Charles acts first, thinks later: The young hero of this newly translated
novel, set in 1970s Quebec, has had a rough time, but senses that his life is
‘on the verge of being transformed into something totally new’
Sat Sep 23 2006
CHARLES THE BOLD
By Yves Beauchemin
Translated by Wayne Grady
McClelland & Stewart,
360 pages, $34.99Early in Charles the Bold, Wilfrid Thibodeau locks his son, the protagonist,
in a closet for the day. This is punishment for having lied to his father. (This
may sound extreme, and it is, but the lie involved running away in the middle of the night, breaking into a veterinary office and stealing a dog – by the standards of some parts of Quebec in the mid-1970s, Charles got off lucky.) While in this prison, Charles fixes his gaze on a thin line of light coming from under the door.
That line, that light, is the one point of reality, other than his hunger and
a jam-jar to pee in, that Charles has. In the closet, he lives in a world of his
imagination. He conjures his mother, dead five years, and Alice in Wonderland,
and climbs onto the clothes rod pretending to escape jungle giants in search of
a chocolate-covered cherry.
Near the end of the novel, past events give Charles “the sense that his life
… was on the verge of being transformed into something totally new … as
though he had advanced so far along a darkened corridor and suddenly come up
against a closed door. He could sense that on the other side of the door was an
immense room, and a thin line of light at his feet told him something was
shining brightly on the other side, something that made his whole body quiver.”
The title in French is Charles le temeraire. Literally, Charles the rash. And
Charles is more rash than bold, a kid with native intelligence and sauciness
who’s had a lot of muddy life thrown in his face. Most of the adults in his life
have done him no favours. When he acts, it’s often to avenge a wrong done to
him. Only afterward does he think about what he’s done.
In between the closet set-piece and the rumination, the novel is peopled with
a drunken, ill-tempered father, dad’s indifferent girlfriend, bullies, a
pederast hairdresser, a scumbag chocolate-bar salesman and out-of-touch clergy.
There are also two close childhood friends, the sweet bumbling cafe owners, a
well-intentioned notary and the big-hearted family that takes Charles in. There
are also dogs. Everywhere. Charles the Bold is a daring, fascinating, funny,
intense, sad story. Occasionally it’s frustrating, and occasionally it’s
predictable. In other words, the story is as daring, fascinating, funny,
intense, sad, frustrating and predictable as Quebec.
In fact, the novel can be read as one extended metaphor about Quebec and the
independence movement. The rise of separatist forces and the demise of the
influence of the Catholic Church are here. So is the creation of Bill 101 and
the sign law (the scenes about signage and letter size are amusing).
Another way to read this novel is as an adventure, like the adventure novels
Charles reads to escape his fractured world. One character even tells him:
“You’re like some hero in a novel!”
But this puts too narrow a scope on a novel of such depth of field and
shifting focus. The change of focus is one of Beauchemin’s strengths as a novelist (he’s best known in English for The Alley Cat): knowing exactly when to slow down the narrative and watch Charles through a loupe.
It’s when the aperture opens to encompass the thoughts of other characters
that the novel weakens. As much as some of these characters are memorable and
developed (or at least, some of the male characters are), it is frustrating as a
reader to jump, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, between points of view.
Charles the Bold will be a two-part series in English. The original was three
books. The next translation, due in the spring, will take us through Charles’s
high-school years and the first Quebec referendum and into early adulthood. I
wonder what the light will reveal on the other side of the closed door.