10 June 2015

Alice Parizeau: Côte-des-Neiges (1983)

Alice Parizeau (1930–90) was a novelist, journalist and criminologist. The title of this book – Côte-des-Neiges  refers to an area in Montréal, the town in which much of the action in this book takes place. Parizeau's husband was the economist and politician Dr Jacques Parizeau, who died on 1 June this year.
Côte-des-Neiges begins with one of the two central characters – Madeleine, who is called Mado by almost everyone – as a twelve-year-old at the cinema with her friend Catherine, one of the sourdes-muettes (the deaf and dumb girls) Mado assists in a nearby convent. Coincidentally, I visited Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery in Côte-des-Neiges last year, and took the photos below of a plot of deaf and dumb girls' graves. The expression 'SOURDES-MUETTES' is at the base of the cross in the centre, and I include an example of one of the gravestones, of Anna Sauvageau. Each stone bears the letters 'S.M.' for sourde-muette. Anna died in 1939, which is also coincidentally one of the years in which this novel is set. Alice Parizeau – who was buried in the adjacent cemetery of Mont-Royal – must have been aware of the existence of the plot.
Côte-des-Neiges is something of a sprawling epic covering about twenty years in the lives of two people: Mado and Thomas. Mado is a foundling whose unknown mother left her with one of the sisters. She was breaking rules by taking Catherine to the cinema, but the girls' actions are particularly visible because the place has to be evacuated due to a fire, and Mado is expelled from the convent and has to work for a pittance as a maid to the Pouliot family, in which the husband is a financially very careful (OK, mean) banker.

Thomas is the young boy who shepherds Mado and Catherine out of the cinema to safety, falling for her charms immediately and planning to make her his girl. But this will take some time, and Thomas's job as a telegram delivery boy obviously doesn't have great prospects. And then the Depression comes and his father Adam, a baker, is running into money problems because his customers are asking for credit all the time and he's a soft touch. Thomas travels across Canada, first working as a wood cutter and then making real money by selling bootleg hootch in the USA, then returns home to Montréal with enough money to keep his father's business afloat.

Thomas goes on to run a successful biscuit factory, but Côte-des-Neiges details much more: it is a study of jealousy and independence set against not only the Depression but the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. The jealousy largely comes from Thomas's brother Joseph, who has been in love with Mado for years but who comes back from the Spanish Civil War with one arm less and a feeling of defeat.

Independence is written throughout the novel, although it's Mado's independence that is most noticeable, and in some respects Côte-des-Neiges is a strong feminist tale with Mado taking over the running of the factory during Thomas's unforeseen detention in Europe, which ruffles a few feathers and angers the frustrated Joseph, who sees her as turning into a man.

This is in many ways a riveting novel although a little old-fashioned in its ambitions, which tend to lean back to the realism of the nineteenth century novel. But that's not the main criticism I have of it: throughout, Mado and Thomas show a lack of interest in 'politics', viewing any ideology as harmful: they just want to make money and get rich, as if capitalism weren't a political ideology! The narrator seems to confuse Stalinism with communism, and the final chapter seems to me to lack any semblance of credibility: Thomas can clearly see that Canada – laughably, as he sees it – is now embracing a kind of McCarthy witch hunt mentality, although he has denied that he's a capitalist, and has plans to give his workers more money, provide them with decent and cheap housing, etc. I wasn't convinced: what would Mado say?

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