March 14th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Nikolski* by Nicolas Dickner

I finished a day late (what’s up with that lately?) but I was still able to be really pleased that Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner won Canada Reads. Even though I don’t really know the radio flavour of the debates or what caused the book to rise to the top for that particular group, I enjoyed it immensely and am glad the book will have a wider audience (and another little decal to put on its cover, along with the GG one) thanks to this.

I am glad the book chosen as our national read is such unabashed fun–full of puzzles and confusion and fanciful adventure, and, especially, language that is an electric delight. I often feel a bit of frustration when reading translations, the sneaking suspicion that however good the English version is, it’s a bit…muffled…compared to the original. Nikolski suffered not a bit from that cottony translation-y feel, so a considerable debt is owed to Lazer Lederhendler (what a great name!) for making this translation so crisp and snappy. Read or, really, listen and watch:

“In a few seconds, she will be pinned face down on the asphalt, a knee pressed into her back, and duly handcuffed.

“She swings around 90 degrees and bolts toward the wire lattice. A Frost fense. Good–she knows how this thing works. She grabs the steel mesh and scrambles up as fast as she can. Too late. A pair of hands are clutching the cuffs of her jeans and pulling her down toward solid ground. She tightens her grip and kicks out blindly. The young, aggressive guard holws with pain and lets go.

“Suddenly released from his grasp, Joyce describes an elegant arc over the grid. Sailing head down through the air, she wonders how this is all going to end.”

Isn’t that perfectly lovely?

From what I hear of Canada Reads, we should count ourselves lucky not to have gotten a medicinal winner that bears its Canadianness like a prescription for better nationalism. Nikolski’s set all over the country (except British Columbia, which some of the characters are afraid of), and is gleeful in the place names, the little local details, the histories and topographies, and especially the maps. I could have done with a few fewer descriptions of maps, but Dickner seemed to be enjoying himself so much, so what the heck–it was interesting enough. The cartography theme, the bibliomania theme, the garbage theme, the fish theme–all seem to concentrate on history, signs left behind (ok, except the fish–the fish are just neat). It’s a book that’s thrilled about being a book, that’s thrilled about other books, full of characters who read with joy and enthusiasm. Delightful.

Language, theme, now for the tricky part–what is this book about? Well, there are three central characters, although it’s really hard to tell that for a long time–we get histories and ancestries of half a dozen others who them don’t reappear. In this, as well is in the formally effervescent language, the emphasis on family trees, and wildly implausible coincidence plausibly brought off, Dickner owes a considerable debt to Marquez (oh, go to the link just to see the photo–have you ever seen a sweeter author photo?)

Ok, wait, not influences, plot–what is the book *about*? I, um, don’t know. The three characters, Noah and Joyce in the third person, and an unnamed bookstore clerk in the first, are vaguely connected through a book (Noah and the clerk), family relationships (Noah and Joyce), proximity (all live in the same neighbourhood) and friends (Noah and Joyce). The most seemingly important relationships go unrecognized, though, and mainly the novel is three separate stories with minimal intersection.

Which is kind of awesome–characters move in and out of each other’s lives with minimal fanfare, coincidences are known mainly to the narrator not the characters, and life changes happen in a breath without anyone getting too excited. And what’s amazing is that this book has *no* closure–I actually literally did that thing where you turn the last page over thinking the story is still going, only to get the Acknowledgements. So you flip back, thinking two pages stuck together and then you realize–that’s it. Some lives went on in front of us for a while and they were interesting, and now they will probably continue to go on and be interesting, but not in front of us anymore. We had our share.

If you hate books like that, wait, don’t run away–you could think about it differently. If you just read the book as Noah’s story, it coheres a lot better as a forward-moving narrative (albeit with a lot of digressions). Noah is by far the most fleshed out character–he has loves and longings and career anxiety. His academic career–studying indigeneous prehistory through archeology, introduces my favourite character, Thomas Saint-Laurent, his supervisor. Saint-Laurent is actually an archeologist of trash–he ends the book protesting the destruction of a dump–and is good goofy fun (although why does no one ever point out that all archeology deals with trash, ie., remains and debris??) Noah’s adventures take over more and more of the book, and are pretty fascinating, especially since Noah is such a sweetly baffled, slightly adrift character.

Joyce starts out vibrant and vivid but by halfway through the book she’s figured out her career path and then she just apparently…keeps doing it. We don’t hear much about her for ages, and never about her ever having a personal interaction with a single soul until very near the end, and then it’s only an emergency favour. I do have to quibble with the way women are treated in this book–of five female characters, one is dead as the book begins, three disappear by book’s end, and the other one is enigmatic Joyce. Which is, perhaps, just the way it is sometimes, but none of the female characters besides Joyce ever seems to have a rational explanation for anything she does–certainly, none are offered–and Joyce’s choices all dead-end eventually. These women serve more as the conditions under which male characters must cope, rather than characters in themselves, which, you know, bugs me. Joyce doesn’t fit that mold, being rather a very cool character who wizens away as the story progresses.

That said, I really didn’t do things like tally up female versus male plot action while I was reading–I was quite happily swept away by Niokski, and looking back on said sweeping, I think *Nikolski* deserved the complete attention I gave it. This book is big, weird, ambitious, hilarious, true, and magical–and the fact that it was written by a Canadian about Canada, and was voted for by Canadians, makes me proud to be one, too.

RR

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