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Jean Ethier-Blais
Translated by Jane Brierley
Montreal, Vehicule Press, 1991. 135pp, paper, $12.95
ISBN 1-55065-019-X. CIP

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up

Reviewed by Barbara Camfield.

Volume 20 Number 2
1992 March

Jean Ethier-Blais, well known as a former literacy critic for Le Devoir, has published over fifteen books, including novels, poetry, literary criticism and short stories. This collection of five short stories, first published in 1986 in French with the title Le Desert blanc (Lemeac, 1986), represents the first English translation of any of his works. The French version was awarded the Prix France-Quebec in 1987.

The mood of most of the five stories is bleak. The main characters suffer from an inability or unwillingness to communicate with each other or commit themselves energetically to political causes or human relationships. Heavily introspective and self-indulgent, Charles Maisonneuve in the story "White Desert" feels that the separatist cause is not worth getting worked up about since 'Trench had become either an incomprehensible language spoken in an industrial fish pond, or an increas­ingly ratified cultural vehicle."

Recurrent themes in the stories include the inevitability of death and the passage of time, detachment from family and friends, and fear of intimacy. Seven-year-old Antoine Verdun in "Partridge" is excited by the prospect of spending his first day ever alone with his father on a hunting expedition. Although he enjoys the beauty of the woods, he is overwhelmed by the fear of sudden death and the helpless terror of the partridges. The child's entrance into the adult world is cruel. Unaided by an aloof father, Antoine takes comfort in the affection of an old gardener who had children of his own whom he loved. Obviously, the gardener is contrasted with the father.

The old pair of lovers in "Flowers of Friendship Faded" hope to have their memories of days in Paris and of friendships preserved in a biography by their cultured literary friend. He gives them the lame excuse of lack of time, yet manages to observe their gradual demise into the wretched loneliness of sickly old age. With the exception of the heroine in 'The Shadow of an Answer," all these characters are not able simply to enjoy life. After the other stories there is a certain relief in reading about Helene, who is allowed to revel in the freedom of a month's holiday on the beach in Tunis.

Although these stories are undeni­ably well written by a cultured homme de lettres, they are ponderous and would hold little appeal for most high school students. The style of this skilful translation is complex, impressionistic and influenced by the style of Proust. Recommended only for large collections of Canadiana.

Barbara Camfield, National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ont.
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