‘Accordéon’ by Kaie Kellough

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Ben Wood

The premise of Kellough’s debut—a (barely) satirical Ministry of Culture attempts to suppress counter-narratives to Quebec’s Official Culture—sounds too perfectly invented to be real but also too real to have been completely made up. Relying on experimental structural techniques, Accordéon is an innovative text that has the humour of a Kafka bureaucracy, the experimentalism of Georges Perec and the spirit of the printemps érable.

Accordéon is not really a novel in the traditional sense. It’s best described as a document—in fact, an official government document—containing anonymous testimonials by one of the book’s four contributors, who is only referred to as “narrator.” The other contributors are MinED (which probably stands for the Ministry Editor), who provides the Preface and Afterword, and two Ministry editors, MC and MC2, who are reviewing the testimonials for mentions of a flying canoe and whose in-text comments appear throughout.

The plot (what there is of one) is simple: the Ministry of Culture is attempting to understand and, presumably, control the narrative around the stories and sightings of the flying canoe by reviewing the testimonials of the narrator, which only sometimes mention the canoe. The document’s foreword, though short, provides enough context, noting that the flying canoe is the product of folklore, but that it’s interpreted in two competing ways: either as mere entertainment or “as a symbolic decolonial event, emphasizing the ascent of the colonized over the highest steeples of the colonial establishment.” True to bureaucratic form, MinED states that “Neither this document nor the sightings that inform it constitute evidence of the existence of the canoe.”

The book begins with the narrator saying they are inside the Ministry and that what follows is their confession, given freely. The testimonials of the itinerant narrator are like vignettes (usually one page, sometimes one short paragraph) of various street scenes around Montreal, and includes violence on the metro and at the dépanneur, the conversations of the unemployed immigrants at Tim Hortons, and the people who pass by the narrator as they stand in front of the Jean Coutu pharmacy, where they talk “day and night, sometimes through the night.” They are also like a Who’s Who of Quebec culture—from philosopher Charles Taylor and writer Nelly Arcan to the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the sounds of the pots and pans of the 2012 student protests.

In these testimonials, Kellough is clearly channeling Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. At one point, the narrator nods to this book without naming it, citing his favourite book as one where a man goes to the same place in Paris for a few days to write down everything he sees. The point of that book, the narrator says, “is that the point is always shifting. As we approach it, as we zero in, it slips away, or leaps out into the far reaches of the galaxy, or dips below the horizon…. The point is that the point cannot be made, only approached, that the city can never be exhaustively catalogued, or definitively captured in a book.”

Insofar as these testimonials amount to a sort of ode to the city and people of Montreal, there are similarities to Perec or even to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Instead of Place Saint-Sulpice, the narrator is at St-Mathieu and Ste-Catherine, and the “conversation” isn’t between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo but, far more humorously, an anonymous narrator and the two bureaucrats reviewing his testimony. To read the book in only this way is to miss that Kellough is interested in more than a literary exercise in storytelling, and this is what sets Accordéon apart from Perec’s experiment or Calvino’s construction.

Throughout the narrator’s testimonials are remarks on the text by Ministry editors. This dialogic commentary plays out as a mini-drama between bureaucrats who are attempting to decipher the mythology of the flying canoe. They are given voice through notes on selected bits of highlighted text in what resembles the Microsoft Word feature Track Changes—a literary innovation on footnotes and hypertext that eliminates the need for multiple bookmarks. In this way, the reading experience is easy and, well, enjoyable, something that is not usually the concern of experimental writers.

Later in the book, in a slight development of plot, one of the Ministry editors grows frustrated by the lunacy of attempting to enforce an official culture and disappears, leaving the remaining bureaucrat talking to himself. Until this point, the conversation between the two reveals the utter futility of the Ministry’s plans and their trivial work and leads to moments of deadpan humour.

MC: The canoe is the only entity that exists without a script, the only thing that exists out of time, because the canoe predates the Ministry. This is why the Ministry knows so little about the canoe. For all of the extensive records it keeps, for all of the accounts and histories, the Ministry cannot know what preceded it, and so the Ministry disputes the existence of the canoe, claims that there is no conclusive evidence.

MC2: To its credit, the Ministry studies events and things that are observed or reported but that remain unconfirmed.

MC: It is rumoured that the canoe is the island. One day the canoe will lift itself up out of intersecting rivers—the Rivière des Prairies and the St-Lawrence—uprooting the entire island, and tilting itself so that all of the buildings, highways, automobiles, and other human constructions slide off and crash into the Atlantic Ocean. And then the canoe, that organic vessel, will swerve off on a voyage of discovery, seeking to embed itself in a new planet.

MC2: Are you imagining things?

The Ministry of Culture is satire, quite clearly, of Quebec’s tendency to protect and enforce a particular conception of Quebec society that is blind to its own biases. But what Kellough is satirizing is already a caricature of itself, with the Charter of Values being the ultimate expression of such catabolic behaviour.

For many writers, the topic of Quebec cultural politics would seem a better fit for journalism than literature (though Kellough is certainly not alone in his choosing the latter), and would present many of them with a problem if they tried to write about it. How do you write a novel about a ministry of culture in a way that isn’t a cheap Orwellian imitation? Kellough is smart to shy away from plot development and story arcs in favour of structural experimentation. And rather than focus on the ministry in an effort to out-do its real-life counterpart, Kellough uses the narrator’s testimonials to give voice and life to everything and everyone the ministry wants to suppress. Kellough is writing along a fine line between the literary and the polemical. As his narrator’s testimony shifts from a detached observational perspective to an emotionally charged quest for justice, Kellough balances the book’s literary aspirations, which makes it an enjoyable read, with the political currents that gives the narrative force.

As a whole, Accordéon succeeds because it’s a book that makes visible the seams of a novel. The absurd premise, being all too real and all too fake, would descend into the worst kind of speculative fiction if a traditional, linear story were attempted. Instead, it’s a book that wants the reader to know it’s a construction and not some cohesive story with beginning, middle and end, and that has as its goal exact verisimilitude—that sort of realism that never reflects our reality, because our reality is never as exact and as linear and as logical and as fair in its unfolding as what we find in those books.

ARP Books | 168 pages | $16.95 | paper | ISBN 978-1894037839

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Ben Wood

Ben Wood is a writer from Winnipeg and is an associate editor for The Winnipeg Review.