‘The Invention of Death’ by Hubert Aquin, trans. Joseph Jones

Book Reviews

The Invention of Death coverReviewed by Amy Attas

The Canadian Encyclopedia calls Hubert Aquin “perhaps the most important cultural figure in Québec of his generation.” He was a troubled intellectual, passionate about Québec sovereignty and gifted in the arts. In the 1960s he engaged Pierre Trudeau in an erudite debate on French Canada, then spent four months detained in a psychiatric institute for working towards independence through terrorism, then became the first Québécois to refuse a Governor General’s Literary Award. His passion makes him polarizing, but if The Invention of Death is any indication, he liked it that way. Life at the margins was more real; people in the middle vapid.

The Invention of Death is Aquin’s first novel, but it was only published fourteen years after his death. The book begins with the narrator planning his suicide, and his situation doesn’t improve. The story lapses six hours – with flashbacks – from the moment the narrator’s lover leaves the hotel for a party with her husband, to the edge of the Beauharnois Bridge at midnight. And while the subject matter is tough to read, it’s safe to say Aquin nails depression. “September, October, November have stripped me of everything,” he writes, “My face is frozen ground, without sunshine and without flowers.” For those in need of a better understanding of the disease, who maybe don’t get the difference between sad and depressed or don’t understand the defeatist trap of the mentally ill, Aquin sketches it painfully well (made all the more painful knowing Aquin killed himself at the age of forty-eight).

The narrator is plagued by paranoia, and admits to seeing hidden meaning in almost everything. Losing a promotion is a condemnation of his character, not just bad luck; his lover’s ‘I love you’ is always placating and never enough. The narrator’s tongue is sharp, both in dialogue and internal monologue, but somehow Aquin manages to preserve the likeability of all his secondary characters. No matter how many times friend Jean-Paul is reviled for being cold, we see caring in his attempts to pull the narrator away from the suicidal edge. The narrator’s psychiatrist gets a similarly twisted treatment: rather than using psychoanalysis on himself, the narrator takes what he’s learned from Dr. Rhéaume and uses it against others; any accidental substitution can be classified Freudian Slip if it will help the narrator win an argument, yet during his own therapy he pleads, “leave me in peace about this stupid key that would open all the doors of my subconscious.”

These characters are flawed and frustrating, but they are not fake. Madeline, the married lover, emerges fully formed and complex. Her motivations are easy to understand, and yet her actions are surprising. If she existed in modern times, reading Fifty Shades of Grey, her language and desires would be normal. But in 1959, giving her lover a blowjob (maybe because she’s menstruating and maybe because she likes giving blowjobs) in 1959, that gets her called a slut. It’s the best scene in the novel, full of conversational u-turns, lies and revelations. These were the burgeoning days of gender relations, and the lovers fumble around without the lexicon of later decades. The narrator feels emasculated when receiving pleasure passively, and his interrogation embarrasses Madeline, who is humiliated by her own sexuality. Maybe it’s the narcissism of the depression, or maybe it’s the male chauvinism of the era, but either way the narrator’s assumption that the best way to comfort a crying woman is to take off her clothes is so misguided I tore at the page. The Invention of Death is a meditation on the male psyche, yet through the cracks Madeline’s feminism screams through.

In a mere hundred and thirty-three pages (though it would be hard for the average human to bear more pessimism than that) Aquin gives us lots to excavate. The first few pages plunge head first into modernist stream-of-consciousness, breaking only for, “Hey! The telephone’s ringing!” Later Aquin returns to the modernist’s sentiments of reality by pleading his lover “say to me everything you are thinking, and also tell me your dreams. Don’t hide from me the words, the images, the cries that pass through your spirit, say all that to me even before reducing it into a language whose coherence must be a lie.” The modernist aesthetic fades as the story proceeds, but there’s plenty more to unearth. There are passages and phrases with biblical overtones, and sprinkled throughout are Shakespearean motifs of blood, wombs, and a snow that covers things up “like a benevolent amnesia.”

The Invention of Death is translated from French by Joseph Jones, and there are only a few times that the French syntax creeps in. It’s clear that the two writers struggled to articulate the narrator’s heavy, convoluted thoughts, though mostly they’ve succeeded, as when the narrator describes a mental breakdown as “solidification.” Still, sometimes the weight of the narrator’s illness, Aquin’s aspirations for the novel, and Jones’s translation task are too much for the words to bear: “[I was] still bewitched by that unknown man with whom she had perhaps slept and of whom I made myself an image that was the counterpart in power and in charm of my own ego.”

It’s difficult to say if this book reflects the culture of French Canada. When I think of Québec, I sometimes think of sex, infidelity, abortions, incestuous fantasies and suicide–but not always. Sometimes I think of ski hills with no lift lineups, violin rock, Haitians, and the towns where my parents grew up. But then, Aquin’s narrator wants to jump off the bridge in the town where my parents grew up. I’d love all of our country’s architecture to be linked to a great piece of art; the Bloor Street Viaduct has Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, the Beauharnois Bridge gets The Invention of Death.

Quattro | 120 pages |  $14.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927443279

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Amy Attas

Amy Attas is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by Summit Studios and Cumulus Press, and her reviews in The Rover. She grew up in Pinawa, Manitoba, and now lives on the road, sometimes planting trees.