Le soleil du lac qui se couche is a classic of Franco-Manitoban literature. S.E. Stewart’s translation, The Setting Lake Sun, was author J.R. Léveillé’s first publication in English. Now the book is attracting renewed attention, with English and bilingual versions available in print and electronic formats from Signature Editions and a 2013 French-language edition from Quebec publisher La Peuplade.
From The Setting Lake Sun
by J.R. Léveillé
≈ translated by S. E. Stewart (Signature Editions, 2001)
I was twenty years old when I met Ueno Takami, the Japanese poet. Some said he was a monk, others that he had a wife and two children, still others that he was the president of a large Japanese importing firm.
At the time I didn’t know what the truth was.
Many years have passed since that time. I’m much older now, but this story still resounds in me as clearly as a bell in the empty sky.
I would like to say that I met him at his cabin in Northern Manitoba. Something mysterious happens when you arrive unexpectedly before a campfire.
But it wasn’t like that at all. I first saw him at the opening of a show by a Cree artist in a Winnipeg art gallery.
He caught me staring at him. His face, with its strong bones, was a little creased with age, sort of weatherbeaten but vibrant. He was wearing old jeans, work boots, and a wonderful black turtleneck sweater that seemed typically Japanese. His most striking feature was his eyes, what you’d call coal black, brimming with an exuberant restraint.
As soon as he caught sight of me he came over and said, “You’re Métis, aren’t you?”
And what a smile he gave me! I started to laugh at what he’d said.
“That,” he added, “is your Indian side.”
We shook hands.
Something drew my eye to the large window at the end of the room and out to the spectacle of the darkening sky. I was filled with both an enormous sense of melancholy and the joy of this sunset that could have gone on forever.
“That,” he said, “is your White side.”
He was right.
The next morning I awoke to the ringing of the telephone. It was my sister.
She told me that a letter for me from the university had arrived at my mother’s. “Want me to open it?” she asked.
I hesitated. I had applied for admission to the school of architecture. The telephone line seemed like a tightrope and I felt both hope and fear. Would I rather open the letter in the privacy of my apartment?
“Go ahead. Make the leap,” she said.
It struck me as strange, this idea of “making a leap,” since the internal inclination and the image that had convinced me, or pushed me, to launch myself into architecture were entirely different.
I’d seen a television documentary about the men who work on the construction of bridges and skyscrapers. American Indians, it seems, have no fear of heights and they’re blessed with an excellent sense of balance. So I had imagined myself walking blithely along a steel beam up in the blue.
I guess my notion of architecture was all wrapped up in the idea of a suspension of the void under my feet.
“Okay, it’s all right,” she said.
I still hadn’t replied.
“You know,” she continued, “I had a dream about you last night.”
“About the letter?”
“No. You were strolling down a trail through the woods with an old man.”
A strange feeling came over me, like the metallic blue of oncoming night.
“No, he wasn’t actually old. Well, maybe. It was an older person. Almost an old man. But at the same time he seemed quite young.”
My sister’s dreams had a way of coming true.
“So, what about this letter?”
I’d forgotten about it while she told me her dream.
“I’ll come over and pick it up.”
“Just make sure you keep an eye on your emotional life,” she said and started to laugh.
My father left when I was five or six. I hadn’t seen him since.
I’d kept a memento. That is, my mother let me have it. It was a bear claw mounted as a pendant on a leather thong.
I took the necklace out of the small cigar box where I kept my jewellery. I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror.
I then dressed quickly, feeling a sudden desire to go for a walk around the streets of Winnipeg.
It was quite sunny and as I strolled along the streets in the Exchange District, over by Main, I couldn’t help thinking of my mother and how she would take my sister and me for walks not far from there. When we were very young she’d take us in strollers; later on we’d ride our bikes or walk.
We lived in a series of small apartments on Furby, McDermot, Bannatyne. We certainly weren’t rich; my mother worked as support staff at the Health Sciences Centre hospital, just minutes away from those dwellings we occupied on the edge of downtown. And yet I never felt we were poor.
A few days later I awoke with a start. Not because I was scared; it was as if the awakening had come from inside my dream and propelled me outward into the light of day.
No doubt it had something to do with my walk of the evening before, since in my dream water was shooting up from the fountain in Central Park. The fountain had not worked for a long time and shooting may be too strong a word. It was trickling. It had never done more than trickle. But this trickle, after such a long drought, seemed like a gush.
It was a wonderful fountain. I felt wonderful too as I stretched and got out of bed. The sun was shining and I’d been accepted into the school of architecture.
I dressed quickly that morning as well. It was unlike me, all the more because I had a few days off. There’s a side to my character that’s very organized, but usually I take my time.
Since I’d dreamt of it so vividly, I decided to make my way to the fountain. I headed for Central Park.
I wasn’t in a hurry but—how to put it?—it was as if I had a mission.
I had surely seen the park over the previous few years, but only when driving past in a car or from a distance, never paying it much attention.
Up close, it had changed. The handsome wrought-iron fence was gone. The park looked more open, “newer,” less intimate than it had seemed during my childhood. The paths were more clearly defined, but less appealing, more manicured, less natural. The fountain still wasn’t working.
A few old men still played checkers, but there were more drunks stretched out on the ground or lying on the benches.
I was almost abreast of him when I spotted him. He was sitting on a bench—close to the fountain. And in my surprise I said his name right out loud. “Ueno!”
“You have a good memory,” he said.
How could you forget a name like that? ≈