Books, by Jack Ruttan
First published in Place Publique

City of Exile

The Wanderer, by Régine Robin.
Alter Ego Editions, Montreal. 184 pp.


"Maybe this city is all ghettos," says a character in The Wanderer, the new translation of Régine Robin's 1983 book La Quebecoite. That thought sums up the approach of the book, which jumps from place to place, from future to past, and doesn't stay anywhere for very long. It's a challenge for the reader, who is dropped into the middle of this strategy without preparation, but the experience is a rewarding one for those who persevere, somehow the same as it is trying to make a life in this city.

Régine Robin explains that she didn't want to write a neat story, with beginning and end, like a 19th century novel. Borrowing techniques from the Dada artists of the '20's, and especially from French Jewish author Georges Perec and his novel Les Choses ["The Things"] she presents a series of impressions, memories, bits of monologue, even including T.V. listings and excerpts from textbooks. "I always write like that," she says. "Heterogeneity, splits, something broken ... I wanted to find something to convey the feeling of broken history and exile."

The strangeness expressed in The Wanderer must have been a lot like how she felt, arriving in Montreal in the '70s, off the plane from Paris. This is the situation her lead character, an educated woman with a Yiddish background, is placed into. The book then follows her through three potential "lives" in different Montreal neighborhoods, showing how life might have turned out for the character settling in Snowdon, Outremont, or Jean Talon. Robin admits that there are as many potential stories to be told as there are neighborhoods in the city, though she would have trouble placing her character in Westmount.

All the same, the character, while sharing many of her qualities, is not Robin. It's a "bio-fiction." She plays the piano as does Robin, but the author never owned a Chopin-loving cat.

Robin intends to make her readers worry. When they start to relax, the scene shifts. This is unsettling, but aided by a vivid translation by Phyllis Aronoff, it has the effect of bringing the book vividly alive. The reader isn't reading about a character, he or she becomes that character, thinking another's thoughts, seeing the world through a different set of eyes. "I wanted to fix the strangeness of Montreal to a foreigner," says Robin. "Department stores were strange. The Banque Royal (its very name, to a Parisian) was strange. Collage and lists, to give the colour of strangeness."

This strangeness, and the voicelessness felt amidst Quebec society (expressed by the French title, a pun whose equivalent in English could be "The Quebec-Quiet,") drives the lead character time and again back to a more comfortable Paris. Ironically, it was the writing of the book that allowed the author to stay in Quebec. It clarified her position, even if that remains somewhat outside of the main society. A place many writers find themselves.

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