable and it is only right at the end that we get an idea of what might have happened, with an emphasis on the word might.

Magnant’s drug-influenced writings, the publisher’s psychological analysis and Ghezzo-Quénum’s at times flowery writing do not always make for easy or enjoyable reading but once we get going it is a fascinating study of psychopathic behaviour, with plot twists galore and enough paranoia, sexual pathology and examination of the nature of violence to satisfy any reader. It is sadly out of print in English.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Le Cercle du Livre de France
First published in English 1974 by Anansi
Translated by Alan Brown