Vers l’est: Mathieu Handfield

Vers l'est

Here is a thing you may know about Canada: It is officially bilingual. That is a horn we do like to toot. We welcome everyone! Look, we are bilingual! Here is a thing you may not know about Canada if you do not live here (or maybe even if you do live here): Most people are essentially monolingual. Sure, nearly every Anglo can say “bonjour” and every Franco “hello”, but when it comes to an actual conversation, things pretty much shut down right around “nice weather we’re having”.

So you end up with this weird situation of being one country with two deeply separate cultures, because no one is talking to anyone on the other side of the language fence. One of the classics of Canadian literature tried to bring this fence down, and handily gave us a phrase to describe it at the same time: Two Solitudes. The book doesn’t seem to have really done that much to change our linguistic isolation, given that bilingualism is actually dropping, and the only time anyone really talks about the two solitudes anymore is when some Anglo notices something weird Quebec is doing and chastises the rest of us for not noticing.

Even if you are bilingual, it is pretty hard to bridge that cultural gap unless you are really actively working to do so. French music sections at most record stores are non-existent or just tragically poorly curated. Basically, you can get something by Serge Gainsbourg, Mylène Farmer, or Céline Dion before she started singing in English. I can almost guarantee you will not find Les Dales Hawerchuk there. And I live in the biggest city in Canada. The lone French bookstore here closed last year. Which means maybe the only place I can browse French books in the city is a comics store. And while I love French comics, I wouldn’t mind being able to see what other kinds of work are coming out of la belle province and other French-speaking areas in this country.

I tell you all this so you can really understand how exciting it was to come across the indie press Les Éditions de Ta Mère at a book fair a few years ago. They seemed to be trying to do a similar thing as the publisher of my own book, but in French, and so of course, I bought their books. Which then languished on my shelf for the last three and a half years. I got caught up in reading things for work, and Ta Mère just slipped my mind. The books are so slim and unassuming in appearance that they never managed to catch my attention once I was back to reading outside of work stuff again. Until recently when I was scouring the shelves of unread books, determined to clear out the longtime languishers and re-discovered Vers l’est.

Hitchhiking Hauteville is just being picked up by an orange BMW at the start of the book. By the end of the first chapter, the driver of the car is in the trunk and a blood-stained shovel is riding shotgun with Hauteville at the wheel. He loses consciousness, and wakes up in hospital with no memory of what happened in between. Did he kill the driver? He feels like he couldn’t have, and yet he remembers the shovel, the man in the trunk. Realizing that he’s not going to be able to handle this on his own, he strikes out to get help from his friend Rodriguez, a mysterious type who lives in a trailer deep in the woods. When Hauteville tries to steal a car for the long drive, he is caught by the car’s owner, Paul, who strangely offers to drive him. And then things get really weird. And by weird, I mean talking bear weird. (The bear’s name is Boris, by the way, which is basically the perfect name for a talking bear.)

Handfield’s writing is crisp and smooth, full of perfect descriptions of tiny moments, like “Son coeur ne battit qu’un coup, mais assez fort pour que son sang fasse quatre fois le tour du circuit.” (My rough non-French-translator translation: His heart beat only once, but hard enough that his blood made the rounds four times.) He also doesn’t get bogged down in explanations thankfully. I like it when an author of a weird story just lets that story be weird without trying to explain the mechanics of everything. That said, the Rodriguez character does have a MacGuffin feel to him. He mysteriously sets everything in motion, only to be completely forgotten about by the end of the book. But the chapter with the Boy Scouts and their ridiculous names and personalities defined by what kind of badges they have earned is so perfectly timed and hilarious that I can overlook my doubts about Rodriguez.

What I can’t overlook is how there are no women among the actors in this book. Not one. There are about three women even referred to in the book (all naturally motivators for the actions of the male characters), and only one (one!) has more than one line of dialogue. One! In a book that has a magic man in the woods, a talking bear who plays the flute, and a sentient snake (male, naturally), there is no room for a lady. A world with women in it is apparently too fantastical for this tale. If this was BL or some kind of homoerotic something or other, I could overlook this ridiculousness because that is the nature of those kinds of stories, but the fact is, this is a pretty straightforward story of the redemptive power of a journey (and you know, friendship). And with the exception of one character (who is deeply conservative and homophobic, which is the foundation for his non-relationship with his drag queen brother), there is no reason at all that any of these characters could not be female. I mean, the bear can talk! Why can’t Boris be Béatrice?

When there are no female actors in a work, I can’t help but notice it. And if it’s not intended to be a part of the plot, you as a writer probably don’t want me noticing this. If nothing else, it’s distracting me, your reader, from what you are actually trying to say or do with your work. I don’t understand how half the world is of the lady persuasion, and yet books like this with nary a woman in sight continue to be written and published. In 2013. I am seriously tearing my hair out here. And it’s because the book is so good that I am so frustrated by this. I really liked it. It was fun, well written, with just the right amount of dry wit. Why couldn’t a woman be part of that?

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