I’ve said it before and I guess I’m saying again, French Canadian fiction is its own entire genre. And it’s not one I really get or can appreciate.
I thought I might be on easier footing here because I’ve heard of this book and we’ve read and re-read Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater in our house. Friends, aside from the fact that they are both set in a small Quebec village, the two could not be more different. The Hockey Sweater is a classic of Canadian children’s books. A young boy receives the wrong hockey sweater in the mail, ordered from the Eatons catalogue. He then has to wear the hated team jersey of the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of his beloved Montreal Canadiens.
Perhaps what the two stories also share is the sharp divide between Anglo and French Canadians. And this is something, as a West Coast Canadian where very few people speak French, I struggle to fully understand.
The setting is World War II and many French-Canadians are angry at being pushed into what they see as a Anglais war. What do they have to do with England or even Ottawa. The novel sets the tone right from the first page as we witness a man chop off his own hand with an axe to avoid being drafted into the army. This level of violence and physical description continues throughout the novel, coming in at just over 100 pages.
The crux of the story is the return of the body of Corriveau, a young village man who has been killed in fighting overseas. English-Canadian soldiers bring his body to the home of his parents where the village gathers for a raucous wake, eating the Corriveau’s tourtiere and cider. The Anglais soldiers stand silently by, judging the Francophones as animals, refusing to partake of any activity until much later.
We meet a few of the villagers – each with their own background and opinion of the ongoing war and the current situation in the Corriveau home. The characters are well-differentiated and believable, if slightly like caricatures. The women in particularly seem to fall into the categories of either old crones with grotesque bodies or voluptuous temptresses who exist to fulfill the fantasies of men around them.
My end feeling is that this is a story very much of its time and place. Knowing what I do know about Quebec history, particularly around this time, the book is a powerful portrayal of many people’s emotions. Does it have lasting power or universal appeal? No. But I’m not sure it’s trying to.
The translation was excellent and aided by Fischman’s introduction where she explains some of her choices. Most importantly why she actually leaves a lot of words untranslated. Particularly, many of the swear words are left in their original French and Fischman explains that this is largely because swearing in Quebec involves a lot of sacred and religious words and to translate them directly into English is to lose much of their power. I didn’t find the book hard to understand at any point because of the French words left in but some basic understanding of the language does help.
9 thoughts on “Book Review: La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier”
I hadn’t realised there was conflict in Canada between French and Anglo Canadians about involvement in WWII. As I understand it many Irish immigrants in Britain felt quite similarly at the time (though I learnt this from a novel when I was about 15 so I may be wrong!). Sounds like an interesting look at the time and place.
We never learned about things like this in school either. I imagine the French Canadian response to the war was similar to the Irish you’re describing.
Hmm I’ve never heard of this book before – I always knew this author for the Hockey Sweater and not much else! I’m not surprised many characters come across as caricatures (especially the women), but it’s still unfortunate when you come across it. I’m assuming the translator is Sheila Fischman, who is such an incredible translator, I feel like the majority of books I read from French to English are done by her!
It’s her! She must be a busy lady!
likely one of the few Canadian writers who can make a living off their writing alone LOL
I love that Quebec is basically one big asterisk about Canada. Like, even an interpreting we talk about Canada and how they use ASL the same as we do, except for in Quebec. The people in Canada behave this way, except for in Quebec. The people in Canada speak English, except for in Quebec.
Even shopping online! There is often a literal asterisk that Quebec is excluded. I’m not really sure why. I’ve never been to Quebec but from what I know it’s very much its own place.
Okay, the online shopping I don’t get. It’s not like they’re shipping internationally if you’re in Vancouver.
I think it might have to do with taxes but I also believe that one of the major reasons has to do with labelling. In Canada, most labels are in French and English but Quebec has rules about the size of the French compared to the English. So for a lot of things, stores would have to create separate labelling to sell to Quebec and that just doesn’t make sense from a business perspective.