a review by Pablo Strauss
Bertrand Laverdure is a media personality and prolific author of many books in and between almost as many genres, including the very funny novel Lectodome (Le Quartanier, 2008). That Universal Bureau of Copyrights, his first book to appear in English, is among his more conventional works shows just how little truck Laverdure has with convention.
The novel follows an unnamed character who loses his limbs in a series of fantastical occurrences. They are replaced by strange prostheses: a singing leg, a chocolate arm, a second arm fashioned from expertly trimmed copies of Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly. As the novel progresses he penetrates a secretive organization responsible for copyrighting everything in the universe. It’s a timely, if somewhat hazy, critique.
Plot is not the strong suit here. But if we stop trying to get our bearings and jettison notions like continuity – Why should our hero not be teleported from Brussels to Montreal from one chapter to the next? – the rewards include some finely tuned imagery: “walking with a Wong Kar Wai slowness”; “a man of exotic corpulence”; “an ideal sparseness, managed by a director with a fair eye.” Another fine quality of Laverdure’s prose is the tautness of his short sentences. Here Oana Avasilichoaei’s translation shines:
He makes me wait a long time in front of the house. The neighbourhood is shady, the alleys are garbage-strewn. Five scruffy kids loiter on the street corner. A toothless old man in an Expos baseball cap sips his afternoon beer. A quiet, desolate place. Scratching my thigh brings some relief.
Do some read for writing and others for story? Can you have one without the other? Universal Bureau of Copyrights begs the question.
Only by letting go of our usual expectations of story and immersing ourselves in the writing can we savour such passages as this one:
Still no one. I monopolize the theatre. Strange credits slowly roll before my eyes, small branches of text swelling in the flow of a stream, bits of paper floating on a liquid surface.
Imagine a black undulating screen, a calm morning, deep waters collecting and bearing strips of text of various shapes. And without taking into account the spectator’s ability to grasp this cinematic machination at first sight. In short, I’m watching an experimental film.
The overall effect is this:
A foot as false as can be
a jacket over the shoulders
in a virtuoso melody a name
laughing you sing delicate chatelaine
cars and small bells montage of a dark lineage
What? Much like the viewer of the experimental film, I’m far from certain what it all means. Universal Bureau of Copyrights is a tough one to grasp. But the best books aren’t always the easiest ones. ≈
From Universal Bureau of Copyrights
by Bertrand Laverdure
≈ translated by Oana Avasilichioaei
- 1 -
At the Cirio in Brussels.
I just woke up.
Slept for about thirty minutes. That’s all. Yet my entire life passed before my eyes like it does for the dying in an operetta. Only now, I had the feeling of really waking up, as if for the first time ever.
Everyone learns this at some point or other. Nature has no secret plan. Nature is not a kind organizer. Nature doesn’t give a shit. She does her thing. Drops us through the hole, then waits.
Problem is, we all have illusions. We’d all love a purpose. Love to have our roles all set out, envision a grand plan, imagine that context, time, technology give us the benefit of distinction or even education, give us our blue blood, our late-night trysts, our heritage. All bullshit. Infantile drivel. There are never any options. We fall in and that’s all.
As soon as we step outside we speed up the process. Think before you step.
Everything around me has taken on this tinge. Even the Italian waiter with his aggressive look and biting tongue seems more real.
We often live twofold, in our heads, then in our bodies. It’s normal, natural; nature is complicated. Yet in waking I had the strange sensation that I live here and now, without a second of time difference. At last, at the focal point of a typically blurry objective. I don’t ask myself who watches through the viewfinder though I know that most often we are outside the frame or absent. Then suddenly, I’m there and fall in step with the present’s speed.
Event: the swinging door of the local jams up. One of the waiters goes to rescue the stuck customer. From afar I can’t make it out well, but a large blue and white splotch greets the owner. I forget about my Rodenbach. A few customers begin to fuss over this fanatic in disguise. Several raise their glass as he passes. Sharp, pseudo-jackass eyes, corruption in his wake, this is a strange regular, I tell myself. I’m not dreaming either; this thing comes towards me. I refuse, at first, to identify him.
But resign myself to look at him. It’s Jokey Smurf.
I use this major diversion to leave aside the impolite Italian waiter whom I’d love to knock out. Jokey Smurf deserves my full attention.
The Smurf hands me a present. The box we all know: yellow with a red ribbon. I feel like striking up a conversation with him.
He explains that he’s never known what makes the box explode, but he’s never had any doubt that it will explode. This Smurf is a notorious tautologist. In truth, he sees no further than his nostrils and this bugs me.
Me and Jokey Smurf, it just doesn’t add up.
Since his conversation leads nowhere, a repetitive loop of two or three lax commonplaces, I quickly become supremely bored.
He seems disappointed by my irrepressible yawns. Between two takes of the same sample text monotonously recorded by a sullen actor, he re-hands me his present. I’m struck dumb.
Oscar Wilde predicted it: the only way to resist temptation is to succumb to it. There, it’s done. I accept the present.
Naturally, the present explodes. Jokey Smurf bursts out laughing, as he should. Then, all of a sudden, I’m no longer there.
- 2 -
Blink my eyes two or three times to realize that my clandestine passenger body is resting on the cloth of a comfortable hammock. A bed of fortune held up by two solid straps, each wrapped around a trunk. I’m balancing between two trees with ludicrous nonchalance. Sausage of feet and legs, thorax and head, gently bound in its canvas skin.
I rest, relieved by my situation.
A few seconds is all it takes to realize the origin of the leafage around me and, incidentally, identify the source of various noises—the tennis balls and cars, the slight mayhem of picnics and baseball games: La Fontaine Park, southeast side, close to Sherbrooke Street.
I’m in Montreal, Quebec, surrounded by buildings, Notre 12 Dame Hospital, a statue in honour of Charles de Gaulle—a genuine blue knife of cement piercing the clouds or an immense sundial, it depends.
From a leafy fold, the shadowy corner of a branch, I glimpse a squirrel, head lowered, suddenly advance. In a fury. A formidable fury. Piercing, magnetic sounds—like a badly playing track in a CD player or digitally treated noise—escape its snout. Annoyed by this unbearable monologue, I untangle myself from the hammock.
Then I walk away, heart in my throat.
The city abounds with numerous excessively subtle melodies, teeming sound curves. I’m all ears. Like Ulysses, let myself be carried away by the merchant murmur, the dense drone of the neighbourhood.
My new outlook and the ambient odours intermingle to form an ethereal mosaic. I feel protected. Walk leisurely along, like a great holy man or a stork. We get used to everything. First to Mondays, then Tuesdays, then the rest of the week, the need to sleep, to amuse ourselves, then death. There is no universal truth, but cultivating our own truth helps pass the time. Mine doesn’t correspond to yours but makes up for all the rest.
— Press play…
The squirrel panics. Hops up to me and grips onto my leg. More aggressive than a wolverine, its downy body a small docile bomb, it clutches at my skin with solid harness-claws. Its cutting teeth, a makeshift blade with anaesthetizing powers, begin to gnaw at the epidermis, dermis, then the muscles, the bone. My leg detaches, a flower unfolding.
I fall into a dark coma.
- 3 -
Crippled, I need to figure out how to fix my deficient locomotion. End up ripping off the pant leg, so that the loose threads (skin and fabric) won’t hinder my movements.
Suddenly, a crowd gathers. They bemoan my unlucky lot, call the paramedics, take their time to faint, write sad verses, speculate on the causes of my predicament. Upset by my condition, an amateur musician stops noodling on his guitar, abandons it under a tree in the park, then helps me to stand and, declaring that he’ll fix my problem, offers me the comfort of his car. Wearing a plethora of charms and trinkets, he seems versed in the occult sciences. Naively, I ask him about it. He replies that, to be more precise, he’s a “collector.” Out of necessity rather than caution, I take my chances. Our mobile journey puts my mind at ease. An amusing and talkative polyglot (with even a basic understanding of Aramaic), this Jonathan Bélanger makes conversation while I attempt to get my new posterior as comfortable as optimally possible on the seat of his car.
A curious collector, he tells me he owns a good hundred artificial legs, made in different eras. He’s a connoisseur of orthopaedic devices and an enthusiast of African art.
He makes me wait a long time in front of his house. The neighbourhood is shady, the alleys are garbage-strewn. Five scruffy kids loiter on the street corner, a toothless old man in an Expos baseball cap sips his afternoon beer. A quiet, desolate place. Scratching my thigh brings some relief.
The collector returns with a retractable wheelchair, an old model.
Somehow or other, I manage to slide into the chair. He pushes me to the door.
In his basement, which I reach by clutching onto his sleeves and straining my abdominal muscles a few times, he parks the wheeled contraption in a corner. All around the walls hang artificial limbs, canes, primitive flutes, Dogon ornaments and statuettes from Sudan, Mali, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, hollow sticks, oblong faces excessively stretched out, giant amulets for elephants, cylindrical masques and other wooden art objects. He hesitates for a moment. Slowly closes his eyes. Reopens them with great calm, then walks towards a giant teak chest with a frieze portraying a traditional antelope hunting scene of spears, the cornering of the prey and the dismembering of the animal. Once opened, the great trunk releases an odour of fresh tobacco and cigars. He rummages inside for some time. Hard wooden pieces bang against each other. Gently, he pulls out a jointed sculpture of some indefinite material and hands me the object.
Examining it closely, I realize it’s an ornamental wooden leg, particularly well-crafted, with an impressive knee reflex action mechanism. Carved out of some sort of jet-black wood, this work of art could have figured in any cabinet of curiosities.
Overcome once more with a spiritual presence, and apropos of my new acquaintance, I suddenly envision a devout gesture and slowly raise the wooden leg above my head. In my own way, I pay tribute to the human capacity for invention, which unexpectedly moves me. As impassive and mute now as he had been chatty and mischievous earlier, Jonathan Bélanger breathes without a sound, then rubs his slightly irritated right eye.
Politely, he takes the object from my hands and fingers it cautiously. He seems to be assessing its strength, looking for defects that could remove the object’s magical charm. After a few moments of sombre silence, a generous smile lights up his face.
“Encore,” he says to me.
Not quite knowing what to say to this truncated phrase, I simply nod my head. He continues, laboriously, to explain. In four attempts at elocution he manages to formulate a robotic phrase: “Encore is the name.”
He repeats this phrase several times. “Encore is the name. Encore is the name.”
In a wheelchair, in a cluttered basement, I feel confined. Start losing my patience. Nervous, I begin manhandling the shoulder of my unhinged interlocutor. Suspicious of all this repetitive benevolence and motivated by a desire to promptly take care of the stagnation, I deal him a dizzying blow to the stomach, then topple to the floor. He bends over in pain, choking, and in the confusion crashes against a pair of black jointless legs, wrenching them off the wall in his fall.
Both of us are now in truce mode. Externally, I hold back. Yet I’m boiling with the fury of a frightened one-legged man who feels that a trap could close in on him at any moment. I grab at his sweater, shake him à la Lino Ventura. Then aptly ask, “What are you talking about?”
The collector’s jaw swells with every passing minute, his cheek muscles gradually get rigid, I melt with rage. Yet before I have the nerve to pummel his face, three other words escape his gullet: “The leg’s name.”
He falls asleep immediately.
I give up. This type of object is its own legend. I extract the jointed wooden piece from the soft grip of my saviour. Take it upon myself to give it a noble purpose, a matter of not causing too much remorse.
I match the tip of the wooden piece to the stump of my thigh. I want to win the leg over, take up residence in it. An artwork that will transform me into an artwork: art contaminates everything it touches.
Encore fits me like a glove. I try to not be surprised.
Liberated from my momentary torpor and struck with unusual life force, I lean on the wall to reach a standing position. Manage to haul up my carcass by alternately dragging my dead leg and living leg. Putting some shoulder force into it, I take up my bipedal appearance.
Plant my feet flat on the ground. I’m finally standing upright.
Right then the collector tries to wake up. But when he opens his eyes, they emit a thick smoke. From all the orifices of his head, a black gas emanates. His face is now a fire pit. Then his body is consumed. The fire takes over the entire room in record time. In this basement trap, nothing is visible anymore. ≈