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The Lament of Charlie Longsong

by Roch Carrier, Sheila Fischman -trans.

“America is a novel,” says one of the characters in Roch Carrier’s new novel The Lament of Charlie Longsong. But Robert Martin, Carrier’s stodgy protagonist, disagrees. He insists, instead, on setting the historical record straight. Never mind that history is invariably just a series of stories we make up and tell ourselves.
As it turns out, this isn’t the only mistake Robert makes, particularly in the early part of Carrier’s ambitious story about the unfolding history and shifting identity of North America. After all, this is a continent built by people with a knack for reinvention, a knack Robert doesn’t have.
When we first meet him, his career as a history professor at a Quebec university is on the rocks and so is his marriage. He’s hiding out from his unhappy life in a small town in Arizona. In typical academic fashion, Robert can’t see the desert for the cactus. That’s why when he meets the novel’s title character, Charlie Longsong, an odd, old, inebriated Indian living in the desert, Robert ignores him and ignores his unlikely request to be taken to“Blanche Lariviere, 33 Grande Allee, Quebec, Canada.” What Robert fails to see is that this is all history is really ever about – one human being’s long, sad, improbable journey.
Of course, the reader gets to hear Charlie’s story. How he went off to fight in the white man’s war – the Second World War – and lost his arm and fell passionately in love with a French Canadian nurse, Blanche Lariviere.
Meanwhile, Robert returns to his university job in pursuit of the more academically acceptable and, as it turns out, equally elusive chronicle of Farmer Dubois, a kind of Quebecois Johnny Appleseed whose exploits across the United States, in particular, are impossible to overlook and just as impossible to trace reliably.
The Lament of Charlie Longsong bogs down a bit early on and lacks the dramatic conflict and interaction of a novel this far-reaching – why Carrier passes up the opportunity to have the stuffy academic and the intuitive native take at least part of a road trip together escapes me. But that may be because Carrier has a bigger, more important historical point to make. One about Quebec society and the way it has foolishly, counter-productively isolated itself from the rest of North America, the way it has even ignored its own dazzling accomplishments and contributions. North America, as Robert eventually realizes, is more French than anyone is ever willing to acknowledge – especially nationalists.
The Lament of Charlie Longsong does get better as it goes along. Carrier is a masterful ventriloquist with the ability to get inside the heads and hearts of women and natives, including a widowed truck magnate and a half-Indian cowboy notary. This may be appropriation of voice, but it’s on a grand scale. In the end, Carrier’s melting pot of voices and visions come together to prove that those of us living on this continent are always more than we seem, more than just the sum of our smallest, most parochial parts.
Translators are the unsung heroes of Canadian literature and Sheila Fischman, who began her impressive, award-winning career translating Carrier, does a compelling (and impeccable) job of conveying the poetry in Carrier’s prose and giving a vibrant English life to the dry wit and passionate convictions of The Lament of Charlie Longsong.