by Emile Ollivier (translated from the French by Leonard Sugden)
Ekstasis Editions, 2003

Reviewed by Mike Woods

Passages starts off promisingly enough, with the Old Testament-style destruction of a tyrannized land followed by the conception of a Moses-style exodus to the Holy Land (in this case, Montreal, Quebec). From there, Ollivier tells two stories which meet a purgatorial Miami: one is the story of Amédée Hosange, the said Moses who launches a ship from Haiti to a better life, the other is of Normand Malavy, a forlorn and often melodramatic figure searching for the meaning of his existence. 

Ollivier has obviously read a lot of literature, and seems to have approached his own novel as an academic might do so (consultation of the novel’s press release reveals he was educated at Oxford and Harvard, and worked as a Professor and the University of Montreal). As each narrative unfolds, the novel weaves together a vast symbolic order of Christian and Greek (and lord knows what else) mythological references, multiple narrators, and often confusing shifts in tense, all in some of the most precious purple prose this side of Cormac McCarthy.

In fact, the prose is so thick that it barely matters what the novel is actually saying ­ which is odd, since the novel certainly wants to be philosophical as well as lyrical. Consider this passage:

When Amparo and Normand met at the Miami airport, two destinies crossed paths. Amparo was coming back from Cuba. She wasn’t really coming back. She was returning without really doing so. In this, she resembled those who, having found Jerusalem, continue to search for it elsewhere, eternally to the far ends of the earth, and even beyond. At that time, she was having troubles with Filippe and had agreed to meet with him at Miami, for a showdown, the fourth in four years. The two first showdowns are always the least painful, for isn’t jealousy the highest expression of love? The third is usually quite horrible: here the agony of unkept promises holds sway. The fourth is always the worst, though: deprived of either love or anger, it involves nothing more than the weariness and annoyance born from repeating the same old reproaches, the conviction that the person with whom you are living will never change and the unhappy conclusion that, at bottom, you no longer give a damn (80).

What the hell does all that mean? Does it really matter? The novel reads the same way, the whole way through, forsaking plot development for sprawling paragraphs which meditate on the characters’ connections with grandiose matters of cosmological importance.

At the same time, Passages is an interesting novel. One gets the sense that beneath all that erudite prose, Ollivier really has something to say about literature’s ability to preserve an image of people and places of the past. “Passages” indeed: whether literal or figurative, each passage in the novel tries to retain an image of its characters (to retrieve the fragments shored against our ruins, if I may). By the closing pages, after the figurative passages fall short of their objectives, the literal ones remain.

Plus, the climactic chapter is called “Death” ­ and of course, no work of art is fully complete unless Death makes an appearance.

Four years of higher education have left Mike Woods with an awkward combination of genuine literary cynicism and genuine literary snobbery. Please rant away at him at