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Panelist Michel Vézina describes being hooked by Nikolski

I first met Nikolski when it first came out, in French. Was it in 2005? Perhaps, yes. I remember the publisher's rep (Patricia, already a close friend) calling me every second day to ask me if I had read the book. At that time, I was the arts editor for a Montreal weekly, on top of hosting one of the last radio shows in Montreal devoted to literature. Although I had little influence on the weakening books market, publishers' reps, from here and from France, would send me at least 10 to 20 books a week. Needless to say it was impossible to read them all. Some weeks, I had time to look at five or six of them, and they had to be very good for me to make it to the words "the end."

When a new author would appear, I sometimes had a terrible attitude (and I defy anyone to deny that attitude). I would say to myself: come on, I have a pile of the latest work by major authors waiting to be reviewed, why would I give time to your baby, a newcomer who will have the rest of his life to get to be known? And the book would often slide to the bottom of the pile.

I would be whipped for that, if we lived in a world where stupidity was punished physically as a way to get people to be more provocative, impulsive, Latin.

Anyhow! It must have taken me a few weeks before, finally trusting my friend Patricia, I took Nikolski from the bottom of the pile and started reading it.

Some say a novel should catch you within the first chapter. Others say it's the business of a first paragraph. I say it is the first line: "My name is unimportant." I reread it many times. "My name is unimportant." I also know authors pay a lot of attention to their first line in a novel. They know its importance. And I remember lying down with Nikolski on my belly (I always read lying down, the flow of my imagination works better that way, closer to the position my body needs to be to, let's say, dream), thinking, "Oh what a nice way to tell me we are going to talk about identity here!" Isn't your name exactly the most important thing when you are trying to figure out who you are?

I kept going: a short description of an empty apartment...and then: "The window lets in the monotonous, rhythmic sound of the waves rolling over the stones.

"Every beach has a particular acoustic signature..." And there it is, a superb description of waves, beaches, waking the narrator up slowly. Revealing the place, the environment, subtly telling us readers where we are, where that story starts. I liked that a lot. It was written with a certain touch of urban poetry, with the sensibility of a writer being able to control not only the mechanics of the start to a novel but also its rhythm and, most of all, having the capacity to surprise us.

Because these waves he was telling us about were not actually waves. "I mutter something and open my left eye a crack. Where can that unlikely sound be coming from? The nearest ocean is over a thousand kilometres away. And besides, I've never set foot on a beach."

I won't tell you where the sound of waves was coming from. Read the book. But I can tell you I was hooked, totally. If memory serves me, I read the book without being able to put it down that night. I entered Nicolas Dickner's universe the way that you enter someone's thoughts when a novel works; when the world being presented helps you understand your own; when fiction makes reality comprehensible; when, if life were like that, you feel, our world would be a better place.

Nikolski deals with our relation to where we come from, to place, to our relatives, to love and friendship, to how we deal with our roots being torn up and replanted in some other world, to communication in a world where it should be simple and easy. If I were at all pretentious, I'd say that Nikolski marks a cultural shift — a shift between two worlds, the ancient and the new.

And never forget: Nikolski is taking place at the end of the last millennium...Walls fell, others were raised.

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