First published in l965, Hubert Aquin’s Next Episode is a disturbing and yet deeply moving novel of dissent and distress. As he awaits trial, a young separatist writes an espionage story in the psychiatric ward of the Montreal prison where he has been detained. Sheila Fischman’s bold new translation captures the pulsating life of Aquin’s complex exploration of the political realities of contemporary Quebec.
About the authors
Though Hubert Aquin (1929–1977) was born and died in Montreal, he spent much time abroad, especially in Paris and Switzerland. Today he is considered by Quebec and by Canada as one of our greatest authors. He also took an interest in radio and television, as well as film; for a number of years he worked for the National Film Board of Canada.But above all else he is known for his novels, and especially Next Episode. The work has sold regularly at the rate of 1500 copies a year since its publication in 1965 — a significant figure for Quebec and its seven million inhabitants.Aquin was offered a Governor General’s award for his second novel Blackout, but refused the award, received the Prix de La Presse for his third novel The Antiphonary, and was awarded the Prix de la Ville de Montréal for Hamlet’s Twin, his fourth and last novel. In 1972, he received the Prix David for his entire body of work.Since his death in 1977, Aquin’s oeuvre has been and continues to be the object of numerous journal articles and academic dissertations, not only in Canada but in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere — all countries where his work is taught.
Excerpt: Next Episode (by (author) Hubert Aquin; afterword by Jean-Louis Major; translated by Sheila Fischman)
Cuba is sinking in flames in the middle of Lac Léman while I descend to the bottom of things. Packed inside my sentences, I glide, a ghost, into the river’s neurotic waters, discovering as I drift the underside of surfaces and the inverted image of the Alps. Between the anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the date of my trial, I have time enough to ramble on in peace, to open my unpublished book with great care, and to cover this paper with the key-words that won’t set me free. I’m writing on a card table next to a window looking out on grounds enclosed by a sharp iron fence that marks the boundary between what’s unpredictable and what is locked up. I won’t get out before the day of reckoning. That’s written in several carbon copies as decreed, following valid laws and an unassailable royal judge. There are no distractions then, nothing to replace the clockwork of my obsession or make me deviate from the written record of my journey. Basically, only one thing really concerns me and it’s this: how should I set about writing a spy novel? My wish is complicated by the fact that I long to do something original in a genre that has so many unwritten rules and laws. Fortu nately, though, a certain laziness leads me to give up any idea about breathing new life into the tradition before I even get started. I may as well admit it – making myself comfortable in a literary form that’s already so well defined makes me feel very secure. And so without hesitation I decide to integrate my work within the main lines of the traditional spy novel. And since I want to set it in Lausanne, that’s taken care of. As quickly as I can, I eliminate any behaviour that would give my secret agent too much merit: he’s neither a Sphinx nor a highly perceptive Tarzan, neither God nor the Holy Ghost; he mustn’t be so logical that the plot need not be or, on the other hand, so lucid that I can complicate everything else and cook up some story that makes no sense, that when all’s said and done would only be understood by some bungling oaf with a gun who doesn’t share his thoughts with anyone. And if I were to introduce a Wolof Secret Agent . . . Everybody knows that Wolofs aren’t legion in French-speaking Switzerland and that they’re under-represented in the secret service. I know, I’m overdoing it, falling into the trap of the Afro-Asian bloc, giving in to the African and Madagascar Union lobby. But let me tell you something: if Hamidou Diop suits me, I can simply make him a secret agent in Lausanne on a counter-espionage mission, for no other reason than to get him out of Geneva where the air is less salubrious. Now I can reserve a suite at the Lausanne Palace for Hamidou, provide him with traveller’s cheques from the Banque Cantonale Vaudoise, and appoint him a Special Envoy (a phony one) from the Republic of Senegal to some big Swiss companies that want to invest in desert real estate. Once Hamidou is protected by his fake identity and settled in at the Lausanne Palace, I can bring cia and mi5 agents into the picture. And that’s that. In return for adding a few alluring lady spies and the algebraic treatment of the plot, I have my deal. Hamidou is getting impatient, I sense that he’s about to do something crazy: in fact, I suspect it’s already begun. My future novel is already in orbit, so far out that I can’t bring it back. I’m frozen, I’ve just been dumped here inside my alphabet, I’m shackled to it and asking myself some questions. To write the kind of spy novel we read would be dishonest: in fact, it would be impossible. Writing a story is no small matter, unless it becomes the daily and detailed punctuation of my endless stillness and my slow fall into this liquid pit. The enemy will be lying in wait for me unless I can make life absolutely impossible for my character. To populate my own empty space I intend to pile up corpses along my character’s way, multiply attempts on his life, drive him crazy with anonymous calls and knives planted in his bedroom door; I’ll kill everyone he’s spoken to, even the courteous hotel cashier. I’ll put Hamidou through the mill or I won’t have the courage to live. I’ll plant bombs in his entourage and to complicate matters conclusively I’ll set the Chinese onto him, a number of them and all the same: there will be Chinese on the streets of Lausanne, hordes of smiling Chinese who’ll look Hamidou in the eye. Taking a Stelazine distracted me briefly from poor Hamidou’s career. Fifteen minutes from now they’ll bring me a cold meal, and other interruptions will go on till bedtime, as I draw up the outline of a novel without continuity, lay down the unknowns of a fictitious equation, and in the end imagine some total nonsense for as long as this disorganized siege gives me a bulwark against sadness and the criminal waves that crash into me, roaring and chanting the name of the woman I love.
Late one winter afternoon we drove through the countryside around Acton Vale. Patches of snow on the hillsides reminded us of the dazzling snow that had enfolded our first embrace in the nondescript apartment on Côte-des-Neiges. On that lonely road which goes from Saint-Liboire to Upton and then to Acton Vale, from Acton Vale to Durham-sud, from Durham-sud to Melbourne, Richmond, Danville, Chénier, formerly known as Tingwick, we talked to each other, my love. For the first time we mingled our two lives in a river of inspiration that still flows in me this afternoon between the shattered shores of Lac Léman. It’s in the area of this invisible lake that I’ll set my story, it’s into the very waters of the extended Rhône that I plunge, tirelessly seeking my own cadaver. The quiet road from Acton Vale to Durhamsud is the end of the world. Thrown off track, I descend into myself but I can’t find my way. Imprisoned in a clinical submarine, I’m engulfed by a deathly uncertainty. The only thing that’s certain now is your secret name, your warm, wet mouth, your amazing body I reinvent again and again with less precision and more passion. I count the days I have to live without you and my chances of finding you again after I’ve wasted all that time: how can I avoid doubt? How can I avoid choosing suicide over this atrocious erosion? Everything from the past is crumbling. I lose all notion of the time of passion, I even lose any awareness of my slow escape, for I have no point of reference to help me measure my speed. Nothing is hardening outside my window: characters and memories are liquefied in the pointless splendour of the alpine lake where I try to find my words. I’ve already spent twenty-two days away from your resplendent body. I have sixty more days of underwater residence before I resume our interrupted embrace or set out again on the road to prison. For now, I’m at a table at the bottom of Lac Léman, plunged into its fluid sphere of influence which supplants my subconscious, joining my own depression to the languid depression of the Cimbrian Rhône, my imprisonment to the widening of its shores. I’m attending my own resolution. I inspect the ripples, keep an eye on everything that happens here; I listen at the doors of the Lausanne Palace and I’m wary of the Alps. In Vevey the other night, I stopped for a beer at the Café Vaudois. As I was skimming through the paper, I saw a brief item I tore out when no one was looking. It read: “Tuesday, August 1, the distinguished professor H. de Heutz of the University of Basel will speak on ‘Caesar and the Helvetians,’ under the auspices of the Société d’Histoire de la Suisse romande, 7 rue Jacques-Dalcroze, Geneva. Shortly before the vernal equinox in the year 58, the Helvetians had grouped north of Lac Léman to prepare for a mass exodus towards transalpine Gaul. This concentration, carried out a few miles from Genaba (now Geneva), intending to cross the Rhône over that city’s bridge, thereby encroaching on the integrity of transalpine Gaul, determined Caesar’s behaviour. The war between Caesar and the courageous Helvetians will be the subject of the presentation by the eminent Professor H. de Heutz.” Mystified by this speech and by the subtle correlation I’ve detected between that chapter of Swiss history and certain features of my own story, I stuffed the notice in my wallet and promised myself that I’d go to Geneva on August 1 and kill some time by killing several thousand Helvetians with beacons just to keep in practice.
Daylight is fading. The tall trees that line the Institute grounds are bombarded by light. Never have they appeared so cruel to me and never have I felt so much like a prisoner. Troubled, too, by what I’m writing, I’m very weary and tempted to give in to inertia the way one gives in to a fascination. Why should I go on writing and what shall I say? Why draw curves on paper when I long to go out, to stroll, to run towards the woman I love, to abolish myself in her and sweep her away with me into my resurrection and towards death? No, I no longer know why I’m writing this puzzle while I suffer and the hydrous vise is tightening over my temples till it crushes my few remaining memories. Something inside me is threatening to explode. There are more and more cracking sounds, foreshadowing a seismic event that my scattered activities can no longer keep at bay. Two or three censored novels can’t distract me from the free world I see out my window, from which I’m excluded. Volume ix of the complete works of Balzac is particularly discouraging. “In Paris under the Empire thirteen men met, all struck by the same sentiment, all energetic enough to follow the same line of thinking, political enough to conceal the sacred bonds that united them . . .” I stop here. The opening sentence of the Story of the Thirteen slays me; that dazzling beginning makes me want to end my own cumulative prose, just as it reminds me of the sacred bonds, now broken by isolation, that once joined me to my revolutionary brothers. I have nothing to gain from going on writing. But I go on anyway, though I’m writing at a loss. No, that’s a lie: for the past few minutes I’ve known perfectly well that I will gain something from this game, I’ll gain time: an interval I cover with erasures and phonemes, fill with syllables and howls, cram with all my acknowledged atoms, multiples of a totality they’ll never equal. I compose in highly automatic writing and while I’m spelling myself, I avoid homicidal lucidity. I dazzle myself with words. And I drift complacently because this procedure lets me gain in minutes what I lose proportionately in despair. I stuff the page with mental mincemeat, I cram it to the bursting point with syntax, I pound at the naked paper, I can barely keep from writing with both hands at once, so I’ll think less. And suddenly I land on my feet, safe and sound but drained, tired as an invalid after the crisis. Now that the deed is done and Balzac eliminated, the pain of vainly desiring the woman I love avoided, now that I’ve chopped my fury into devalued notions, I feel rested and I can look at the submerged landscape, I can count the trees I no longer see, recollect the names of the streets in Lausanne. I can easily recall the smell of fresh paint in my cell at the Montreal Prison and the stench of the Municipal Police cubicles. Now that I’m feeling free and easy, I let incoherence take hold of me again; I give in to that improvised stream, renouncing more from laziness than principle the premeditated plotting of a genuine novel. Real novels I leave to the real novelists. As for me, I flatly refuse to bring algebra into my invention. Condemned to a certain ontological incoherence, I take my stand. I’m even turning it into a system with an immediate application that I decree. Infinite I shall be, in my own way and in the literal sense. I won’t leave a system I create for the sole purpose of never leaving it. As a matter of fact I’m not leaving anything, not even here. I’m caught, compressed inside a hermetically sealed glass booth. From my prison window I can see a red van – how suspicious! – that reminds me of another red van that was parked on Pine Avenue one morning outside the porte-cochère of the Mount Royal Fusiliers. But now the red stain is moving away and disappearing into the darkness, depriving me of a bracing memory. Bye bye Mount Royal Fusiliers. Farewell to arms! That unexpected play on words gets me down: I feel like dissolving into tears, I’m not sure why. All those weapons stolen from the enemy, hidden and then discovered in sorrow one by one, all those weapons! And I who am disarmed here for having held a weapon, disarmed as well before the idling sun as it quietly sets behind Île Jésus! If I give in to the twilight again, I won’t be able to hold my position for very long or to manoeuvre serenely in the stagnant waters of fiction. If I look at the vanished sun again, I won’t have the strength to bear the time I saw passing between you and me, between our two bodies stretched out on the calendar of spring and summer, then suddenly broken at the beginning of Cancer. I must close my eyes, tighten my grip on the pen, not give in to the pain, not believe in miracles or in the litanies I utter every night beneath the sheet, not invoke your name, my love. I mustn’t speak it aloud, write it on this paper, sing it, cry it. I must silence it and let my heart break.
I’m breathing through lungs of steel. What comes to me from outside is filtered, drained of oxygen and nothingness, making me more frail. I’m subjected to a psychiatric evaluation before being sent to trial. But I know that this very expertisecontains an unspoken assumption that confers legitimacy on the system I’m fighting and a pathological connotation on my own undertaking. Psychiatry is the science of individual imbalance enclosed within a flawless society. It enhances the standing of conformists and the well-integrated, not those who refuse; it glorifies all forms of civil obedience and acceptance. It’s not just solitude I’m battling here, but the clinical imprisonment that casts doubt on my effectiveness as a revolutionary.
I might as well reread Balzac! I want to identify with Ferragus, to live magically the story of a man condemned by society, yet capable on his own of standing up to the police stranglehold and avoiding capture by mimicking it, both its dual nature and its constant shifting and moving. I’ve dreamed about that, too, about fleeing to a different apartment every day, dressing in my hosts’ clothes, concealing my escapes in a ritual of parades and productions. Because I draped myself unwittingly in Ferragus’s spotted garments, today I’m in a clinic under surveillance after an inglorious stay in the Montreal Prison. It all seems to me like a tremendous act of cheating, including my pain when I confess it. The deeper I sink into disenchantment, the more I discover the arid soil where for years I thought I saw a mythical vegetation spring up, a true hallucinatory debauchery, a flowering of falsehood and style to mask a plain that had been close-cropped, shattered, burned by the sun of lucidity and boredom: myself! Now the truth won’t let me seed it with a forest of calyxes. My own face, unveiled once and for all, terrifies me. Having come here as a prisoner, I feel myself sicken from day to day. Nothing feeds my soul any more: no starry night transmutes my desert into sheets of shadow and mystery. Nothing offers me distraction or some substitute euphoria. Everything abandons me at the speed of light, all the membranes break, allowing the precious blood to seep away.
From the Trade Paperback edition.