a review by Caitlin Stall-Paquet
Things take a turn for the mysterious in the second installment of Patrice Lessard’s Lisboan trilogy, Nina. The timeframe is vague but we start out where the first tome left off, as Antoine’s brother Vincent arrives in Lisbon with his girlfriend Nina. The couple is there to search for Antoine, who has disappeared, and it quickly becomes obvious that the protagonist’s downward spiral in Le sermon aux poissons has reached a rock bottom much farther down than we originally thought. However, as in the previous novel, what is at first set up as a straightforward detective story full of great, gritty and questionable characters quickly spins into a self-reflexive narrative, twisted in on itself.
As we start to realize that the case being built up might not lead anywhere, other patterns begin to emerge from the narrative, patterns readers of Le Sermon aux poissons might find eerily familiar. Scenes devolve into strange, disjointed representations of reality that feel a lot like déjà vu, not unlike the Picasso paintings the narrator brings up so often.
These recurring skewed portraits of women point to the discomfiting male perspective prevalent here again in the second volume of the trilogy, but they also allude to something deeper. Jumbled images tell us that something is off with the point of view in general.
We could deduce from this idea that the story might be Antoine’s way to try to erase the past. By shuffling around characters and events, and continuously retelling the same stories from slightly different angles and perspectives, the narrator is effectively erasing his actual story. Or we could conclude that the entire book is merely another stylistic exercise. With chapters marked like the scenes of a play alongside a recurring theatre theme, things get meta really fast. It increasingly feels like we’re witnessing a story being acted out in a premature form, like the blocking of a play. Whether the narrative is an actual crime with the perpetrators retracing and reorganizing their steps, or it’s all about writing about perpetrators retracing and reorganizing their steps, is really for you to decide.
The narrative lags at times, choked by its own inward-facing gaze like an inverse scene from Rear Window. It lost me more than once. But one thing Patrice Lessard does masterfully is set up expectation of possible outcomes leading to all sorts of interesting dead ends. As you make your way through his maze of chapters, you more likely than not will end up feeling as if you turned a sharp corner and stumbled upon a mirror reflecting back at you where you expected a way out. ≈
by Patrice Lessard
≈ translated by Caitlin Stall-Paquet
She wasn’t really blond, rather strawberry blond. Blue eyes. She pointed her index finger towards the almost-empty plate of carapauzinhos and said, That looks good, and he, Go ahead, have some if you like, No, thank you, I’m not hungry and they’re far too oily, Yes, but they’re delicious, You don’t eat the heads? No. I think you’re supposed to eat the head, I don’t know, he answered before shoving another small fish into his mouth without eating the head that he then placed with the others on the edge of his plate.
Vincent looked around. This street, this café, they were nothing special, they were even a bit dingy. Without Nina insisting, he probably never would have set foot there. She was blond and tiny, understated, gentle, to him, she was perfect. He was crazy in love with her, he said, You’re beautiful, she blushed a bit, he would have liked her to respond but she didn’t, too bad, he continued, It’s nice here, don’t you think? she seemed to hesitate for a second before answering, I’m tired, we haven’t slept enough and the wine knocked me out, You could have a coffee, he suggested looking for the waiter, and she, No, it’ll destroy my stomach, We can go to bed early if you like, he continued before swallowing another carapauzinho.
They’d arrived in Lisbon that very morning. Leaving the airport, they’d taken a cab to their guesthouse and slept for a few hours before going out to see a bit of the city. Vincent had insisted, it was the first time he’d set foot in Portugal, the first time he’d set foot in Europe, I don’t want us to waste our first day, he’d said with so much enthusiasm that Nina hadn’t wanted to resist, fearing she’d hurt him. Having lived in Lisbon for five years, she knew the city like the back of her hand, and this walk down memory lane wasn’t necessary, she would have preferred to rest.
When Vincent announced that he wanted to go to Portugal a few months earlier, at the very beginning of their relationship, and suggested that she come along, she didn’t dare say no. After a couple days, though, she took the risk of telling him, without specifying why, that she didn’t really want to see Lisbon again. He’d obviously asked some questions, but she’d been evasive, It’s a complicated story, I don’t really feel like talking about it. He could have insisted, but she’d immediately started to ask him about his brother Antoine, about his disappearance after moving to Portugal four or five years earlier, Is that why you want to go to Lisbon? she’d asked. Vincent answered, I haven’t heard from him for over a year. Why did he leave in the first place, she continued, I think he just wanted to travel, have a little European jaunt, he was trying to find himself back then, I think, and then he decided to stay, not return to Montreal, Why? Nina asked again, and Vincent, I don’t know. He’d never been too close to his brother, Antoine had left, that was it, and Vincent had always been under the impression that it had happened without him or Antoine noticing. Vincent actually talked about this key event as if his brother had only been a passive player in his own disappearance, had only taken part in it from a distance. For Vincent, his brother’s absence was of no importance at the time and he was convinced that it had been the same for Antoine. Then, three or four years later, after years of only hearing from him two or three times a year, Antoine had started writing his brother every week for no apparent reason. What did he write you about? asked Nina, Nothing interesting, answered Vincent, he talked about everyday stuff, his life in Lisbon where he’d settled, he worked in construction, something like that, I never understood why he was writing to me, maybe to keep contact after the death of our parents, I don’t know, but he didn’t write because he had something to tell me, he wrote to write, as if it was an obligation or because he didn’t have anything else to do, never-ending letters and then it stopped completely, I haven’t heard from him in over a year.
And that’s how Vincent had convinced Nina to spend their vacation in Lisbon, because he hoped to find his brother. He had successfully moved Nina with this story. But on that day three or four months later, on the Café Mindelo terrace, she found Vincent’s story a lot less touching, she was tired and being there, on the Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, in a haze of jet lag and vinho verde, she felt like she’d taken a step backwards into her life of three or four years ago, an unhappy period.
A guy at the next table was watching them, Nina was the one to notice, he shot them a glance every once in a while. If they’d been in Quebec or France, she would have thought he was listening to their conversation, but that made no sense in Lisbon, especially since he didn’t look like a tourist. He wore a faded greyish-yellow suit that matched his waxy complexion, he was stick-thin and had a beer belly, was somewhat faceless, the kind of man you could have seen before without knowing where. A few seconds after Vincent and Nina had ended their conversation, the grey-faced man said, Gostam dos carapauzinhos? Sim, answered Nina, são muito bons, the man seemed surprised when she responded in Portuguese and asked, Vocês são portugueses? Eu sim, explained Nina, mas agora vivo em Montréal, no Québec, What’s he saying? Asked Vincent, and the other man, Ah! é verdade? Conheço um pouco o Québec, and he added with a thick accent, On est ben en tabarnak icitte! Nina started to laugh, she had a soft, cascading, throaty laugh, the only word Vincent understood was tabarnak and, coming from the mouth of a man in a suit, the word surprised him. Clay passed between them and the man ordered another beer from him.
What was he saying? Vincent asked Nina again, she summarized their short, insipid conversation and added, You really believe we have even a small chance of finding your brother? I don’t know, answered Vincent before adding, I hope so, and Nina, What will you tell him if you find him? I don’t know, he’d never actually thought about it. Nina felt that Vincent only wanted to find his brother because he felt it was expected of him, for the satisfaction of having done something good.
She quickly tried to forget that vaguely petty thought. After all, they were on vacation, it probably wasn’t the right time. ≈