Rodney Clarke relives Aquin’s Sad end
In 1968, Hubert Aquin caused a minor scandal when he became the first writer to publicly turn down a Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction, based on his passionate belief in Québec sovereignty. Perhaps a few readers dimly recall the stylish but neglected French Canadian separatist as a literary trendsetter of sorts (his best-known novel being 1965’s Next Episode). But the truly shocking thing Aquin did on a clear spring day in 1977 was to take his own life, four months to the day after the election of Rene Levesque and the PQ.
The events of that day, and what led up to them, form the core of HA! A Self-Murder Mystery. Twenty-five years in the making and well worth the wait, the book is a tour-de-force biography as well as an idiosyncratic and fascinating tour of Aquin’s literary influences, specifically Dante and Joyce. What makes it a delight to read is our guide to this particular fresh hell, Gordon Sheppard: a fluently bilingual Torontonian with a passion for his subject and that subject’s bête noire, Montreal.
Written entirely in interview format, the book has a multifarious documentary feel that Sheppard uses to great effect. Is it an encyclopedic novel? Or some kind of postmodern, operatic tour of the underworld? Perhaps it is the basis for a film, since Sheppard is a filmmaker. Readers are immediately drawn into a hypertext of sorts, complete with soundscapes, sidebars, maps, notes, postcards, bestseller lists, weather reports, headlines of the day-even two facsimile letters in Aquin’s handwriting on the yellow foolscap he favoured.
We hang out with Aquin’s friends and lovers, and many of the era’s poets, musicians and politicians make appearances. Trudeau shows up, escorting Sheppard around the Plateau in his sports car. Places important to Aquin, especially his favourite restaurants, become the focal point for many interviews, enhancing the book’s realistic feel. Sheppard painstakingly reconstructs almost everything to the last detail. For example, he interviews Janos Rozso, the highly literate waiter who served Aquin his last meal out, and for whom Aquin danced and sang in Greek.
Armed only with a Sony TC-442 tape recorder, Sheppard gets pulled into his subject matter. He starts by interviewing Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin’s widow, just one week after the suicide. Her frankness and total lack of ambiguity surrounding the event is inspiring. Readers glimpse her startling and passionate relationship with the temperamental and frustrating Aquin. Her inner strength, in a way, allows this book to exist. It’s hard to convey the understanding Andrée possesses of her husband’s death wish without making her out to be a disillusioned accomplice; she is anything but.
As the novel progresses, an intimate triangle forms; Shepard becomes, of necessity, embedded in his own book. Its highlight may well be the wake for Aquin that Sheppard imagines taking place in the basement of a Catholic church in the Parc Lafontaine district where Aquin was born—the Eglise Saint Louis-de-France. With himself as moderator, he sets up a vivid and hilarious meditation on death and dying. As a Knight of Columbus MC cajoles responses out of the laconic crowd, this 30-page riff alone is worth the price of admission.
Reading this book is the next-best thing to actually being in Montreal. The thing to do, if you find yourself in that city, is to pedal to Parc Lafontaine on your bicycle, select a bench in the sun on the serpentine canal, and open this book. Montreal will unfold before you.