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La Charrette

IMG_1105.jpgIn the second week of our 10 Essential Books series, Thomas Hellman introduces us to La charrette by Jacques Ferron. 

Listen to Thomas explain why we should read this book that is "halfway between mythology and reality". 
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Jacques Ferron was born in Louiseville in 1921. He died in 1985 in Longueuil. 

Doctor, prolific writer in many styles, he was also very much involved in politics, and was founder of the notorious Rhinoceros Party in 1963. This irreverent, satirical party had a basic pledge to "never make a promise it would keep". It listed a rhinoceros from the Granby zoo as its leader. Among the other party pledges were: 

-Repealing the law of gravity
-Providing higher education by building taller schools
-Tearing down the rocky mountains so that Albertans could see the Pacific sunset
-Ending crime by abolishing all laws
-Counting the Thousand Islands to see if Americans have stolen any
-Abolishing lousy canadian winters

This is just a sample of all the crazy things the party stood for. But I think it shows an important element of Ferron's vision: he believed in the power of the absurd.

Ferron published La charette in 1968 and considered it to be his greatest book.

This is not an easy book to read. Of the five I have chosen for this series, it is certainly the most challenging for readers, but it is well worth the effort because it introduces us to a unique literary universe. 

The story begins with a doctor working on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence river who inherits the patients of another, recently deceased, doctor. But we soon realise that this South Shore and the characters we meet are half way between reality and a realm of mythology and dreams. 

This becomes even more true when the story takes us north across the Jacques Cartier Bridge into the city at night. He describes the bridge as "the cathedral" and the city as  "the castle". 

This passage into the city also corresponds to a transformation in the language and in narrative. The story shifts from being told in the first person to being told in the third. The doctor becomes a secondary character, almost a part of the decor. In fact he dies, but in Ferron's universe the dead are never completely dead. 

In this universe of night we are reintroduced to the characters from the first part of the book and many others as well. There is the Italian immigrant who has been hearing hyenas laughing in his head ever since he fought for Mussolini in Ethiopia. There is the tall Scottish bagpipe player who rides on a donkey, and who has long conversations with a prostitute, and there is the alcoholic whose bottle whistles when it is empty. There is also the mysterious cart that crosses the bridge between the city and the South Shore carrying various things, mostly dead bodies, including that of the doctor who, though dead, continues to observe what is going on and engage in conversations . All these people congregate in and around a tavern called "The Gates of Hell" where the devil is trying to buy people's souls. 

In the second part of the book, the structure of narrative begins to explode, oscillating between a variety of genres, jumping from place to place and from character to character. The discourse becomes political as we follow the pig-headed Cardinal, then we find ourselves in a passage resembling autobiography, before falling back into a mythical passage in which the history, geography and psyche of Quebec is integrated into legends, Biblical themes, and universal world mythology such as the myth of Faust, for example. 

We are also confronted with images of rare poetic beauty. Ferron's writing is full of wacky imagery and plenty of humour which make the reading fun even if it confusing at times. 

I believe this is a very important book not only in Canada but also on the world literary scene.

First of all it tackles some of the important literary issues that marked that time. Ferron's style and writing structure evokes the death of the author, a questioning of how a story can be told in a time when our trust in language and discourse has been shaken. He explores, in a unique way, questions that were explored by other great writers, such as Samuel Beckett.

Ferron confronts realities and levels of meaning which aren't normally confronted, dreams and reality, myth and everyday life. In doing so he takes the Quebec story, psyche, identity and struggle and integrates it into a bigger picture. He reveals figures that are part of the collective Quebecois unconscious, creating a kind of Quebecois mythology. 

The Quebecois "question" is no longer just a local, insular one. In Ferron, the search for identity becomes an existential and spiritual quest which opens onto a host of all the great universal human questions.