The ultimate act
A Self-Murder Mystery
By Gordon Sheppard
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 865 pages, $39.95
A first glance, HA! seems daunting: 870 pages on the subject of the suicide of one of Quebec’s most distinguished writers, Hubert Aquin. To Gordon Sheppard’s credit, though, this book is not only readable but extremely fascinating. (It’s visually stimulating, too, incorporating a wide range of complementary illustrations, maps, photographs, and reproductions of paintings, excerpts from Aquin’s novels, and a fragment of his last work Obombre, all of which serve to fill out the world where Aquin lived and worked.)
Sheppard is an award-winning filmmaker whose friendship with Aquin came to an end on March 15, 1977, when the 48-year-old writer committed suicide on the grounds of Villa Maria convent school in Montreal.
Aquin was by then a well known literary figure and indépendentiste. Born in Montreal’s East End in 1929, he attended l’Université de Montréal, and studied in Paris at the Institut d’études politiques in the early 1950s. On returning to Montreal, he worked as a producer at RadioCanada and a scriptwriter and film director at the National Film Board. In the 1960s, he became involved in the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance nationale, and eventually joined an underground terrorist movement. In July 1964, he was arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle and an illegal firearm.
While incarcerated (he was later acquitted in court), Aquin wrote his first novel, Prochain Épisode. Its publication in 1965 saw Aquin hailed as the great writer Quebec had been waiting for. The book broke with conventions of form and content, and was lyrical and darkly symbolic. His next novel, Trou de Mémoire, won the Governor General’s Award, but Aquin turned down the prize for political reasons. By the time his fourth novel, Neige Noire, appeared in 1974, Aquin felt depleted, anxious that he had no more to write about.
HA! focuses on the last few weeks of Aquin’s life. Sheppard reveals how troubled he was by Aquin’s “self-murder,” and how he recorded a conversation soon after the funeral with Andrée Yanacopoulo, Aquin’s wife and the mother of Emmanuel, their son. It became a cathartic exercise; Sheppard continued to interview Andrée over many years, and the idea for HA! took shape.
The more or less verbatim “conversations,” blending gossip and insight, are the core of this gargantuan book. Sheppard speaks with Lucille Aquin, the author’s mother, and MM, his not-so-secret lover, as well as friends like writer/filmmaker Jacques Godbout, and Sheila Fischman, translator of Neige Noire. (One of the few to turn down Sheppard’s interview request was a certain Pierre Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada.)
Like an investigator in Aquin’s favourite genre, the detective novel, Sheppard goes even further, interviewing Aquin’s cleaning lady, the priest who officiated at the funeral, and the coroner who was so shook up by Aquin’s death that he went out and bought Neige Noire the same day to read.
Sheppard fleshes out the book with other material, some lurid, some trivial. We learn that Aquin liked to order chicken from St-Hubert Bar-B-Q, which was founded by his brother’s son. More important is the vivid fictional piece that recreates the events on the day of Aquin’s suicide at Villa Maria, and the distress it caused at the school among students and teachers.
Does Sheppard arrive at any conclusions? Everyone interviewed has a different view. Aquin may never have recovered from his abrupt dismissal as literary director of Editions de la Presse. His deteriorating state of health might have pushed him over, too: Aquin had an addiction to alcohol and had developed epilepsy.
HA! cannot fully elucidate Aquin’s suicide but it does pay homage to the man. It also poignantly conveys the explosive impact suicide has on family, friends, co-workers, and the community.
By Anne Cimon, a Montreal writer who recently published a bilingual edition of her poetry All We Need/Tout ce qu’il faut (Borealis Press)
Montreal Review of Books