Quebec dazzler turns history into fiction
SWIRLING through time from the Second World War to the present, and around the world from the Middle East to Montreal, this dazzling and intriguing novel questions the official account of Canada’s terrifying October Crisis.
It focuses on the quest of freelance writer Sam Nihilo to uncover the truth, or at least some truths, behind the shocking acts of Quebec terrorists four decades ago.
But October 1970, longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, is completely up to date. It contains ripped-from-the-headlines insights into the corrupt dealings of Quebec politicians, business leaders and mobsters.
The novel, first published in French in 2010 as La Constellation du Lynx, slides nonchalantly between the natural and supernatural worlds.
A painting even comes to life, spouting advice on a character’s sex life.
October 1970 blends multiple passages of first-person narration by a tapestry of characters with the author’s third-person voice.
Literary novel? Genre fiction? Who knows? Who cares? It’s a great ride. Author Louis Hamelin won the Governor-Gener- al’s Award for French fiction for La Rage in 1989.
Ontario writer Wayne Grady’s idiomatic English translation incorporates many puns and other jokes, the mark of an expert in both languages. Grady has just published the novel Emancipation Day. Anyway, what reader could dislike a novel whose author slyly interrupts the story, after almost 600 pages, to note at a suspenseful point: “They’re in the office. We won’t describe it here or we’ll never see the end of this book.”?
The novel springs from shocking eventse four decades ago, poorly remembered by many Canadians, which created many rumours and conspiracy theories, particularly in the province that’s unlike the others.
Bumbling terrorists from the Front de libérationli du Quebec, claiming to seek thet province’s independence from Canada,a kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal.
A second FLQ cell kidnapped Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte.
The federal government of Pierre Trudeau responded to the kidnappers’ demands of free passage abroad and liberty for jailed comrades by invoking the War Measures Act, which essentially imposed martial law in Quebec.
Laporte was murdered, Cross was freed and the government allowed some FLQ members to flee to Cuba.
Hardly any of the 450 people arrested without warrants were charged with offences.
Many of the novel’s 40 characters are based on real 1970s people, some of who appear under their own names: Trudeau, René Lévesque, Charles de Gaulle.
Some of them bear the same initials as real people — for example, Paul Lavoie representing Pierre Laporte.
Hamelin provides a helpful list, identifying some characters rather whimsically, such as “Colonel Robert Lapierre, political adviser, grey eminence, etc.”
The author’s listing of “Dick Kimball, Quiet American” is not the only literary reference.
Nihilo meets a source in a restaurant “straight out of Michel Tremblay,” whose patrons are hipsters and Dollarama shoppers.
Drinking scotch with a Mafioso in an empty casino, another character “tried to think which Molière play he belonged in.”
This novel carries on the traditions of conspiracy-theory fiction such as James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
But October 1970 is a lot funnier and easier to read.