WHEN I WAS eleven I read J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. It’s about a magistrate who, posted too long in a colonial backwater, begins to sympathize with his subjects. Estranged from the empire he is supposed to represent, the motherland eventually exacts its brutal punishment: “I stand before them hiding my nakedness, nursing my sore hand, a tired old bear made tame by too much baiting.”
Cozy in my pink bedroom, lying on my tummy under a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars, details of how the magistrate was tortured by imperial officers accumulated. I awoke sick and dazed from my reading trance, feeling almost as if I’d been the one beaten and paraded like a circus beast.
Horrible? Of course. But an act of literary magic. Just as the magistrate, from the experience of visceral details, came to identify with the indigenous people he was supposed to govern with an iron fist, I was transported into the body of Coetzee’s protagonist through the gory details. The use of horror was masterful, and necessary.
The Immaculate Conception is Quebec writer GaÃ©tan Soucy’s no less gruesome first book, only now available in English, after his three other novels. The translation âe” not perfect, especially in moments of wordplay, but pretty good âe” is by Governor Generalâe(TM)s award finalist Lazer Lederhendler.
I was prepared to encounter pain: I read Soucy’s third novel, translated as The little girl who was too fond of matches, a couple of years ago and was so easily drawn into the smooth style that its graphic and awful ending came as a sickening shock.
The Immaculate Conception revolves around the tale of a peevish, sadistic old man, SÃ©raphon, and his simple-minded son, Remouald, who changes his father’s diaper, feeds him his meals, and wheels him around their 1920s Montreal neighbourhood. SÃ©raphon resembles a hand-puppet with a rag body and a wooden skull, with “that obstinate, grinning expression children see in their bad dreams,” but it’s Remouald who subject to SÃ©raphon’s will. “Simmering with rage, SÃ©raphon would invent whims: Could Remouald straighten his under-sheet! Would he mind making less noise when he breathed! Unfazed, phlegmatic, dutiful, Remouald complied with the most extravagant demands.”
The men’s past is resurrected after the pub where Remouald spends his spare time is destroyed in an act of arson, killing the people inside. Soucy gradually divulges the series of horrific events (to say more would be to give away the story’s secrets) from Remouald’s youth that dulled and diminished the once bright, sensitive, appealing child.
Soucy’s characters have the force of stereotypes, in the good sense; drawn in broad, strong strokes, they are extremely memorable, like fairy-tale characters. Grotesque and comical, the characters of The Immaculate Conception feel straight out of an old Quebecois folk-tale. Some of the increasingly nightmarish details, always told in straightforward language, are in the vein of pre-Disneyfied Brothers Grimm.
When an undertaker prepares one significant corpse for burial, he relishes the task: “After a while, one gets caught up and begins to search for the ears, the nose, the two eyeholes (I cheated: I used my fingers). This corpse, if truth be told, no longer resembles anything.”
Hitting the reader in the gut is a time-honoured strategy. In The Immaculate Conception, the ghastly details are part of the events the author must relate, and they do support his theme of lost innocence and wasted potential. Nevertheless, I am suspicious of the horror here. It’s hard to be confident that its horrific elements weren’t invented simply to push our emotional buttons, rather than for deeper thematic reasons.
The root of the plot’s horrific elements is Wilson, a peculiar character who appears suddenly midway and doesn’t make it to the end. With a hastily explained and unlikely back story, he isn’t integrated into the text. Wilson befriends and then destroys young Remouald, but he feels like a deus ex machina flown in to be the cause for the truly heart-breaking impact on Remouald’s life. A number of fully developed but less interesting subplots, particularly that of the fumbling near-relationship between a lonely schoolteacher and frustrated priest, also distract from the more gripping enigma of Remouald.
Like Coetzee, Soucy is a brilliant writer. Take this moment. Young, dreamy Remouald is at school: “The yellow canvas of the blinds was studded with spots of mold. Through it the sunbeams took on a magical, unalterable, unanticipated gentleness. He felt a thrill of happiness run through his body. It was like sitting one summer morning in the middle of an orange. His classmates were no longer lumped together in an anonymous mass; he was one of them, they inhabited the same world, the same garden as he.”
But in The Immaculate Conception he has not yet learned to wield his tools like a master. The little girl who was too fond of matches shows Soucy in better control of the narrative, and of the horror. Still, it’s a worthwhile, gut-wrenching read, and an important step in his development as a truly enthralling writer.âe”Carlyn Zwarenstein