Gordon Sheppard

Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker

Between The Pages, The New Canadian Magazine, 2004


Geeta Nadkarni

If you have ever contemplated taking your own life or have known someone who has, read this book. You will be forever changed.

“Life is a movie, death is a photograph.”
-Susan Sontag

HA! is one of those rare books that defies description. It manages to be a novel, a scrapbook, a film (complete with delightful soundscapes), a documentary and an epitaph. HA! describes the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Hubert Aquin, one of Quebec’s most celebrated literary figures.

Soundscape: The jingle-jangle of a phaeton at full trot segues to ‘Desafinado’ softly sung by Astrud Gilberto on a car radio-which suddenly goes dead… Silence… Female voices intoning Nonce prayers in French are followed by what sounds like a backfire… second silence… Broken by the relentless yip-yap yip-yap of a high strung dog… a third silence… interrupted by the chirp jabber of birds and harping schoolgirls-trrrwit-ohmondieu!!!-trrrwitHowgross!!!trrrwit-Quelhorreur!!!…

On March 13, 1977, Aquin drove to the grounds of the Villa Maria convent school in Montreal and blew his face off with a sawed-off shotgun. Why did he use his (dead) father’s shotgun? Why did he choose to use his passport as the means of identification? Why did he have exactly 99 cents on his person? You’ll just have to read the book.

Aquin’s suicide provoked a great deal of shock, horror, despair and admiration all over Quebec. Among the shocked was Gordon Sheppard, a filmmaker and fellow writer, who had come to know Aquin in the year before his death. A single question haunted him: Why would a man, who, by his own admission considered himself to be a symbol—a manifestation even—of Quebec; a colourful, vital genius, take his own life?

Sheppard then embarked on an investigation into this “selfmurder” that lasted 26 years and brought us this book. It examines many things—Aquin’s life, the French-Canadian male psyche, the separatist movement, the psychology of suicide and much more. Whatever your attitude toward suicide may be, rest assured HA! will make you see the act in a whole new light. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The book contains interviews with Aquin’s closest circle—his wife, ex-wife, lovers, colleagues and friends—as well as fictional testimonies from his influences (Dante, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes and Flaubert, to name but a few). There are poems, excerpts from Aquin’s own writings, songs, paintings, photographs, notes, letters, film posters—all woven together to form a snapshot of Quebec as it was in the 60s and 70s—as Aquin knew and lived it.

To this end, Sheppard has been incredibly successful. He provides, at the beginning of the book, a few brief notes for the uninitiated reader. You need know nothing about Quebec or the separatist movement before opening its pages. By the time you leave, however, you will have received something of an education.

It is to his credit that, in presenting such a vast body of facts, he manages to neither take foreknowledge for granted nor bore the familiar reader. His passion for his subject boggles the mind—he chases down the most (seemingly) insignificant details and includes them without cluttering his text. If you find yourself wondering about something as you read a “witness” testimony, rest assured that he will answer the question.

HA! is a lot of things—indeed, it is primarily an investigation of the facts and circumstances leading up to Aquin’s “self-murder.” It is a love story—of a tortured genius and his soulmate, his country, his literature. On page 698, there’s an envelope that contains a facsimile of Aquin’s farewell note to his partner of 12 years, AndréeYanacopoulo. On yellow paper, in blue ink, it says:

…Between us, there was a pact; each of us is the master of his life and, provided there’s an advance notice of 24 to 48 hours, each is free to commit suicide without the other obstructing his choice. I thank you for respecting this agreement…

That Yanacopoulo knew ahead of time that Aquin planned on killing himself, and that she didn’t stop him, created a huge scandal at the time. Among other things, HA! takes a look at Yanacopoulo’s dilemma—how do you stop someone who is determined to take his own life and who has “known” that he would from the time he was born?

Sheppard views Aquin’s suicide in a somewhat mythological light (a view mirrored by Aquin himself and many of his contemporaries)—suicide as a final work of art. And so there are mythological and historical references to other suicides—those that Aquin read and talked about—those that perhaps inspired his own.

Aquin was a study in contradictions—tortured and dark and destructive, and yet passionate and fun-loving. Everybody interviewed for the book seems to paint a slightly different picture of him. Readers are forced to constantly reassess their opinion of Aquin and realign their loyalties. And that’s perhaps the most beautiful thing about HA! The way, after all the facts are digested, and all the possible motives mulled over, it leaves the mystery a mystery. The way it doesn’t try to wrap things up neatly and tell readers what to believe.

HA! is a truly incredible book. You are unlikely to find many that will even come close to it. Hats off to Sheppard, for the passion and immense patience that he displayed in completing this project, and for finding a publisher who saw and agreed to support his grand vision. HA! A Self-Murder Mystery is an epic in both scope and presentation—a fitting homage to the man who lived (and died) larger than life.
The New Canadian Magazine
September 2004