23 May 2016

Jacques Godbout: Salut Galarneau ! | Hail Galarneau! (1967)

Québecois writer Jacques Godbout's third novel is Salut Galarneau ! (1967), which anchors the writing more firmly to Québec province than his two previous ones: L'Acquarium (1962) is set in a nameless country and Le Couteau sur la table (1965) in both French- and English-speaking Canada. Salut Galarneau ! is all the more closer to home and largely set in the Montreal area. Here, the narrator François Galarneau has a mobile stall (called Au roi du hot dog) from which he sells hot dogs and chips, although much of the time he spends contemplating, in particular contemplating the book he's writing, which is really the book we're reading here, and which his brother Jacques and his girlfriend Marise have urged him to write.

The chapters are not given titles in numbers or words but capital letters, which added together slightly cryptically spell out the name of François's restaurant: 'AUROIDUHOTDOGAUROIDUHOTDOGAU'. Just to give an idea of the content of the novel, the second R chapter begins, and I translate:

'There's an accident near the bridge.'
'That's three hot dogs?' [Last two words in English.]
'Yes, all dressed.' [Last two words in English.]
'There are often minor collisions on Friday evenings.'
'Do you know where I can buy a cat?'
'The island's full of them, you've just got to ask around.'
'I'd like a really nice one, a Siamese.'
'Sorry, I don't know.'
'OK, bye then.'
'Good evening.'

One obvious point to make here is that weirdness is as common in François Galarneau's world as cats are on the island, but also of course the bastard nature of the language in Québecois life. It's French language (and by extension the life of Francophone people) on an American continent, in a country which is largely English-speaking, which is under examination here. François and his fellow people from Québec are bombarded, largely from TV advertising, by products of American society: Americans have occupied the consciousness of the French speakers. And for people such as François, this is an existential problem.

It's not just because his wife (and to a certain extent her family) married him under false pretenses, not just that Marise is now transferring her favors to Jacques, that he decides to have a wall built around his home from which he doesn't want to escape: he wants to escape from physical and existential hegemony by another people.

But he's not really going mad, and there's a positive way out of this. Writing, of course, is an extremely powerful weapon, and you can dictate your own terms.

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