The name Patrick Senécal may not mean much to English-language readers, but in his home province, the author is a bona fide literary blockbuster. Frequently referred to as Quebec’s Stephen King, Senécal sells in the millions. Yet the sum total of his work in English comprises a 2012 novella, Against God, and a story in Akashic Books’ 2017 anthology Montreal Noir. With not one but two novel-length translations set to appear in 2019, Simon & Schuster Canada has determined that now is the time to bring Senécal to the attention of a wider English readership.
The first of these two novels, Seven Days, is a nasty, claustrophobic thriller about a distraught father who takes horrific revenge on the man who raped and murdered his seven-year-old daughter. After discovering that the perpetrator has pleaded guilty and could serve as few as 15 years for his atrocity, Senécal’s protagonist, a doctor named Bruno Hamel, hijacks a police transport and spirits the murderer to a remote cottage where he proceeds to spend the next seven days torturing his captive in the most vicious ways imaginable.
The original French version of this novel is called Les Sept jours du talion – literally “seven days of retaliation,” which is much more explicit than the concatenated and elliptical English rendition. It first appeared in 2001, predating the so-called torture porn subgenre in cinema by several years (Eli Roth’s Hostel debuted in 2005). But if it could be considered prescient of a zeitgeist shift at the time, its belated appearance in English feels somewhat retrograde; even Roth has moved on from his anatomical fascination with the ways a human body can be made to come apart.
And make no mistake: the torture scenes in this book are graphic and unsparing. Kneecaps are demolished with a sledgehammer, an ad hoc colostomy is performed, eyes are gouged out, and genitals are hideously mutilated; the affective impact of these sequences is much greater than the relatively few pages they account for in the book. The obvious question is whether all this horror and humiliation is necessary or merely gratuitous.
Senécal is concerned with big questions here: what is the nature of evil and how does one avoid a Nietzschean descent into the abyss should one consort with monsters? Is abominable violence or torture inflicted on another human being ever ethically justifiable? What are the limits of grief and sanity? Is revenge ultimately futile or purgative? As Hamel spirals further into a kind of frustrated madness, he is given a counterpoint in Hervé Mercure, the dogged detective who is determined to track Hamel down before he is able to kill his prisoner. Mercure has also suffered trauma but his response to psychic pain, in contrast to that of Hamel, provides the novel with its moral centre.
And the book needs this grounding. The issues Senécal grapples with are urgent, especially in our current fraught political moment. Yet it is worthwhile to inquire whether the explicit sequences of torture, in a work of fiction that is nominally an entertainment, end up being so revolting as to undercut whatever moral message the novel might want to send. This is, after all, a book that begins with an unspeakable crime and then proceeds to traffic in degradation and filth for close to 300 pages.
The primogenitor of western literary criticism, Aristotle, famously posited that tragedy was intended to provide its audience with catharsis, a cleansing of the negative emotions of pity and fear that the material elicits. But the Greek philosopher was also very specific about how that catharsis operates. “Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of tragedy,” Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, “for we must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it.” An encounter with Senécal’s novel raises the question of where Aristotelian catharsis ends and a flirtation with literary sadism takes over.