a review by Peter McCambridge
François Barcelo is a difficult author to pigeonhole. He wrote somewhere that when he finishes a novel, he tots up the number of grisly deaths: if there are more than five, it’s noir. His most recent, J’haïs les vieux, doesn’t come close to five deaths and yet it’s probably the most noir novel of his that I’ve read yet. The deaths don’t come thick and fast, but when they do, boy are they extravagant.
Aside from the obvious question—What is noir anyway?—there is the problem of the detective element. Before ever picking up a book by Barcelo, I always thought of Raymond Chandler whenever I heard the word noir. I imagined unsentimental, self-destructive private eyes, working for justice in the shadows between right and wrong, a cross between Dick Tracy and Batman. J’haïs le hockey has an element of this, at least. There has been a murder and our anti-hero sets out to put two and two together (getting five, more often than not) as he tries hard to figure out who the culprit might be.
There is a murder or two in J’haïs les vieux, but no obvious bad guy, and certainly no snarling detective determined to feed him his just desserts. There are what seems to be Barcelo’s favourite kind of character: odious anti-heroes that some dark part of us can’t help but like. And there is action aplenty.
For me, that is the driving force of any (recent) Barcelo novel. The action comes thick and fast and bloody. It is a short (a scant 124 pages), fun, quick read. This, as Barcelo himself readily admits, is to the detriment of each novel’s literary merits. In Écrire en toute liberté, Barcelo’s contribution to a series by Éditions Trois-Pistoles that saw writers reveal the whys and the hows behind their writing careers, Barcelo—self-deprecating as ever—readily admits to making things up as he goes along:
“If I’m using a narrator, I have no idea as I write the first few pages, if the narrator is ugly or good-looking, young or old, a he or a she. It’s as he tells his story through me that I discover his personality, what he looks like, if it’s a man or a woman.”
Sitting down with a meticulous plan and following it to the letter, he explains, is simply not his style:
“I suspect most if not all great writers of working in a planned, orderly fashion. If that’s the way it is, I’m not sure I want to be a great writer.”
You will have noticed that Barcelo excludes himself, happily and readily enough, from the circle of “great writers,” going on to clarify a comment he once made that the media bring up again at every opportunity:
“I’m a minor writer.”
What does he mean by that?
“Here are my definitions, if that’s any help to you:
Major Quebec writer: an author who will have at least one full paragraph devoted to him or her in the annals of Quebec literature in the year 3000.
Minor Quebec writer: an author who will have less than a paragraph devoted to him or her in the same annals.
I’m certain I belong to the second group. And I will be very happy indeed if, in the annals of the future, I am mentioned as part of a list of Quebec authors who, at the turn of the third millennium, produced literature that was more fun than profound.”
More fun than profound. And that, ladies and gentleman, is Barcelo’s crime. He stands accused—or rather, he accuses himself—of turning his back on the altar of great writers and settling, if not for mediocrity, then for fun, quick reads (and, no doubt just as importantly for him, for fun, quick writes).
I don’t think Barcelo is ever in any danger of being labelled a mediocre writer. Simple writing is a deceptive skill. It takes a lot of talent to come up with a page-turner that readers will fly through, chomping at the bit to find out what will happen next.
And he certainly has fun with Armand Lafleur in J’haïs les vieux. Our narrator is not as detestable as Antoine Vachon in J’haïs le hockey, not quite as unhinged as the narrator of J’haïs les bébés, and Barcelo sets himself the additional challenge of setting all the action (apart from one key scene) in a retirement home, and then largely restricting it to one room and an elevator.
As with much of Barcelo’s writing, the novel is impossible to summarize much beyond the launchpad of the first chapter. Armand Lafleur is 86 years old, a retired crooner. He lives alone in a retirement home, without friends or family. One day there is a knock at the door. He’s been invited to a music gala that will pay tribute to him that very evening. The limousine is waiting outside.
From there, suffice to say, things go from bad to worse to very, very, very bad indeed. It’s a fun trip, one that will have a lot of people staying up past bedtime to see how things end. ≈