by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
Alfred A. Knopf
(Published in Canada, February 2005; U.S., January 2010 CAN $29.95, 287 pages)
Nicolas Dickner’s 2010 Canada Reads Winner, Nikolski, originally written in French and translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler, follows three unknowingly connected characters. As the book opens in 1989, we meet a Montreal bookstore owner, who remains nameless, dealing with the death of his mother. An odd character, he points out trivial things like how he has never left the city of Montreal, and while sorting out his mother’s belongings he comes across a compass, a forgotten gift from the father he never met. The compass does not point to true North, but thirty-four degrees West, aligning with the Aleutian Islands town of Nikolski.
We are introduced to Noah Riel next, a modern day nomad who grows up travelling Western Canada with his mother in their old camper. Noah never met his father, Jonas Doucet, and in hopes of a connection sends letters addressed for General Delivery to various Canadian cities decided on by keen cartographic estimations of Jonas’ nomadic routes. His father’s absence holds strong, a depressing reality that remains with Noah forever, one way or another. Nikolski’s third main character is Joyce Doucet, Jonas’ niece. Joyce is from Tête-à-la-Baleine, a small Quebec town, and is under the assumption that her mother is dead. Raised by her grandfather, Joyce grows up hearing his romantic tales about their ancestors who were world travelling pirates.
In their late teens, Noah and Joyce both move to Montreal. By the mid-nineties Noah is working on a graduate degree in anthropology researching the significance of waste left behind by ancient civilisations, desperate to know why people leave things behind. While in university Noah tries to contact his ever-moving mother by way of more General Delivery letters, only to relive his depressing childhood as they returned unread. Meanwhile, Joyce ends up in Montreal by way of inspiration. Upon reading a news article about a woman running from authorities for piracy, whom Joyce assumes is her mother, she steers her future course: “… the ambition of carrying on the family tradition seeped into her mind,” Dickner writes. “[Joyce] was destined for a pirate’s life, shiver me timbers!” She takes a job at the Poissonnerie Shanahan, and by night sifts through back alley dumpsters in Montreal’s business sector for abandoned computers.
Eventually, Noah and Joyce find their callings. After reuniting with past lover Arizna, a prominent media publisher in Venezuela, Noah meets his son Simôn. Noah then moves to Venezuela to provide the toddler with the fatherly role model he never experienced. Joyce fulfills her burning ancestral calling by hacking bank accounts and stealing identities, an e-pirate of the twentieth century. Eventually, Joyce, Noah and the unnamed bookstore owner’s paths ironically intertwine, and their final destinations become wherever true north lies for each of them.
There is a strong set of symbols in Nikolski that lead to Dickner’s overall comment on modern society and identity. His main allegorical tool is the sea: from Joyce’s likening to a plaice fish swimming around the streets, deep-dumpster diving, and living off the bounty of larger beings to Noah’s convoluted illusions of inland ships and swimming through prairie fields, Nikolski is filled with images “straight out of Salvador Dali’s surrealist menagerie” as Dickner puts it. These fish-like nomads never stop moving, searching, evolving, and waiting for reality to finally unfold some truth.
Among the seascape imagery there is a lot of Canadiana in this book, often looking like a Richler-esque romanticised portrait of Canada. Noah and Joyce Duddyly romp around Saint Urbain Street, Saint Laurent Boulevard, and other popular CanLit landmarks, becoming contemporary images spray-painted over Montreal’s traditional ambience. But in Nikolski, Dickner brings Canada into today’s generation. Subtle sly comments on the Oka crisis, the Bosnian War, and other political topics of the nineties represent a bigger landscape than inner-border mainstream Canada, which really only turns out to be where the characters in this story are born, nothing else. Searching for something personified by their distant parents, Noah and Joyce are Canada’s minorities, cover-ups forgotten and lost. This survey of contemporary life deeply rooted in the past provides a frank realist interpretation of how one little, yet life changing event, can boggle the compass for generations to come.