Monday, August 13, 2007

Fred Vargas' France vs. Quebec rivalry?

A fellow blogger tells me that some Montreal members of online reading groups were bothered by aspects of Fred Vargas' Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand. I've been unable to track down their complaints, but Vargas does not shy away from the cultural friction that ensues when Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his Paris colleagues fly to Quebec for a forensics conference.

Among other things, the novel's scariest character other than the killer is a high-level French Canadian police officer portrayed as strict, manipulative, and even a bit sadistic in his psychological toying with suspects. In addition, French Canadian readers might not have been thrilled that a good Quebec officer who helps Adamsberg is rewarded with promotion to be closer to his girlfriend — in predominantly Anglophone Toronto. The novel also offers observations about mutual mistrust between French Canadians and French and about typical French Canadian names that don't occur in France — Ginette, Laliberté and, if I recall correctly, Filibert are three of them. It's all rather gentle stuff, I'd say.

In any case, such intercultural suspicion may be a kind of turnabout from a previous Vargas novel, Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that book, a Canadian naturalist working among wolves in southeastern France is less than impressed with the humans, especially when they begin to suspect a werewolf, rather than a conventional animal, in a series of sheep killings.

"They're saying this time it's not an ordinary animal."

"Not ordinary?"

"A different kind of beast. Bigger. A force of nature, with a monster's jaw. Abnormal, like. In a word, a ghoul."

"Pull the other one."

"That's what they're saying."

Johnstone was stunned. He shook his blond locks.

"Your bloody backward country," he said after a
pause, "is populated by nothing but bird-brained yokels."

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

I read some comments on a discussion list where people expressed negative views on how Canadians were portrayed by Vargas. The comments weren't just from Canadians.

August 14, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Do you remember which list that was? Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand has its good Canadians as well as its bad ones.

August 14, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I found the France-Quebec cultural clash a particularly enjoyable part of Wash this Blood Clean from my Hand. It was nice to know that there is a trace of antagonism between them, and that it is not only the two great English speaking democracies that have trouble understanding each other.

August 14, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is a nice way of putting it, and I enjoyed the clash, too. Sure, it was a catalogue of typical areas of mistrust between the two peoples, a distillation. But this was fiction, after all. Besides, Vargas did a good job of showing that the sense that the other side was strange is mutual: the Quebecois are so oddly informal that they call everyone by their first names; the French talk like they're reading from a book. I thought that when Vargas had Adamsberg's superior officer deliberately misremember Laliberté's name, she was poking fun at French condescension, not French Canadian rusticity.

In real life, I visited the Château de Chabans in the Périgord Noir of southwestern France a few years ago. The château guide was an outgoing young woman from Quebec who began her presentation (in French) with a good-natured explanation of her odd accent.

August 14, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hm the problem is that Québécois police officers aren't known for swearing anymore than French cops and they don't speak in extremely familiar language when with strangers or in a formal situation, like portrayed by Vargas. In addition, most of the innumerable 'colorful' expressions put in the Québécois officers's mouths DON'T exist or at least not in the Gatineau-Ottawa region. Nobody speaks with such imagery every few words like Vargas makes her foreign characters speak. anyqays, the same happened with her anglophone Canadian 'Lawrence' who used Bullsh** as a punctuation in his sentences. I don't know any Canadians who do that...

July 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. You say that most of the "colorful" expressions are not used in the Gatineau-Ottawa region. Did you read Vargas' novel in its original French? If not, could the problem have been due to the English translation? And could Vargas have portrayed the Quebecois officers as using familiar language because they were speaking with fellow officers, albeit from another continent, and thus something more than strangers?

I have interviewed Vargas' English translator, who discussed, among other problems, the challenge of rendering French swearing into English. French speakers and writers, she said, tend to use in everyday speech certain words that that would be regarded as curse words in English. Translate their speech literally, and one could create the misleading impression that they are a foul-mouthed lot. I'm not sure if this has anything to do with your comment, but it is a reminder that curse words can sometimes be difficult for translators to deal with.

July 14, 2008  

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