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The Supreme Orchestra

by David Turgeon; Pablo Strauss (trans.)

On a snowy winter day in the fictional European city of Bruant, a mysterious stranger named Fabrice Mansaré (a.k.a. Charles Rose) walks into an art gallery in search of pictures to decorate his apartment. The print he purchases, an erotic depiction of a woman pleasuring herself, is drawn by a local artist named Simone Bergmann. This transaction sets off a chain of events that will lure the unpretentious Simone into a madcap world of court intrigue, postcolonial revolutionary politics, pop music, incest, and international diamond smuggling.      

Fabrice is on a mission to sell a magnificent 148-carat diamond called the Supreme Orchestra to a local aristocrat named Prince Ludwig. Eventually, Fabrice is revealed to be the son of General Mansaré, military leader of the fictional African city of Port Merveille. The younger Mansaré has turned on his father’s regime and is now working for the socialist opposition party. He is being hotly pursued by agents of Melanco, a company dedicated to keeping the general in power.

Simone is a thrice-divorced illustrator in her 50s who specializes in erotica and frequently mixes work with pleasure. Simone is trying to decide what to do with her most recent muse, the tempestuous Faya (the woman depicted in the print, who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Fabrice’s long-lost niece).

When Fabrice and Simone meet and fall in love, the former’s world of high politics and international intrigue crashes into the latter’s comic world of small-time artists and fuels an increasingly wild-paced ride through the palaces, studios, and backstreets of Bruant all the way to Port Merveille.

This all could easily have made for a fast-paced and enjoyable thriller, but Quebec City author David Turgeon doesn’t seem quite sure what kind of book he wants to write. The tone shifts wildly between playful, slightly outdated slang and metafictional seriousness; the protagonists never become more than two-dimensional; and numerous secondary players clutter up the action. In his urgency to pile events and caricatures on top of each other, Turgeon has created a novel that is both diffuse and manic, lacking the directness and drive of a good caper and the meaningfulness and emotional depth characteristic of literary fiction.

This would be more forgivable if these weaknesses were not compounded by an opaque and at times downright baffling narrative voice. The story seems at first to be told through free indirect style, which allows Turgeon to provide quick background sketches for his growing cast of characters. Partway through, however, what had seemed to be an omniscient third-person narrator is revealed to be an unnamed secret agent working for the same organization as Fabrice. This mystifying and apparently pointless shift in perspective does nothing to further the plot and is pursued only fitfully as the novel continues.

Even this inconsistency could be forgiven if the prose were less mannered and prone to bloviation: hairdressers are never just hairdressers, they are “skilled practitioners of the tonsorial arts.” Simone and Fabrice’s discovery of a mutual taste for sexual exploration becomes “their shared antipathy for base copulation.” Flourishes like this might be charming were they more judiciously employed; as it is, they overwhelm the narrative’s already hectic and freewheeling cadences.

It is difficult to judge whether these shifts in tone are as jarring in the original French (The Supreme Orchestra was originally published in 2017 by Le Quartanier as Simone au travail). There is a long tradition of slang and joual in Québécois writing, and it is possible that the awkward passages in Pablo Strauss’s translation arise from the difficulty of rendering a highly colloquial text from one language to another. The novel’s stuttering pace, frenzied plotting, and bewildering carousel of half-realized characters are Turgeon’s fault alone.