a review by Jacob Siefring
Terre des cons is a very short novel by Patrick Nicol, published in October 2012. Its jacket copy declares it the first Quebec novel to draw inspiration from the massive spring 2012 student protests. More broadly, though, it evokes the ideological shift that can occur with the transition to middle age. Does getting older mean becoming a (grouchy) reactionary? Beginning a letter to a fellow professor of literature, the narrator asks himself this question before deriding – eloquently and comically, we might add – what he perceives as an endless succession of offences against good taste, judgment, and social responsibility.
Unsurprisingly for a book whose title might be rendered World of Idiots, the dominant tone remains delightfully misanthropic through the book’s first half. And the prose is wrought with a chauvinist punch and flair that are devastatingly offensive, often cruel.
But the gravity and offence of the narrator’s tirade are mitigated by the reader’s realization that the man himself, despite his erudition and refinement, is something of a self-righteous buffoon, not least for his trifling hypocrisy. So the book ridicules not only those on whom its narrator heaps derision, but also, implicitly, the ranter who holds his readers tight in his grip. As we accompany him through late-night boredom and puttering domesticity, the hilarity of his rants and impassioned defences of the true and the beautiful give way to a lyrical solitude and a ruminative emptiness of the kind one feels in the middle of a successful career.
It’s here that emphasis is brought to the conflict and spectacle of the printemps érable: the narrator’s state of general vexation narrows to outrage at the role played by conservative pundits and news agencies in mediating and controlling the image of public unrest.
After a leading newspaper neglects to report an initial, massive protest (“We were more than 200,000 that day”) and instead prints an ultra-conservative op-ed, Nicol’s narrator finds himself – by default, to be sure – sympathizing with the protest movement.
For its scant one hundred pages, Terre des cons is remarkable fun, and stylistically impeccable. The narrator’s ambivalent state of emotional need and niggardly intolerance, along with his anxieties about his bourgeois comforts (wine, dessert, social stability), present a compelling portrait of a type readers of all walks of life will recognize. ≈
From Terre des cons
by Patrick Nicol
≈ translated by Jacob Siefring
A few months later, a video of the celebration for the 80th birthday of the Media Magnate’s wife started to go around. Her husband had thrown a small party on her behalf. What you might call the cream of our society had been invited, insofar as one defines cream as the fat that rises to the top. An original décor had been designed for the occasion and a show organized. All the official buffoons were there, as well as the ruling class, some sporting the Legion of Honor, others the Order of Canada or of Quebec, hung round their necks like tags from the humane society. The gold and the champagne flowed together, and lace ornamented the prostheses. The artistic segment of the evening consisted of a cabaret, a Plamondon-ish song written for the occasion, and some turgid and overdone arias, performed by the usual musical flunkeys. The YouTube video caused a stir of indignation. We watched it together, all three of us.
You were particularly disgusted by the tackiness of it all. For her part, Julie tried to remind us that if, as a society, we want to come into an inheritance, then someone has to be its trustee. That’s the role of the bourgeoisie, just as it was previously the role of the aristocracy before them. But our wealthy have no taste, she insisted, and with very few exceptions, feel no sense of cultural duty other than to please their peers and to speculate on the value of paintings by artists who’ve already made it. It’s easy to dislike the poor, she said with her eyes on me, to mock the students, but the wealthy aren’t any more cultured either. They dress poorly, don’t think straight, and revere awful works of art that cost a fortune. You chimed in with: It’s the same with plastic surgeons, hockey players, young stockbrokers who suddenly strike it rich. They live in monster houses, drive monster trucks, and drink monster Cokes while watching monster movies in 3D. They only understand prosperity in terms of affluence, and they prefer ostentation to depth. And you brought the discussion to an end, Philippe, with a statement that made us laugh, though it should’ve been cause for concern: Everyone’s stupid, except for us. ≈