All Quebecers, it seemed, turned on their televisions during the summer of 1976, when the elfin Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci competed at the Montreal Olympics. The fascination was not just in her perfect 10-point performances. This gold medalist was a mesmerizing enigma, complete with a Mona Lisa smile and a teddy bear.
Eric Dupont, just a boy at the time, was among the fans. He and his sister fell in love with Comaneci as she flew between the uneven bars. They could relate to such an apparatus because, as children of divorced parents, they spent all their energy bouncing back and forth between the high bar (their father) and the low bar (their mother).
At the time, it seemed all of Quebec was trying to stay aloft between many sets of uneven bars. There was the feud between the sovereigntists and the federalists keeping society off-balance, with each camp denigrating the competition far more intensely than most non-Quebecers suspected. The conservative traditionalism of the Duplessis era was disappearing in favour of the more progressive values of the Quiet Revolution. Religious faith was dissipating in Quebec homes, yet children were still being taught by nuns in Catholic schools.
Comaneci’s gymnastics set the scene for an exploration of all these faultlines in Dupont’s autobiographical novel, Life in the Court of Matane. Originally published in 2008 as Bestiare, the novel has been translated into English by Peter McCambridge; it is the first publication for QC Fiction, the McCambridge-helmed translation imprint of Quebec publisher Baraka Books.
The English title alludes to the nicknames Eric and his sister give their womanizing, hard-drinking, dictatorial father (Henry VIII) and his first wife, their mother (Catherine of Aragon). Their first stepmother is surreptitiously referred to as Anne Boleyn. The next is Jane Seymour, and so on. Matane is the eastern Quebec town along the St. Lawrence River where Eric spent most of his childhood. In the lead-up to the 1980 sovereignty referendum, it is largely federalist, but King Henry and his court are staunchly separatist, resulting in abuse from Eric’s classmates.
The story reads like a collection of fables, each involving a different kind of animal and a different lesson for the reader (hence, the novel’s French-language title). At one point, young Eric is given a dozen hens to manage. The boy soon sees how the pecking order among the birds resembles the bullying he suffers at school. Eric also has fantasy-fuelled flights of fancy involving Laika, the real-life Soviet dog sent into space, and a horned owl that eventually leads him to freedom.
Dupont, now a professor at Montreal’s McGill University and a much-praised French-language author, clearly wrote this novel for an audience intimate with the intricacies of Quebec society in the 1970s and 1980s. For the informed, and for those prepared to laugh at Quebec’s peccadilloes, this is a hilarious romp, although the philosophizing and fantasies are sometimes more self-indulgent than illuminating. Readers unfamiliar with the details of Quebec history may find the novel educational and often funny, but sometimes baffling.