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March 9, 2014

For Sure by France Daigle, trans. Robert Majzels

for-sureFor two weeks, I was reading For Sure by France Daigle, a 719 page novel that doesn’t have much of a plot. However plotless though, For Sure is more useful than most novels I encounter—with its help, I taught my daughter to swim. Seriously. And not just that, but for those two weeks as I lived with this book, a giant doorstop, and its people, strange connections were made between the happenings in their lives and the occurrences within my own. Which is precisely what France Daigle wants me to think. She has no truck with characters or their stories staying within the confines of their pages.

Not least of all because this is the fourth book in her series about a group of people who live and work in converted lofts in Moncton, New Brunswick. In its original French, Pour Sur won the Governor General’s Award for French Literatre in 2012. Though it wasn’t French exactly, but instead Chiac, an Acadian-French dialect mixed with English and Aboriginal influences, spoken by Acadian communities in southeast New Brunswick. Which has been translated into English by Majzels as French-accented English with a Newfoundland bent–“fer sure” for “for sure”, a lot of “dat dem dare.” 

The novel is made up of twelve sections, each section broken into fragments, assigned a number code and category. A sense of progression comes from moving through the code rather than the fragments themselves, whose connections are often elusive. (I just mistyped that as “allusive” but I kind of mean that too.) There’s a lot about Scrabble, colours, the names of colours, the colour of letters, attempts to quantify the abstract, apply methodology to slippery things (like novels). An attempt to write the book of Chiac, to put the colloquial down on paper, articulate its rules and laws, but then language is as slippery as a novel after all. And life itself.

There are people here too. At its heart, this is a novel about Terry and Carmen and their small children Etienne and Marianne, and their friends at the lofts where they live, and where Terry works at a bookstore and Carmen co-owns a bar (called Babar). There are little plots, small mysteries, and even a murder (on the periphery). Terry worries about being a good father, they wonder whether their kids might grow up to be gay, they take a holiday, do crosswords, and define their language through acts of every day life. All the characters in the book ponder the mysteries of language and words, and search for meaning in their patterns. Just as the reader of For Sure seeks to put the pieces together in her own right,  connect the dots, come up with a whole.

What is most compelling about these characters is their goodness, their aspirations toward such things. And yet that they’re compelling all the same—this is something. They’re flawed too enough to be real, so much so that when France Daigle herself (so we assume) sits down with these fictional people for a chat, and they discuss their place within her narrative and her control over their fates, the conversation is completely plausible, as is the fictional existence of Daigle herself.

More for plausibility: Terry teaches his son to swim by imploring him to try to drown. The boy tries, finds it’s impossible and begins having faith in his buoyancy after all. Which is the same trick I tried the next day after reading this passage, in the swimming pool with my daughter whose relationship to swimming lately has been of an adversarial nature. And it worked! 30 minutes later, she was swimming without clutching another human body for dear life, which is huge. And to think we owe it all to Terry Thibedeau.

It is worth nothing that in reading this translation, rendered in a made-up dialect, there is an enormous gap between what we’re reading and what Daigle and her novel intended. And yet, I think this gap only underlines the novel’s central thesis, which is that precision of language is something of a fallacy. That anything expressed in language is going to be a muddle, a translation. That in reaching toward precision, the reach instead of the precision is always going to be the point.

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