canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Whole Wide World
by Robert Lalonde (translated by Neil B. Bishop)
Ekstasis Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

A good book gives us a world. It delivers us to a place where we quickly learn its rules, its evasions; its solidity and its evanescence. Vallier, the child-narrator in Quebecois-writer Robert Lalonde’s interwoven short-story collection, The Whole Wide World, shows us almost immediately how his world works – meaning, how his family thinks. "For us, myth preceded and transcended reality. Myth preceded all knowledge, and was a pre-scientific philosophy which never lied." Vallier’s family lives in a 1950s Quebec village, during a pre-Quiet Revolution time and place that is anything but quiet. Vallier is possessed by what he terms "his infinite curiosities ... those calls I answered without even being sure I heard them." His calls lead Vallier into a kaleidescope of human flight that includes musical prodigy, suicide, dreams, obese carnival women, pubescent Lolitas, onanistic sheriffs, profound friendship (with men, women, lions), devils, and other emanations in a world that seems so very odd to Vallier, and at the same time familiar.

We follow Vallier through ten stories. In "The Devil Knows," we meet Vallier’s family. His mother exclaims, "the devil hides in the details!" after which his father boils a half-pint of a stallion’s blood. Together with six rusty nails, Vallier’s father gives the potion to his sick mare, only to find the horse dead a half-hour later. Vallier’s sister Anne plays piano sublimely; his Aunt Alice sleepwalks, forever cursing her former suitors; and his brother Edmond, an alchemist, mixes paint, motor oil, iodine, and preserving salt at his bench in the shed. When Vallier asks about the value of such experiments, Edmond mutters: "I don’t know yet, I haven’t finished." Humour crackles in The Whole Wide World, illuminating the shocking, wonderful, violent, and grotesque corners of Vallier’s life.

I like all of the stories in Lalonde’s collection. They are driven by narrative, and by the possibilities of the unexpected. Shouting "I was flying. I am flying!" Vallier throws himself off the top of his barn, landing like "a crow’s carcass crushed in the grass." Edmond comes running out to tell him the bad news: "No progress, sparrow! I timed you, you lasted four seconds in the air, like yesterday!" But Vallier shrugs off the insult, his hope unflagging as he dreams of his next flight. And, in a manner of speaking, Vallier flies throughout this story-collection, forever initiating himself into the realms of friendship, sex, and music. In "The Trickster Teacher," Jerome Boileau – Vallier’s bosom pal – moves the hands on Vallier’s family’s clock, and later gets his young friend to help him tie his (Jerome’s) sleeping grandfather to his chair. In "Rowboat in the Grass" we meet young Cathou, who, with Vallier and her brother Gérald, crawls into the boat propped up on two sawhorses in the field behind Vallier’s house. There, the children form a pubescent threesome, beginning with the sucking, moaning, and squirming that eventually gives Vallier his "first forbidden spasms." (Later he tells the village priest only that "he has sinned through desire and involved quiet souls in my sensuous vision", while the priest listens in his dark confessional "and strokes his stole with his fingertips," then begs for specifics.) And in "The Lip-Ripper" Vallier becomes addicted to music; namely, the harmonica. Here, in this story as in all the rest, Vallier’s world of action blurs into his other world, a private world of dreamy, and sometimes philosophical musings.

Unlike his sister Anne, Vallier cannot play an instrument. To him, "all sounds were just noises." He begins to imitate the animal world around him – the bullfrogs, frogs, woodchucks, owls’ hoots – though he realizes "it was not yet music, rhythm, nor melody." Vallier eventually gets a harmonica for Christmas, and begins to visit his friend Jos Baswell, the village shoemaker, who tells Vallier his real name and origin: Archange DeTambel, from Trinidad. Jos teaches him how to play, and also tells him the story of how he ended up in the village: "l’amour, love, amor…Life’s beautiful cataclysm with its huge store of frightful inventions!". And once Vallier becomes an able player, he’s nicknamed "Lip-Ripper," because his harmonica is always fastened to his lips. Vallier plays for the villagers, reflecting that "what mattered was that I filled or emptied hearts, seized those parishioners … and pulled them along with me out of the future and past, into a radiant, definitive, lasting present." And yet Vallier, ever the observer, is acutely aware of how others perceive the world. When he stops playing his harmonica, the villagers curse him, but he remains unfazed by their insults: "they reflected people’s implacable need to take up life where they had left it, rather than real cruelty on the part of all those good people interrupted in hard work that was not progressing."

Lalonde’s The Whole Wide World – originally published in Paris in 1986, under the title Le vast monde – is a very fine collection of stories. So much of English Canadian fiction seems anchored in realism; Lalonde, on the other hand, takes us into the mythic, magical world of childhood, where "what-if" so easily becomes "it-is." Amid the dreaminess in Lalonde’s work, there is a profound faith in our collective fate: "We help each other up, love one another, someone, and then someone else. Marvels endlessly stretch before us, farther, higher, marvels that we sense without seeing them. And other angels still farther off, beyond a bend in the road, are waiting for us to put ourselves in their hands."

Harold Hoefle is a Montreal-based writer and a fiction editor with The Danforth Review.







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