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Black Bird

by Michel Basilières

Michel Basilières’ Black Bird is a bitter novel – bitterly funny and full of sour memories of a Montreal and a Quebec that no longer exist. As such it will undoubtedly be very popular with ex-Montrealers. Even though Basilières opens with the caveat “Facts are one thing but fiction is another, and this is fiction,” I can already hear a chorus from the Quebec diaspora saying: “See, I told you so. That’s exactly why we had to leave. The place was dying.”

Death is at the centre of the book. It opens with Grandfather and Uncle Desouche coming down from the cemetery on the top of Mont Royal where they’ve been trying to dig up a corpse. The grave-robbing season is over – the ground is frozen – and a skimpy winter awaits because providing corpses for experiments is the family’s one means of support.

The Desouches – Grandfather, his second wife Aline, Uncle, Mother, Father, and the twins Jean-Baptiste and Marie – have made an art of getting by. They steal gas and electricity from their neighbors, they avoid the landlord, they fight about little things in exasperation over their situation, the way characters in many gritty urban novels do. And while medical schools haven’t used cadavers from graves for a good 100 years, there is little indication in the first section that this is anything but slice-of-life, kitchen-sink realism.

Now a Toronto bookseller, Basilières lived in the fictional Desouches’ neighborhood in the early 1970s. During that period I lived a couple of blocks from the house he gives to the Desouches, and his descriptions are right on, whether they be of the borrowed luxury of reading in the greenhouse next to Westmount Library or of the peculiar smell of the run-down, gas-heated houses near McGill University.

Because of these realistic details I didn’t know whether I was supposed to shudder or laugh when, 24 pages into the book, Marie accidentally kills her maternal grandfather Angus as she sets off a bomb for her Front de la libération du Québec friends. It wasn’t until her paternal grandfather is attacked by Aline’s pet crow 40 pages further on and subsequently sees better from his artificial eye than from his real one did it become obvious that Basilières is leading readers into the land of magic realism.

Grass, Marquez, Rushdie – some great writers have combined vivid descriptions of real events with the fantastic in their fictions. Following their lead, Basilières brews his plot from real headlines: René Lévesque Runs Over Drunk! Québec Nationalist Sends Kids to English Schools! FLQ Garrotes Kidnap Victim with Crucifix!

The result is an often funny mixture of things that happened, but not the way Basilières says, with things that can’t happen in everyday reality. Running throughout is a more serious concern about what it is like to live with language as the defining characteristic of life. The Desouches (a play on the French expression “de vieille souche” meaning authentically Québécois) were francophone originally, but now mostly speak English because Mother is anglophone. Marie reacts to this confusion by becoming a terrorist, but Jean-Baptiste, who loves French fiction but whose French isn’t good enough for him to read it in the original, wants to write.

The last scene shows Jean-Baptiste throwing away his epic historical novel because he decides it’s impossible to approach the truth by writing about what he knows and cares about. So he begins again, with the words “Montreal, an island…” which also happen to be the first words of Black Bird.

And who is the black bird? Aline’s miraculous eye-plucking crow, of course. But also the one in the Beatles’ song, recorded in 1968, which surely the young Basilières heard back then: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these broken wings and learn to fly/All your life /You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

Which is what Basilières appears to have done – left Montreal and its language debates, and gone on to write English in the centre of the rest of Canada. The result is an accomplished first novel, which would have been better if Basilières had signalled his bent for magic realism more clearly at the beginning. It also is a novel that should be read as a story that took place some 30 years ago. Montreal is no longer the haunted place that Basilières writes about – if it ever was.


Reviewer: Mary Soderstrom

Publisher: Knopf Canada


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 312 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-676-97527-5

Issue Date: 2003-2

Categories: Fiction: Novels