Hubert Aquin, Next Episode
It happened exactly twenty-eight years ago plus a day. On a Tuesday March 15th, like yesterday. The snow had started to melt. The mild temperature registered 6 degrees Celsius. The morning’s headlines reported that the Montreal Canadiens had broken a hockey record, that the fortune of the billionaire Howard Hughes was but a shadow of what it had been, that there were a million unemployed in Canada, and that for [Québec premier] René Lévesque Ottawa was synonymous with inertia.
A little after two o’clock in the afternoon, Sherry Monahan, a 35 year-old nurse, born in Vancouver of Irish parents, was bringing her dog Mandy back from a dog-care centre. The shortest route to her home took her on to the tree-lined laneway that ran through the grounds of the Villa Maria convent school. Half-way up the lane, she suddenly stopped in front of a scarlet, two door Ford Granada, parked on the side of the road. It wasn’t so much the car that gave her the chills but the two male feet that extended from behind the car. Her eyes stopped for a moment on the brown Oxford shoes, then moved up the impeccable blue pants with fine white stripes on which the barrel of a gun had fallen. Suddenly comprehending what had happened, Sherry turned sharply aside, trying not to vomit.
The man was called Hubert Aquin. He was 47 years-old and, four months after the election of the [separatist] Parti Québecois as Québec’s government, Aquin had just shot himself in the face with the shotgun he’d inherited from his father.
Thus begins a gripping story, in a thick volume of 865 pages, published in English a year and a half ago by the McGill-Queen’s University Press. Bearing the laconic title of HA! (the initials of Hubert Aquin) this work, written by the Montreal filmmaker Gordon Sheppard, is the investigation of a planned suicide, recounted with dialogues, music and décors. During the major part of his adult life, Hubert spoke of suicide. During almost an equal amount of time, Gordon Sheppard sought to know why that subject, rather than sovereignty, literature or renewal, so fascinated this great Québec writer.
The final product is a book unlike any other. It’s a living hybrid, practical and palpitating, that has more in common with a psychological thriller than with an essay. Moreover, it doesn’t address itself to an elite but to anyone who wants to know who, really, Hubert Aquin was, and why we should not forget him.
I speak about this today because it’s the 28th anniversary of Aquin’s death, because it’s the 40th anniversary of his first novel Prochain épisode [Next Episode], but also because HA! so captivated me that it enriched and overwhelmed me.
Until I read HA! I only knew one or two things about Hubert Aquin: that he was a great writer, who was also a powerful intellectual, one of the original nationalists, a failed terrorist, and the author of grand, thoughtful texts. I hadn’t read any of his books, not even when, by the greatest of ironies, Prochain épisode, the hallucinatory story of a separatist who wants to take up arms, won the battle of the books competition [Canada Reads] at CBC in 2003, and soon found itself heading the best-seller list in English Canada.
The noisy media attention given Prochain épisode in 2003 convinced me of Aquin’s immense talent, but not of the necessity of reading him. HA!, yes. Because this unearthly book, to which Gordon Sheppard consecrated more than 25 years of his life, is a reference work as extraordinary as it is impossible to ignore. In a hundred years, when we all will have disappeared and the Hubert Aquin pavilion at UQAM will have been torn down or turned into a Price Club outlet, HA! will tell our heirs who we were, how we lived, and why, sometimes, we died.
HA! is not only the autopsy of a spectacular suicide, regarded by some as the most successful of Aquin’s works. It’s an exhaustive portrait of modern Québec, with its greatness, its miseries, its ambitions, its weaknesses and failures, and its drifting about. Entirely made up of interviews with witnesses, hence of living, animated words, which relate the most insignificant details as well as the greatest events, HA! takes us back to Hubert Aquin’s roots as well as to those of a Québec in a period of great change, capable of the greatest advances but also profoundly trapped by a past from which it hasn’t succeeded in freeing itself.
Gordon Sheppard told me yesterday he wrote this book for foreign readers so that the works of Aquin would finally enjoy the international reputation which had always eluded them. But at this point in our history, as the memory of Aquin is being forgotten day by day to the point that it now refers to nothing more than a building in concrete [the pavilion at the University of Québec in Montréal that bears his name], it’s urgent that this book shine forth here [in Québec], in our bookstores as well as in our libraries and universities.
Until quite recently, for legal reasons Sheppard couldn’t publish the French version of this book, even if all the interviews were originally conducted in French, including those with Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin’s widow, as well as those with Gérald Godin, Pierre Bourgault, Yves Michaud, Jacques Godbout and others. This legal obstacle was lifted in 2000, but no contract for a French version has yet been signed with a Québec publishing house.
Money is a big factor here. Above and beyond the size of the book, there is the graphic complexity of laying out the many photographs and drawings included in the book, as well as the very compelling reproduction, on lined yellow paper, of the suicide letter that Aquin left his wife, plus the reproduced postcard sent from Switzerland to his son Emmanuel two weeks before his death.
The interprise is costly, but the pedagogic, literary and cultural impact that this book is likely to have on future generations has no price.
In taking his life with his father’s gun, on the tree-lined roadway of the Villa Maria convent school on March 15 1977, Hubert Aquin believed it was all over for him. He was mistaken. There has been a follow-up. There is now a next episode 865 pages long which bears a title comprised of two letters of the alphabet.: HA!, an expression of surprise, if not that of a great laugh when one discovers that there is a life after death.
Montréal Wednesday March 16, 2005