Selected as the 2010 CBC Canada Reads Winner!
Awards for the French-language edition:
Prix des libraires 2006
Prix littéraire des collégiens 2006
Prix Anne-Hébert 2006 (Best first book)
Prix Printemps des Lecteurs–Lavinal
Intricately plotted and shimmering with originality, Nikolski charts the curious and unexpected courses of personal migration, and shows how they just might eventually lead us to home.
In the spring of 1989, three young people, born thousands of miles apart, each cut themselves adrift from their birthplaces and set out to discover what — or who — might anchor them in their lives. They each leave almost everything behind, carrying with them only a few artefacts of their lives so far — possessions that have proven so formative that they can’t imagine surviving without them — but also the accumulated memories of their own lives and family histories.
Noah, who was taught to read using road maps during a life of nomadic travels with his mother — their home being a 1966 Bonneville station wagon with a silver trailer — decides to leave the prairies for university in Montreal. But putting down roots there turns out to be a more transitory experience than he expected. Joyce, stifled by life in a remote village on Quebec’s Lower North Shore, and her overbearing relatives, hitches a ride into Montreal, spurred on by a news story about a modern-day cyber-pirate and the spirit of her own buccaneer ancestors. While her daily existence remains surprisingly routine —working at a fish shop in Jean-Talon market, dumpster-diving at night for necessities — it’s her Internet piracy career that takes off. And then there’s the unnamed narrator, who we first meet clearing out his deceased mother’ s house on Montreal’s South Shore, and who decides to move into the city to start a new life. There he finds his true home among books, content to spend his days working in a used bookstore and journeying though the many worlds books open up for him.
Over the course of the next ten years, Noah, Joyce and the unnamed bookseller will sometimes cross paths, and sometimes narrowly miss each other, as they all pass through one vibrant neighbourhood on Montreal’s Plateau. Their journeys seem remarkably unformed, more often guided by the prevailing winds than personal will, yet their stories weave in and out of other wondrous tales — stories about such things as fearsome female pirates, urban archaeologists, unexpected floods, fish of all kinds, a mysterious book without a cover and a dysfunctional compass whose needle obstinately points to the remote Aleutian village of Nikolski. And it is in the magical accumulation of those details around the edges of their lives that we begin to know these individuals as part of a greater whole, and ultimately realize that anchors aren’t at all permanent, really; rather, they’re made to be hoisted up and held in reserve until their strength is needed again.close this panel
My name is unimportant.
It all started in September 1989, at about seven in the morning.
I’m still asleep, curled up in my sleeping bag on the living-room floor. There are cardboard boxes, rolled-up rugs, half-disassembled pieces of furniture, and tool boxes heaped around me. The walls are bare, except for the pale spots left by the pictures that had hung there for too many years.
The window lets in the monotonous, rhythmic sound of the waves rolling over the stones.
Every beach has a particular acoustic signature, which depends on the force and length of the waves, the makeup of the ground, the form of the landscape, the prevailing winds and the humidity in the air. It’s impossible to confuse the subdued murmur of Mallorca with the resonant roll of Greenland’s prehistoric pebbles, or the coral melody of the beaches of Belize, or the hollow growl of the Irish coast.
The surf I hear this morning is easy enough to identify. The deep, somewhat raw rumbling, the crystalline ringing of the volcanic stones, the slightly asymmetrical breaking of the waves, the water rich in nutriments – there’s no mistaking the shores of the Aleutian Islands.
I mutter something and open my left eye a crack. Where can that unlikely sound be coming from? The nearest ocean is over a thousand kilometres away. And besides, I’ve never set foot on a beach.
I crawl out of the sleeping bag and stumble over to the window. Clutching at the curtains, I watch the garbage truck pull up with a pneumatic squeal in front of our bungalow. Since when do diesel engines imitate breaking waves?
Dubious poetry of the suburbs.
The two trash collectors hop down from their vehicle and stand there, dumbstruck, contemplating the mountain of bags piled on the asphalt. The first one, looking dismayed, pretends to count them. I start to worry; have I infringed some city bylaw that limits the number of bags per house? The second garbageman, much more pragmatic, sets about filling the truck. He obviously couldn’t care less about the number of bags, their contents or the story behind them.
There are exactly thirty bags.
I bought them at the corner grocery store – a shopping experience I’m not about to forget.
Standing in the cleaning-products aisle, I wondered how many garbage bags would be needed to hold the countless memories my mother had accumulated since 1966. What volume could actually contain thirty years of living? I was loath to do the indecent arithmetic. Whatever my estimation might be, I was fearful of underestimating my mother’s existence.
I went for a brand that seemed sufficiently strong. Each package contained ten revolutionary ultraplastic refuse bags with a sixty-litre capacity.
I took three packages, for a total of 1,800 litres.
The thirty bags turned out to be adequate – though I did on occasion enlist my foot to press the point home – and now the garbagemen are busy tossing them into the gaping mouth of the truck. Every so often, a heavy steel jaw crushes the trash with a pachyderm-like groan. Nothing at all like the poetic susurrations of the waves.
Actually, the whole story – since it needs to be told – began with the Nikolski compass.
The old compass resurfaced in August, two weeks after the funeral.
My mother’s endless agony had worn me out. Right from the initial diagnosis, my life had turned into a relay race. My days and nights were spent shuttling from the house, to work, to the hospital. I stopped sleeping, ate less and less, lost nearly five kilos. It was as if I were the one struggling with the tumours. Yet the truth was never in doubt. My mother died after seven months, leaving me to bear the entire world on my shoulders.
I was drained, my thinking out of focus – but there was no question of throwing in the towel. Once the paperwork was taken care of, I launched into the last big cleanup.
I looked like a survivalist, holed up in the basement of the bungalow with my thirty garbage bags, an ample supply of ham sandwiches, cans and cans of concentrated frozen orange juice and the FM radio with the volume turned down low. I gave myself a week to obliterate five decades of existence, five closetfuls of odds and ends crumbling under their own weight.
Now, this sort of cleanup may seem grim and vindictive to some. But understand: I found myself suddenly alone in the world, with neither friends nor family, but still with an urgent need to go on living. Some things just had to be jettisoned.
I went at the closets with the cool detachment of an archaeologist, separating the memorabilia into more or less logical categories:
• a cigarillo box filled with seashells
• four bundles of press clippings about the U.S. radar stations in Alaska
• an old Instamatic 104 camera
• over three hundred pictures taken with the aforementioned Instamatic 104
• numerous paperback novels, abundantly annotated
• a handful of costume jewellery
• a pair of Janis Joplin-style pink sunglasses
I entered a troubling time warp, and the deeper I plunged into the closets, the less I recognized my mother. The dusty objects belonging to a life in the distant past bore witness to a woman I’d never known before. Their mass, their texture, their odour seeped into my mind and took root among my own memories, like parasites. My mother was thus reduced to a pile of disconnected artifacts smelling of mothballs.
I was annoyed by the way events were unfolding. What had started out as a simple matter of sweeping up was gradually turning into a laborious initiation. I looked forward to the time when I would finally reach the bottom of the closets, but their contents seemed inexhaustible.
It was at this point that I came upon a large packet of diaries – fifteen softcover notebooks filled with telegraphic prose. My hopes were rekindled. Maybe these diaries would allow me to put together the pieces of the puzzle?
I arranged the notebooks chronologically. The first one began on June 12, 1966.
My mother headed off to Vancouver when she was nineteen, feeling that a proper break with one’s family should be gauged in kilometres, and that her own falling-out deserved to be measured in continents. She ran away one June 25, at dawn, in the company of a hippie named Dauphin. The two confederates shared the cost of gas, shifts at the wheel, and long drags on thin joints rolled as tight as toothpicks. When not driving, my mother wrote in her notebook. Her script, very neat and orderly at the outset, quickly started to furl and unfurl, tracing the eddies and whorls of THC.
At the beginning of the second notebook, she had woken up alone on Water Street, barely able to stutter a few halting phrases in English. Notepad in hand, she went about communicating through ideograms, by turns sketching and gesturing. In a park, she made the acquaintance of a group of arts students who were busy crafting delicate origami manta rays out of psychedelic paper. They invited her to share their overcrowded apartment, their cushion-filled living room and a bed already occupied by two other girls. Every night at about two a.m., the three of them squeezed in under the sheets and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while they discussed Buddhism.
My mother swore she would never return to the East Coast.
Whereas her first weeks in Vancouver were recounted with a wealth of detail, the rest of her journey grew more and more elliptical as the demands of nomadic life evidently supplanted those of narration. She never stayed anywhere more than four months, but would all of a sudden take off to Victoria, then Prince Rupert, San Francisco, Seattle, Juneau and a thousand other places she did not always bother to identify clearly. She scraped by thanks to various paltry expedients: hawking poems by Richard Brautigan to passersby, selling postcards to tourists, juggling, cleaning motel rooms, shoplifting in supermarkets.
Her escapade went on like this for five years. Then, in June 1970, we showed up at the Vancouver central station with two huge duffel bags just about bursting at the seams. My mother bought a train ticket to Montreal, and we crossed the continent in reverse, she curled up in her seat, me nestled in the depths of her uterus, an imperceptible comma in an as yet unwritten novel.
When she got back home, she briefly made up with my grandparents – a strategic truce aimed at securing the endorsement she needed from them to buy a house. In short order, she purchased a bungalow in Saint-Isidore Junction, a stone’s throw from Châteauguay, in what was to become the southern periphery of Montreal, but which at the time still retained something of the countryside, with its ancestral houses, its fallow land and its impressive population of porcupines.
Now saddled with a mortgage, she had to take work in Châteauguay – at a travel agency. Paradoxically, this job put an end to her youthful roving, and to her diaries too.
The last diary ended on an undated page, circa 1971. I closed it, deep in thought. Of all the omissions that punctuated my mother’s prose, the most important was Jonas Doucet.
Nothing was left of that transient sire but a stack of postcards scribbled with indecipherable handwriting, the final one dating back to 1975. I had often tried to crack the secret of those cards, but there was no way to make sense of their hieroglyphics. Even the postmarks were more revealing, as they limned out a path that began in southern Alaska, went up to the Yukon, then back down again toward Anchorage, and ended in the Aleutians – more precisely, on the American military base where my father had found employment.
Under the pile of postcards was a small, crumpled box and a letter from the U.S. Air Force.
I learned nothing new from the letter. The box, on the other hand, illuminated a forgotten pit in my memory. Now totally flat, it had once contained a compass that Jonas had sent me for my birthday. That compass came back to me in astounding detail. How could I have forgotten it? It was the only tangible proof of my father’s existence, and had been the pole star of my childhood, the glorious instrument with which I’d crossed a thousand imaginary oceans! Which mountain of debris was it buried under now?
I combed the bungalow from top to bottom in a reckless frenzy, emptying drawers and cupboards, searching behind the sideboards and under the rugs, crawling into the darkest recesses.
It was three in the morning before I tracked it down, stuck between an aquarium-sized deep-sea diver and an apple-green garbage truck, at the bottom of a cardboard box perched on two rafters in the attic.
The years had not improved the appearance of the poor compass, a five-dollar gizmo most likely found near the cash register of an Anchorage hardware dealer. Luckily, its lengthy proximity to metallic toys had not demagnetized its needle, which persisted in pointing (what seemed to be) north.
Strictly speaking, it was a miniature mariner’s compass, composed of a transparent plastic sphere filled with a clear liquid in which there floated a second, magnetized and graded sphere. The inclusion of one sphere inside another, as in a tiny matryoshka, guaranteed a gyroscopic stability that could withstand the worst storms: no matter how strong the waves might be, the compass would lose neither its bearings nor the horizon.
I fell asleep in the attic with my head sunk in a cumulus of candy-pink insulation, the compass resting on my forehead.
Superficially, that old compass seems perfectly unremarkable, just like any other compass. But on closer examination one realizes that it doesn’t point exactly north.
Some individuals claim to be aware at all times of precisely where north is located. However, like most people, I need a marker. When I’m sitting behind the bookstore counter, for example, I know magnetic north is located 4,238 kilometres away, in a beeline that runs through the Mickey Spillane shelf and goes to Ellef Ringnes Island, a pebble lost in the immense Queen Elizabeth archipelago.
But, instead of pointing toward the Mickey Spillane shelf, my compass lines up 1.5 metres to the left, right in the middle of the exit door.
Born in Rivière-du-Loup in 1972, Nicolas Dickner grew up in Quebec and studied visual arts and literature in university. Afterwards, he travelled extensively in Europe and Latin America before settling in Montreal, where he now resides. Dickner won two literary awards for his first published work, the 2002 short story collection L’encyclopédie du petit cercle, including the Prix Adrienne-Choquette for the best collection of short fiction of the year. Dickner’s first novel, Nikolski, was originally published in Quebec by Éditions Alto in 2005, and then in 2007 by Éditions Denoël in France. It soon garnered rave reviews and prestigious awards, including the Prix des libraires du Québec, the Prix littéraire des collegians, the Prix Anne-Hébert for best first book, and France’s Prix Printemps des lecteurs — Lavinal. The English edition, with the translation done by Lazer Lederhendler, was published as part of Knopf Canada’s well-regarded New Face of Fiction program in 2008. Since then, English rights have also been sold in the UK and the United States.
Nicolas Dickner is also the author of Boulevard Banquise, a children’s book, and a second short story collection, Traité de balistique, both published in 2006. He is currently a literary columnist for Voir and is working on his next novel.
Lazer Lederhendler is a four-time finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and won the award in 2008 for his translation of Nikolski. His translation of The Immaculate Conception by Gaétan Soucy was shortlisted for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the French-to-English Translation Prize from the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Lederhendler lives in Montreal, where he teaches English and film at the Collège international des Marcellines.close this panel
“Despite the preponderance of clues and artefacts scattered throughout the story, Dickner does not tie everything up in a neat package. He lets certain threads dangle, giving Nikolski more substance and nuance. The story lingers in the mind long after the last page has been read, leaving the reader in its strange and wonderful orbit.”
“Nikolski offers a breathtakingly original perception of the world, mixing geography, cartography and longing in a language and construction both intellectually sophisticated and emotionally affecting.”
–The Globe and Mail
“The characters are so infused with vitality and surprise that they become unforgettable; the language (and in translation — remarkable) is as lively as the characters; and the humorous, sweetly sad view of life in general is engaging. . . . This novel is so richly textured and multi-layered that a single short review may do it a disservice. But its comic brilliance is undeniable — a hugely enjoyable read.”
“Chock full of arcane detail about the sea, fish lore, antique books, travel and archaeology, Nikolski is the product of an eccentric mind propelled by an exuberant spirit.”
–Marianne Ackerman, The Walrus
“Lederhendler’s cadences and elegant vocabulary are a pleasure to read, while Dickner inexorably sweeps the reader along with the tide as the characters mature. This novel will bring a smile to your face and will be one you will want to read again.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“One cannot say it enough: this book is the discovery of the year. . . . The humour is striking; his vision stunning.”
–Carole Beaulieu, L’actualité
“Nicolas Dickner has a limitless imagination, great erudition and an inventive pen. He is the incarnation of the future of Quebec writing — nothing less.”
–Pierre Cayouette, L’actualité
“If you are interested in the great wide world, submerse yourself immediately in this phantasmagorical, lively and fascinating novel.”
–Hugues Corriveau, Lettres québécoises
“A carefully crafted, sumptuous first novel that will restore your taste for flights of fancy and for treasure hunts in time and space.”
–Benoît Jutras, Voir
“Stylish, offbeat, poignant and perceptive.”
–David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
“Dickner excites the imagination of the reader to the point of ecstasy.”
“Nicolas Dickner, who uses beautifully spare prose which can be as darkly comic as it is affecting, isn’t trying to tell a conventional story, he’s trying to tap into a very modern idea: that we need to understand that we all connect with each other somehow, family or not. And he does so impressively well.”