Christophe Bernard: La Bête Creuse [The Hollow Beast]
Though this is Christophe Bernard’s first novel, it has garnered much praise with one critic even saying that it is in the spirit of the great comic works, from Rabelais to Thomas Pynchon, from Don Quixote to Buster Keaton. I am not sure that I would go that far but it is certainly a very fine and very funny work. I do not know whether there are any plans to translate it – Bernard is himself a translator – but, if so, it will be very difficult, as Bernard has written it in a very racy and colourful Quebec dialect, which it would be very difficult to faithfully translate into another language. Indeed, a good part of its charm is the language he uses.
Much of the novel is set in the small, fictitious Quebec village of Saint-Lancelot-de-la-Frayère, in Gaspésie. We begin there with Victor Bradley who has just started a job as postman, his predecessor having drowned. Like most of the characters in this book, Bradley is decidedly his own man. He is known to the locals because, at a political meeting, the candidate Poitras, something of a pompous ass, declared that he loved Gaspésie so much that he would marry it. Bradley called out Well, you have screwed it so much, you should marry it. Not surprisingly, most of the people at the meeting thought this was hilarious. It effectively killed Poitras’ chance of election.
However, Poitras had been put up as a candidate by a group of local fishermen, in order to protect their interests (keep off the competition, have local officials turn a blind eye to illegal fishing and so on) and they were far from amused. One day, Bradley found a package awaiting him at home. When he opened the package, it seemed to contain something hidden in sawdust. He put his hand in. It turned out to be an old bear trap which had been set. It took off two of his fingers.
This story is illustrative of what happens in this novel: humour (a lot of it), random violence, corrupt politics and a host of very independent-minded men, all of whom have, at best, dubious morals.
However, it all really starts with an ice hockey game. The La Frayère team are, surprisingly enough, in the final and are playing a tough opponent which features Billy Joe Pictou, a star player. However, it is is nearing full-time and the score is 2-2, thanks to the superb goalkeeping of the one of the main characters in this book, Honoré Bouge, known to all as Monti (a corruption of mon petit). The game is heading to extra time, when Pictou comes charging through and whacks the puck in the direction of the goal. However, Monti manages to stop it with his teeth (no face masks were worn in those days). At the same time, he hits out and strikes Pictou who falls, with his fall dragging Monti the goal. To Monti’s horror, the referee gives Pictou the goal. Game over. Monti vows his revenge on the referee. The referee was Victor Bradley.
Quite some time later Bradley is finishing his first day as a postman and is heading to Mme Guité’s local bar for a reviving drink. Helping Mme Guité, who is a widow, is an itinerant man who lives in a cabin. It is, of course, Monti Bouge. That day he declares war on the post office. His tactic is simple. His cabin is quite remote and a long trek for a tired postman, who would rather be spending his time eating and drinking. So Monti arranges for a variety of very heavy items to be delivered to him, starting off with a set of encyclopaedias. Bradley has to traipse up the hill to the cabin. On one occasion, the cabin is not there. Monti has moved it to cause problems for Bradley. As a result of this, Bradley starts neglecting his other postal duties and the local mayor receives a string of complaints about this. This essentially open warfare between the two men is the key (but certainly not the only) plot element.
Eventually, Monti moves on. One day during the long winter nights, he is reading his encyclopaedia and comes across an entry on Klondike and the Gold Rush. Ignoring the fact that the Gold Rush ended some fifteen years ago, Monti decides to head out for the Yukon. He does not get to Klondike; indeed, he is hundreds of kilometres away. However, he does meet a group of Americans, including, in particular, William Dexter. They invite him to play poker and he manages to win a large amount of money from them, though there is some evidence that there is more than meets the eye. He returns home, well-off, though as with many of the characters in this book, it is alcohol that absorbs a fair amount of his resources. in his case of course, he resumes his war with Bradley, fixing his letter box onto a 25 metre high post, for example. Billy Joe Pictou also reappears and Monti also has a bone to pick with him.
However, while we have been following Monti Bouge and Victor Bradley, we have also been following François Bouge, who is the grandson of Monti. He used to lived in La Frayère but, for the past ten years, he has lived in Montreal. He has given up his doctorate and fallen into debt, helped, in great part, by his alcoholism. For a long time, he has been writing a history of his family (a masterpiece, in his own words). He has a theory that what seems to be the hereditary alcoholism of the Bouge family is caused by a curse on the family, because Monti had done something to someone somewhere. He is also pursued by an animal, the hollow beast of the title.
François decides, suddenly, that he must return to his birthplace to find out more out about his grandfather and the curse. A good part of the novel is about his quest. He is driven on a hair-raising drive to La Frayère by a taxi driver called Rock Dexter who seems to be a descendant of William Dexter, the poker player, and who turns out to be something of a gangster, eventually crashing the car and disappearing.
It is only when he gets together with his parents that we learn more about what he has found about Monti and the card players. It is François himself who says Tous les Gaspésiens sont des menteurs [All Gaspesians are liars] and, as he himself is a Gaspesian, we can perhaps take him at his word. His father, Henri, says the same thing later. We see this in particular just before his arrival when various inhabitants of La Frayère talk to one another, each one passing on a story with their own embellishments, including, though certainly not limited to an affair between two Gaspesians which is definitely not happening.
The exchange of rumours mentioned above certainly features mainly, though by no means entirely, women. However, it must be said that women play a relatively small role in this book. Though children are produced, as we see subsequent generations, apart from the rumour of the (non-existent) affair mentioned above and François being harassed by a former girlfriend near the end, there is very little love and/or lust, either requited or unrequited. Much of the book is about men being men.
At the beginning of the review I mentioned the issue of language and the fact that it is written in a very racy and colourful Quebec dialect. I have no doubt that many French people (from France) would struggle with some of the words and phrases. I had to have recourse to a couple of online Quebec dictionaries, though I have had some exposure to Quebec French. The advantage for an English speaker is that Quebecois or, at least this Quebecois, uses a lot of Anglicisms. For example chummer is to be chummy with while flusher is to flush (a toilet) instead of the normal French châsser. Indeed, there are are a lot of Anglicisms of that nature.
The title clearly refers to alcoholism, though more than once both François and the inhabitants of La Frayère claim to see a beast. I think the translation I have given is the correct one but there is another possible translation with creuse being both the feminine of creux, meaning hollow but also the third person singular of creuser = to dig, so the translation in that case would The Beast Digs. I assume that translation is irrelevant.
I do not concur with the comparison mentioned at the beginning of this review. However, this is clearly a very fine and very funny book. It is riddled with unreliable narrators. However, as it is very long, it is also full of colourful stories, often told or carried out under the influence of alcohol, which I have not mentioned (kidnapping, hunting, for example). It is a wild and hilarious book. I shall be interested to see if it makes it into English and, if so, how the Quebecisms are translated.
First published 2017 by Quartanier
No English translation