canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Rue Saint Denis: Fantastic Tales
by André Carpentier
Exstasis Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Aidan Baker

André Carpentier’s RUE SAINT DENIS is a collection of nine gothic tales, originally written in the late 70s and now published in English translation (by Leonard Sugden) for the first time. Immediate comparisons can be made to Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft, but these stories also contain elements of fantasy and magic-realism akin to Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There is a certain arch formality to Carpentier’s prose which brings to mind the earlier gothic writers. It is primarily in his subject matters ­- dream quests, temporal anomalies, arcane knowledge ­- that he invokes Latin-American fantasy, although several of the stories, ‘Pevine Blanc’s Seven Dreams And Reality’ for example, are similar to some of Lovecraft's dream-cycle stories, such as THE DREAMQUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH.

None of this is meant to imply that Carpentier’s writing is derivative. Yes, he is definitely working within a well-established tradition of dark fantasy. But his contextualization of this tradition within a more contemporary, and recognizably Québecois, milieu ­- plus the odd touch of surrealism ­- gives his writing a certain originality.

Whether Carpentier is successful as a storyteller, though, I am not so sure. The stories in RUE SAINT DENIS are not typical fairy tales, with stereotypical characters and implicit morals, but neither are they particularly horri- or terrifying. The tales do possess an authentically gloomy, foreboding atmosphere, but the actual events of the stories are not particularly frightening.

Generally speaking, the stories are less structured in the standard chain-of-events/rising-action/climactic way, than stagnant tales built around a central conceit. The central conceit of ‘Heaven-Sent World Map’, for example, is that a geographically-perfect simulacra of the world appears before a man and his grandson. When the man touches the map, he creates repercussions in the actual world, inadvertently destroying it. That is the entire plot, pretty much, in one sentence, though the story spans seven pages. Yes, the story is more concerned with time and how people react to memories. Which in itself might be interesting, but isn’t particularly well-entwined (if at all) with the narrative, so rendering the story not all that readable.

This element of conceit-over-narrative combined with a fairly lugubrious prose makes RUE SAINT DENIS not the easiest read. The introduction to the collection remarks that with these stories, Carpentier has "shed heavy textual excess by adopting...a briefer form." Admittedly, there may be something lost in the translation, but considering the density of the prose in these stories, I’m not sure I’d want to tackle Carpentier’s novels.

There are interesting elements in the tales and it is important, historically-speaking, to consider that Carpentier is credited with introducing magic-realism to Québecois literature. But what Carpentier wants these stories to achieve is not precisely clear and that makes them problematic.

Aidan Baker is a Toronto-based writer and musician who has published internationally in such magazines as Intangible, Stanzas and The Columbia Review.







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