a review by Pablo Strauss
It’s the early nineties. Two friends fresh out of high school sign up for basic training at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier near Quebec City.
We didn’t really think about the consequences. We just wanted to have fun and do crazy things. We wanted to try something that went against our neo-hippy values, get a taste of life on the other side. We’d embed ourselves in the Canadian Forces like undercover journalists, the better to make fun of it from the inside; we’d beat them at their own game and come out with first-hand knowledge, the evidence required to hold the army in contempt.
It’s a brazen if not hare-brained project, but seventeen-year-olds aren’t known for their judgment. Among the many strengths of Grégory Lemay’s fifth novel is how the older narrator convincingly portrays the teenage psyche of his younger self. As his friend Benoît slowly takes to the monotony, boot-shining, push-ups, and casual brutality of military life, the narrator is by turns alienated, frustrated, disgusted, and bored.
The very funny early chapters explore this experience in deadpan prose, an accretion of facts that speak for themselves with just enough editorializing to drive the nail home. From the strange relationship recruits are forced to cultivate with their service weapon (sleeping with it for a week) to the oppressive khakiness of the surroundings to the punishing physical exercise, mindless discipline, and institutional food, military life holds little appeal for our narrator, who soon sees his summer job as something to be endured.
On a precious two-day leave he gets together with an old acquaintance. Later weekends are spent discovering love and sex, a strand of the story that honestly and convincingly portrays nascent late-teenage love with the same matter-of-fact tone used to describe the life on base.
C’était moins drôle à Valcartier is perfectly proportioned, compact yet complete. There are enough characters but not too many; all feel true. Sentences are crisp, chapters short, and the whole straightforward but never simplistic. It’s a cutting portrait of military life and a convincing story of young love and a Bildungsroman packed into a neat bundle. Late in the story the (older) narrator takes stock:
After the army, because of the army, my life would be different… If there is one experience I wouldn’t erase from my life, it’s the army… I appreciate it now as much as I was miserable then… I like having been in the army. Note that “like” is in the present and “having been” in the past. Tense is important. It describes the time we find ourselves in.
Maybe enlisting wasn’t such a stupid idea after all. ≈
From C’était moins drôle à Valcartier
by Grégory Lemay
≈ translated by Pablo Strauss
In Valcartier there was always someone around you could comfortably call feeble-minded. If there wasn’t anyone matching that description it was because there was no one at all. My brothers in khaki, then, were good for my self-esteem. Next to them I felt highly intelligent. I was the smart one, I liked to tell myself. I may have been wearing the same outfit, may have been another recruit just like them, but I was intelligent.
My notion of intelligence was actually something closer to sensitivity, or character. I was mixing up my concepts.
Anyway, I was different. Everyone is different, I know, but I thought I really was different.
It was these thoughts, not guts, that helped me survive the military. Without them I would have had a nervous breakdown, or maybe faked one.
Julie-Nathalie was like a really lovely thought, a huge thought I was careful not to return to too often because I didn’t want to waste it.
I knew I was wise beyond my years, I’d heard it before, and it hadn’t stopped me from messing up like anyone else, getting drunk, falling over, sowing my oats. I was well-rounded, in other words.
I could write poems and I could also get through military training. I could express dissent and I could blindly obey, like when I spent what seemed like hours lying on an ants’ nest. They were crawling all over me, up to my nose, trying to crawl right into my nose. I breathed out through my nostrils to repel them. Snot came out. I had to keep my eye on the sight and my finger on the trigger, in case the cardboard enemy jumped out from his hideout. I had to be ready to shoot my blank, here in the green fields of the Department of National Defence.
Military training was one problem; the people were another. We shared a tent where the meals were only slightly less painful than waking up at 4:45 a.m., doing sit-ups, parading in the rain, or crawling around in the grass for an hour.
The physical trials kept you busy at least. They took me away in a sense, away from the duties of social life, and afterwards I was relieved to be done with the physical exertion. This relief, paradoxically, made me slightly more social.
I would rather have been alone, been alone the whole time, the only recruit at the base with Valcartier all to myself. You might think it was up to me, all I had to do was keep my distance, step away, ignore everyone else. But they could see me. They would have seen me keeping to myself. And that’s not what the army’s about. The army is other people.
You all wear the same khaki uniform and they might not be into that. They might want to rip it off you. They might want to undress you, strip you naked, and kick you out of the tent. They might want to see you suffer.
There was a war going on within me, just one of the countless armed conflicts raging around the world.
I tried to avoid being getting picked on and did pretty well. The effort of playing along, even just a little, chafed at me. It was a job and I had to apply myself, just like all my other jobs. I chatted with my fellow recruits so they wouldn’t get suspicious. That put my mind at ease for a while and I mocked them in silence, until my independence started making me nervous. Then I would try to chat some more, play it cool, be friendly.
I even tried to reach out to Benoît, but he snubbed me.
It was a matter of survival, social survival. Not that different from surviving when you’re lost in the woods. It would actually have been better to be all alone in the woods where I could do what I wanted with no one to report to but the plants and animals. Easier said than done.
Being surrounded by these animals in khaki was incredible, like being in a movie. It was surreal. I felt like I was under constant threat. The enemy was all around. I lived among them, ate with them, slept with them. I was a kind of spy, working only for myself. At Valcartier I learned to put up with truly unbearable people. It was a valuable lesson. God knows it’s been a lifelong project. I went to university after all.
I could have tried to leave the base for good. There might have been a way. I was just a recruit, the ink on my contract still wet, and it wasn’t like Canada was in a major war. But, the same way we hold onto jobs we hate, for the paycheque or whatever, I stayed on at Valcartier.
I liked to tell myself it was just a summer job, and thinking that made me feel better, comfortable. At the end of the summer this suffering would be over: there was an end in sight. I could count and repeat to myself the number of days left to suffer through. I could picture them as so many rotations of the Earth, push-ups the Earth did out of solidarity with my lot. After a few hundred billion, these last few were for me. The Earth and I were pals.
Once, after shooting practice, I went to pick up the shells spat out by my FNC1. It could have been a good example, got the other recruits thinking about the environment. Master Corporal Bourgouin stopped me. “Do you really think you’d have time to do that if you were under fire?” I didn’t really feel like answering. It was best not to talk back to a superior. But then I’d been stifling the urge to talk back to superiors for so long now it almost didn’t enter my mind. ≈