a review by Pablo Strauss
Noted painter Marc Séguin’s first novel, Poacher’s Faith (reviewed and excerpted here), won the 2013 Prix des collégiens and was translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo, who now brings us his second, Hollywood: A New York Love Story. Where Poacher’s Faith focused on a memorable protagonist, Hollywood is borne along by an ensemble cast. Most compelling is Branka, who lives through the Yugoslav wars only to be randomly gunned down by a stray bullet on a snowy Christmas Eve in New Jersey. Though she dies in the opening pages (no spoiler here), Branka’s sly observations and cynical yet spirited ways are brought to life through the memories of her lover, the novel’s unnamed narrator, as he wanders the streets of New York, drunken and grief-stricken, trying to make sense of it all. He is taken in by Henry and Sarah, an older couple living off-the-grid in a converted garage, whose backstory and tender way of living are quietly affecting. Perhaps the most mysterious character is Stan, an astronaut currently in orbit and the public eye, whose past is intertwined with both Branka’s and the narrator’s.
One glowing review (in French) claims that Hollywood’s greatest strength lies not in the story but in the reflections peppered throughout; the book is “chock-full of touching passages which lead us to reflect on the various stages of our lives.” French-language novels generally tend to be much more abstract and discursive than those in the English “show, don’t tell” tradition. Where English readers are used to wading through paragraphs and often pages of people saying and doing things before the narrator serves up a flash of insight, like a light dessert after a meal, in French-language fiction these proportions are frequently reversed. This difference can be one more layer of “foreignness” for readers and translators. As the language we speak determines not only the words we use but the very patterns and contours of our thoughts, so are novels in different languages shaped by factors more fundamental than settings and social mores. Not only the flesh but also the bones beneath are different.
Much of Hollywood – too much for this reviewer – is given over to philosophical discussion of the big questions: death, love, coincidence, finding meaning in an inscrutable world. The plot holding these discussions in place is intricate, hinging on coincidences that push the bounds of the probable. (But then again, doesn’t life?) What makes Hollywood a powerful, memorable novel are the characters. Séguin vividly describes the mundane but germane moments of being that make up a life – in childhood and adolescence, in the early days of coupledom and the peaceful maturity of marriage, in discovering and living in new cities where all is sparkling and new, for a while. Branka, Henry, Sarah: these characters breathe and eat and laugh and cry, and remain with us long after we have put down the book. ≈
From Hollywood: A New York Love Story
by Marc Séguin
≈ translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo (Exile Editions, 2014)
Stanislas Konchenko died, suffocated to death by the cosmic void. Once he’d exhausted his supply of oxygen. A few billion of us had watched his fatal orbit on Christmas Eve, 2009. He died at the speed of 28,000 kilometres per hour, just over the Antarctic. An unquestionable Guinness record. All over the planet, amateur astronomers tried to see and follow him with their telescopes for a few seconds as he circled around the Earth. A satellite body visible from here below. Stan.
Nobody gave a damn about Chechnya. People talked only about this man in space who was going to die for a cause long forgotten. Proof once again that death eclipses the daily routine. We remember people who set themselves on fire or go on a hunger strike; we admire the act but quickly forget the reason for it. Oh, yeah! What was the reason, again? It was a spectacle. Unique. A first. Fuck the cause, but the form! The form was without precedent: the very first time ever that a man would die not on Earth. To forget that we’re starving for meaning. We would base works and chronicles on it. A man suffocated from lack of air circles around a planet that appears blue precisely because of the oxygen in its atmosphere. His body will never decompose. He will be embalmed by the vacuum and the cold. An eternal ellipse. Millennia. He has joined the tons of orbital trash that evolution and our conquests have produced. Like ideologies, like the one whose uniform he wore – a Ukrainian flag on the right shoulder and a Chechen flag on the left – and that he seemed to be trying to defend. Except that, back on Earth, ideas moulder after a few decades, after one or two successes and a handful of failures. He was still in love with a woman who hadn’t loved him for a long time. He would have liked to tell her in person, tell her first about the hate and then about the love. He had hoped to make amends. He had hoped for redemption and for all the words he had never managed to force from his mouth. Fragile and condemned. Horror and magnificence in the same body. The media’s attention was much more concerned with the first outer-space suicide than in the apparent political statements of a terrorist. Stan had had two appliqués embroidered to represent his origins: a Ukrainian flag for his father and a Chechen one for his mother. But the cameras had immediately focused on Chechnya, thinking they had found a critical explanation. They were wrong.
I often asked myself if it is easier to die during a settling of accounts. He had all the time in the world to shed his load as he floated, counting down the seconds remaining. Our youth in Saint-François-de-Sales. The years he spent in the Russian army, medical school, those few months in Sarajevo. Her. The years in Paris. The dream of becoming an astronaut. Then her once again.
It kept my mind occupied and even reassured me to know that a dead man was circling over my head. From that day on, there would truly be something up above us.
Stan Konchenko was my best friend when we were boys.
≈ ≈ ≈
In Saint-François-de-Sales, a small village fifty minutes south of Montreal, my friend Stanislas Konchenko was called Stan Kay. His parents had fled the USSR in the winter of 1969. His father, a weight-lifter, had won a silver medal in the 1968 Olympic Games in Munich and then took advantage of a competition in Italy a few weeks later to “jump the Wall.” He settled in Quebec because he’d seen images and a documentary on Expo 67. A farmer’s son on the Soviet Olympic team, he – with his wife, a Catholic nurse born in Chechnya – had decided to rebuild his life in Canada, where the land stretched out as far as the eye can see, just as it did in his homeland. This new country, brimming with hope, was an immense forest with fertile plains. He would manage. He would do what a man had to do: start a family, as men had done before him, and feed it. As honestly as possible. Tired each evening, resting on Sunday.
Stan was born on April 9, 1970. Nine months to the day after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. That’s not the kind of thing you can make up.
At night in bed, we’d talk by the light of a flashlight until his mother or mine came to tell us for the twentieth time that it was very late and that we should go to sleep. We were at that age where the hour has nothing to do with fatigue or sleep.
We built whole cities in the sand for our little cars, cities criss-crossed by roads, highways and tunnels. Several dozen Matchbox and Hotwheels cars. That was the theme of our play: cars. Later, we’d gather up these toys until our hands were full and to put them away, we’d hurl them pell-mell into the black plastic Sealtest milk crate. Where they stayed until we invented another world, the following day.
We built thousands of cities under a giant Manitoba maple, whose limbs we climbed and in which we could balance for long hours, hoping that Stan’s older sister would come home from school and decide to change her clothes in her room. Especially in summer, in the hope that she would put on a bathing suit. Through wear and tear and anticipation, our feet had rubbed the bark off the branches as we yearned for any stolen glimpse of flesh. A gift that became a magical memento, especially in bed at night, when fatigue does not always get the better of children.
We were in the same nursery school class, the only time we ever sat next to each other. It was a small village. Just one class for the first year of elementary school. The other years, when kids learn to read and write, the teachers separated us, as a precaution, they said. We used our scissors to carve cities and cars and airplanes and space shuttles into the varnished yellow wood of our desk tops. We were eleven years old when the space shuttle Columbia made its first flight in March 1981. Stan had been given a replica of it, a scale model to glue together, for his birthday. We assembled it on the kitchen table that same night, following the instructions to the letter.
We were always together. Playing marbles and dodge-ball, in the park, during vacations. We played hockey, like all good Russian and Canadian boys. His life was also my life. We lived through the same times. Frogs, grass snakes. Jumping our BMXs and Green Machines, putting nickels on the railroad track, the giant drain pipes into which we always went a little further, models to assemble, Lego blocks, sunburns, Kraft Dinner with hot dogs, a copy of Playboy, yellowed and creased. The summer we were fourteen, in 1984, his parents managed to get him a visa and bought him a plane ticket to go visit his grandparents in the USSR. The other end of the world.
That was the first time my heart was broken. Stan was going to experience things somewhere else without me. Everything had suddenly become too big, adults severe and unjust. And this Russia that was, at the time, still Communist and “evil.” We imagined it as grey and poor, with faces full of sad misery.
My parents had told me that the Russians lined up for a whole day to get toilet paper. Another whole day to get milk. And still another to get a dark-grey wool sweater. We made fun of Lada cars and a Belarusian farm tractor that a lowly neighbour had bought second-hand. Every time we saw it parked and at a standstill, we said that it must have broken down.
Stan returned at the end of the summer. But not completely, after all. He came back taken away from us. As in, my life here and the one over there. I know now that when you subtract all the lives you might have in a single life, the result is often a negative number. The connections we inherit are much stronger than the ones we build. Such ties are much easier to cut than to uproot.
Then one day like any other, three summers later, he told me he was going to continue his studies in the Soviet Army. We were seventeen. It was just before the Wall fell. The rules had been relaxed and the old countries welcomed their returning sons and daughters, no questions asked. I remember seeing heat lightning in the sky. Horizontal. We smoked a joint at the town rec centre, just next to the firehouse. He had repeated it: “in the army.” Since elementary school, he had wanted to be a fireman. It was agreed. I was mad at him.
And then he left. The hardest thing to understand was the difference that appeared where there had once been only perfect accord. Stan was brilliant. He would certainly become a doctor or a high-ranking officer. He had a kind of intelligence that few others possessed. He almost always understood everything immediately.
The Eastern countries, at that time, were the West’s third world. The official postcard for the absence of happiness: the meagre salary granted by the State, the total lack of culture, clothes all the same colour. That was how America pictured the other system. Serious, somber stares. The Coal Age.
Part of me envied him. All boys dream of the army. Soldier. It was an identity. One that takes many years to develop. I felt both admiration and a stab of contempt for the business of war. And a jealous desire. The best soldiers are the ones who always live on the ground floor of morality. And Stan was not a soldier. He was too smart to personally carry out this primary function. To me, it seemed to go against his nature.
When all the conditions come together, and we do not know why, a man’s true identity is always revealed to him. The milk left on the counter goes sour. Invariably. That’s what truth is: curdled milk.
We continued to write to each other. On paper. I kept all the green envelopes. Stamps with images of Leonid Brezhnev and Lenin. He completed medical school in four years. Then he decided the army was boring and asked if he could leave. Far from the stipulated number of days. The Iron Curtain had been torn down. The West had forced its way in. Stan didn’t want to become an officer in the military. He quit the official army. He wanted to get closer to the conflict. His mother was Chechen. We thought that he too was Christian Orthodox, and Stan never tried to refute the idea. His mother despised the Chechen rebels, who were all Muslims. He had wanted to go defend his mother’s religious values right away. Somewhere else.
Christians. Against Christians.
He ended up in Yugoslavia with Serbian soldiers, believing that he cared about an ethnic and moral conflict in a country with no natural resources. He joined up with the Serbs. Much more of a militia than an army. With a paycheque. A mercenary’s salary.
≈ ≈ ≈
The two of us had spent hundreds of hours together, firing at targets with the pellet guns we’d gotten for our tenth birthdays. We were normal boys. From apples, Seven-Up cans, aluminium pie plates, giant cucumbers and pumpkins in autumn, all the way up to twenty-five-cent coins at fifty metres. From a distance, Stan was a better shot than I was. We pretended that he was neutralizing the enemy at that distance while it was my mission to run toward the target and finish him off. We’d set up an over-ripe pumpkin or melon as a head atop a scarecrow that we’d made from worn-out, outgrown winter clothes stuffed with hay. Stan always hit the body. He could assess the effect of the wind on the projectile and make the necessary adjustments. Ballistic intelligence.
Of the former Yugoslavia, he knew only what the media had reported. A racial conflict based on religion. A real one. No fair play.With a more or less central command. Those are the worst wars. Dirty. Metastases scattered just about everywhere. Even to remote villages. Orders from headquarters were watered down along the too-long chain of command or were ignored. Factions formed, the social contract became the memory of an ancient and rather vague idea, and the distance from the centre revealed the unchanging nature of man, his violence.
Because of a jealous desire for happiness. Stan had chosen his camp.
≈ ≈ ≈
From the time we were five, Stan and I spent every day of our summer vacations playing together. At twelve, we had identical bicycles: two silver, five-speed Free Spirits. At dusk, we’d go to the sand pit, into the woods or to the houses under construction. Between the two-by-fours and the beams, in the framework structures. We felt good in these open places that had yet to be partitioned. The scent of spruce. We talked for hours. We used the pretext of action and games, but it was the thousands of hours of conversation that kept us together. That shaped us.
At the end of Rang Saint-Joseph was a pond a dozen metres wide, where as early as mid-July, the frogs were getting big enough for us to kill. Stan had come back from his vacation at Virginia Beach with some firecrackers. A true and precious treasure. Cherry bombs! Firecrackers were like naked girls: a gift you dared not hope for. Against all expectations, like a gold nugget or an old Playboy magazine, warped by years of humidity and found in an old abandoned barn.
The firecrackers came in packages of ten and we always calculated the best way to make use of them. No wastefulness. Some days we lit only one; on other, more extravagant days we lit up to three. We would catch frogs using a fishing line, a hook and square of red fabric for bait. Anything red: plastic, cardboard, a scrap of cloth, just so long as it was red. The frogs didn’t bite, but they were curious and would get close enough to a bit of cloth for us to catch them, yanking the line to catch them on the hook. Then we’d tie the firecracker to the frog with some baling twine, saying, “Ave, Caesar, your frog salutes you!” It made a sharp sound, the crack of a whip. Stan turned his back. He never went to see the casualties, whereas I found them to be half the attraction: I had to observe. We were normal boys in the face of death.
I no longer remember if we closed our eyes when the frog exploded. We probably did because I have no recollection of seeing it happen. Maybe we plugged our ears. A protective reflex. A brief second. Our brain is skilful. Clever, too. It usually manages to close itself off from anything that can damage it. That’s what we hope for. Or at least that we’re spared from as much harm as possible. Later, for adults, there’s also alcohol. Denial may be a survival reflex. A hypocritical survival. When we don’t want to believe in the atrocity of the moment, we first scream to ourselves words of disbelief: “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” An offence before taking the blow. Unless we’re a complete and utter victim, with the cold barrel of a gun jammed down our throat, we should never rely on resilience to bury things that are imposed on us against our will. Hope survives. “The right to vengeance should replace the right to equality in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Branka.
At night, when Stan and I talked for hours, we never mentioned the frogs we’d blown up.
≈ ≈ ≈
At Henry and Sarah’s.
The sofa-bed I was lying on must have been put into service on a thousand other nights. And on a few Christmas Eves. It had a thin mattress, with a hole in the middle so deep that I couldn’t turn over or sleep on my side. I was pretty pissed off at the person, man or woman, who’d left his imprint there. Through a skylight improvised from a piece of fiberglass, I saw the moon behind a veil of clouds. It had stopped snowing. Only once had I seen the sun and the moon at the same time. It was in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River, on an island in the Île-aux-Grues archipelago. Naturally, I was moved by the phenomenon. When we can find signs that interrupt everyday life, we get emotional. A simple unexplained coincidence is usually enough to make us feel special. Other civilizations consider lunar and solar eclipses to be sacred. Divine compensations.
And whom will we trust too easily? In what respect? Will they one day manage to prove that the Earth is not round and that it actually is at the centre of the universe. Nothing up to this point has been able to prove otherwise. My planet is the smallest known point at the centre of the entire universe. Our equipment simply can’t prove it yet. The failure of science.
Sarah collected dolls. I have always hated dolls. Stan and I hung his youngest sister’s in the stairwell at their house, across from the front door, so she’d see them when she came home from school. They all met the same fate: Raggedy Ann, Cabbage Patch, Strawberry Shortcake and all her friends, even the ones with porcelain heads. We made slip knots, put them around their necks and gently pushed them into the void. It made a snapping noise. Sometimes the head and the body came apart but their expression never changed. They had a factory smile or a hole to pretend they were drinking a baby-bottle, and it gave them a louche look at night. Dolls, each and every one of them, are always far too happy.
Sarah was born in Kansas. But her family moved to Missouri when she was five. Raised in Saint Louis, she had kept nothing of Kansas but her parents’ accent. In the early 1950s, French was taught as a second language in good American schools. She once met Cassius Clay. She had liked boxing ever since. She also liked to play cards, always with a magnifying glass that she waved before her eye, saying she was watching for cheaters. Even when she was playing solitaire. She must be funny. In the past, she never used to get out of a car before her man came to open the door for her. That was how it was. “A woman of principle,” Henry told me. Gloves, glasses, hands on the knees and a handbag that always matched the shoes, colours and textures.
And then one day, something broke.
Henry was born in Montreal. To a French-Canadian mother and an American father. He used his American passport to enlist in the army when he was eighteen and shipped out to the other end of the world, to Vietnam, to defend Liberty and kill “Chinese” communists. He left happy and proud, if a bit nervous as he faced the unknown since this was the first time he’d traveled. He did not return equal to what he’d been when he left. A shortage of humanity. And especially of faith. Not just the sort that inspires the pastor on Saturday but the kind that can mark the border between a before and an after, when men are roused by the profound and ancestral nature of war.
In one sense, this fissure is what made him interesting for most folks. In other people’s estimation, he had for years maintained the illusion of having existed because he’d gone to war. He had said, “Forget the jungle and the assault weapon; the biggest revolutions happened while I was sitting on a chair at home, silent, in love. Love rarely reveals itself, but leaves its traces, like bullet holes, and they bleed for a long, long time.
Henry and Sarah had written many letters to each other during the Vietnam War. Sarah’s letters had been anchors for Henry and Henry’s had been beacons for Sarah. The mailbox or the voice of the corporal who delivered the mail. Each time brought hope and anticipation of the invisible thread. Tied to each other.
Words had remained full of meaning and truth for the two of them. It is broken promises that kill. For years, Sarah had rewritten, in a little notebook whose pages she tore out, sentences that she had read here and there in newspapers, journals, magazines, essays, poems and novels. Like people who believe what they read. Then she glued these scraps of paper all over the place. On the metal cupboard above an old water trough once used to check tires for air leaks: A peacock has too little in its head and far too much in its backside. Or just above the garbage pail: Ignorance won’t kill you but it might make you sweat. She had been a subscriber to the New Yorker almost her entire life, up until 1980.
I had gotten up to piss. I repeated the phrase as I left the bathroom, to memorize it, because I was still feeling the effects of the alcohol and Henry had looked at me as he raised his eyes to the ceiling. Through this gesture, you could see that he still loved Sarah. It’s indifference that you should be wary of. My head slowly cleared. They were listening to both ABC and NPR. National Public Radio. They hated the religious stations. “Too busy with their debts and their fundraising.”
And I began to have regrets. Or rather, to suddenly understand the numbers. It was through this subtraction that I felt I had truly loved Branka. That was yesterday. Today was Christmas Day, the 25th. I believe I had told her so often enough. Why is it only through its absence that we understand the weight of a presence?
Too Much Drama. That was the title of a book left lying on top of the toilet tank.
≈ ≈ ≈
“At twelve, I understood that there was a ton of things we can never control,” Branka had said last fall when I’d asked her if she would have wanted to change the past. “The past is just a former present.”
I wonder if we can remake ourselves. I don’t know. Can we reconstruct ourselves after atrocities? Maybe vis-à-vis yourself, you can; it’s in the eyes of others that the tragedy remains one.
Henry had killed men that he did not know. Three. Three that he could remember. They had, however, been very far from him and had appeared tiny in his rifle’s telescope. The same screen effect that the television has. Men less real than if he’d had to look them in the eye and feel their strength. In his case, the war never embellished life or its history. Was it more real in the time of bayonets? The death of others had only punctuated his own life. First by simplifying it during the first few months: a medal and the very clear impression of having won the final round.
Obviously, between the soldier who lives and the one who dies, there is only the concept of war. But beyond the political conflict and the power struggle, Henry believed that he was justified in surviving. For something else. For several years at least, he’d told himself. And now there have been many years since that time. With Sarah, without whom the meaninglessness would have been increased tenfold. Henry would have had a thousand reasons to exaggerate reality, to fill a void, but he chose lucidity instead.
Henry was a sniper. He could hit a dime five hundred metres away. At that distance, the man you’re killing doesn’t exactly die instantaneously. When he’s shot, his chest is ripped to shreds, the flesh torn apart. The target becomes green, red and wet. The movement that animates the body evaporates within a few seconds. But the real death of a man, for the soldier-sniper Henry Joseph Kane, wouldn’t come until several years later, far from that other world, when he would tell Sarah why he had woken up in a sweat every night since his return from the war. And then began the healing that would never end. He would never fully recover, preferring to put a finger into the hole that would never close up again either. Beyond his strength. ≈