On the Icy Sidewalk, Exiting the Subway; In a Cottage in Devonshire, at Tea Time; Nirvana, at Some Point in Eternity: the chapter titles of Hélène Rioux’s latest novel, the second instalment in her planned four-part Fragments of the World series, read like poetic stage directions. Indeed, there is an intriguingly cinematic, almost voyeuristic, quality to Wandering Souls in Paradise Lost, which like its predecessor,Wednesday Night at the End of the World, is presented as a series of interrelated vignettes in which characters, objects and motifs recur in oblique, unexpected ways; a kind of six-degrees-of-separation for the fallen.
Paradise, earthly or celestial, lost more often than found, is the organizing theme here. The Paradiso Sol Hotel in the Dominican Republic sounds heavenly to anyone escaping Montreal’s winter, yet at least one of its employees finds herself turning tricks with guests to make ends meet. The meandering exploration of “paradise” that begins the book suggests that the notion has become entirely amorphous, subjective. Like the narrator’s summation of human history, it’s a conflated grab bag of references: “In the beginning, there was the Big Bang; then things evolved for a few millennia, as everyone knows. Our ancestors were gorillas, more or less, and there weren’t any apple trees on earth.”
The sublime and the mundane are frequent bedfellows at The End of the World, the Montreal greasy spoon that serves as the spiritual hearth for both Fragments of the World novels. Here, it remains under the pall cast by the death of a regular who collapsed in the washroom three months previously. Julie, another repeating character who has just taken a job as a waitress there, goes ballistic when a customer recognizes her from the bar where she used to table dance.
References to Dante are abundant, although more often than not they’re to Dante Sullivan, the hero of the CSI-style crime series many of the characters watch. Our Béatrice, likewise, is a used-bookstore employee who replies to a classified ad placed by a retired university professor looking for help with his modern day rewrite of The Divine Comedy.
Hélène Rioux is little known in Canada outside of Quebec, where she has published seven novels as well as poetry and short stories. The two books in this series were well received critically in her home province and short-listed for several prestigious awards. In English, Rioux’s writing withstands – but at times only barely – translator Jonathan Kaplansky’s literal-minded approach which cleaves too often to the letter rather than the spirit of the original, leaving us with such awkward constructions as, “The magnitude of the task exhausts me in advance,” “antipersonnel bombs that tear to pieces innocent people,” or, “Hope Mary looks daggers at her.” This is surprising given that Rioux herself is an award-winning translator whose work includes books by Yann Martel and Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Yet there is still undeniable satisfaction to be had in piecing together the threads of connection between Rioux’s wandering souls. A painting by Gainsborough, a bottle of Veuve Cliquot, an oft-repeated aphorism: “Imagination is our only truth” – the playful scattering of references would even make a fine drinking game. When all is said and done, however, The End of the World’s legendary poutine andpouding chômeur – which lure taxi drivers and food critics alike – may well be the closest any of these memorable characters gets to paradise.