Réjean Ducharme is, bar none, the most mysterious creature in Canadian letters.
Celebrated as one of the French language's greatest living stylists, he has lived in Montreal as a hermit for more than 30 years. Another mystery: Despite his brilliance -- or maybe because of it -- only three of his nine novels have been translated into English.
And here's something else mysterious: The one that came out in English this fall, The Daughter of Christopher Columbus, was translated by a French professor in Boise, Idaho.
But this final mystery at least can be solved. "It seems it takes an American to translate Ducharme," says Will Browning over the phone from Boise State University, "because I come from outside the French-English conflict in Canada. I'm offering something that might help."
Ducharme poses big problems for a translator -- politics aside -- because he writes like James Joyce, in a dense cloud of puns, invented words and coy literary allusions that can range, in a single sentence, from the poetry of St. John Perse to the names of laundry detergents.
Mocked and rejected by Quebec's literary establishment when he began writing 40 years ago because, at the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, he refused to ally himself with Quebec nationalism, he retreated into isolation around 1965. He expressed his disdain through a typically elegant wordplay. "Québecitude", the word the nationalists invented to express the essence of Quebec-ness, became in Ducharme's writing "Quhébétude," a fusion of the words Quebec and hébétude -- stupefaction.
Today, he speaks to the world through his lover and only friend, actress Claire Richard, and goes out mostly at night to pick through trash from which he assembles found art. The few people who recognize him leave him to go quietly about his business.
He has won three Governor-General's Awards, and not appeared to accept any of them.
It would be easy to assume that Ducharme uses a surreal literary style because, being eccentric, he is incapable of anything else. But in 1979, he agreed to write a film script, and in very little time produced Les Bons Débarras -- a heartfelt, conventionally written tale that is now one of the classics of Canadian cinema.
But "normal" writing is of little interest to him. The rest of his large oeuvre is a lively and pained dialogue with the reader. This was one of the things that attracted Browning to Ducharme's writing when he discovered it 12 years ago.
"He's like many damaged people. He both tests the patience of and seduces the reader at the same time," says Browning. "Most of his books begin with a test. The Daughter of Christopher Columbus, for example, has a shockingly misogynist preface which dares the reader to continue."
Daughter, written in 1969, anticipated the demonizing of the European discoverer of America. He's shown as a greedy clod living his last days on a beach where daughter Columbia waits on him hand and foot. She soon poisons him, and embarks on adventures of her own.
These range over 1,000 years, as Columbia is raped and brutalized in every possible fashion. She finally makes an alliance with the animal kingdom, and assaults the heart of human arrogance -- for no particular reason, the city of Charleston, S.C. -- in a bloody battle for the future of the Earth.
And the whole thing is written as an epic poem, in rhyming quatrains.
Any translator would know they have to make a stab at recreating Ducharme's wordplay in English, but few would do it with Browning's exuberance and tenacity. He was, he says, entirely at home in a comical work where zebras are "pajama-wearing mules," a giraffe named Imbecile "can jump over fences with his neck," and a talkative ant relaxes on Columbia's nose, "his anterior legs crossed," proposing marriage. Ducharme's mock-epic style -- "an archipelago which sometimes moves/ In the middle of waves where several sailors have died" -- did not discourage him.
But he did, he admits, come close to despair at Ducharme's extended wordplays. At one moment the lonely narrator cries out: Moi, qui devient fou en t'attendant/ Je ne sais pas qui est Paki/ pas si/ Je trouverai l'amour au Pakistan (Me, going mad waiting for you/ I don't know who is Pakistani/ or if I will find love in Pakistan.)
These words, near-meaningless in English, rely on the pun of "pas qui" ("not who") and "Paki." To the listener's ear, it sounds like the phrase "not who" is being repeated, like an echo in an empty forest. At the same time, the sincerity of a lonely man looking for somebody from his own tribe is undercut by the racism of the term "Paki."
Browning decided that even where "there is a double or triple entendre, I had to try to construct an equivalent in English." In this particular case he came up with: I know not Hutu love/ Nor where I'll be wandering in Rwanda.
The pun on "who to" comes close to the original "not who," and the recollection of the Rwandan massacre recreates the deliberate taint of bad taste and impropriety of the original.
"This is the translator's hidden performance which is unique to each translator," says Browning.
Playing devil's advocate, I ask whether this kind of writing isn't just so much literary bubble blowing. "Blowing bubbles? No. I think he is attacking the foundations of language itself. What comes through is his rage, the rage that language isn't sufficient to bring people together . . . either two people or two cultures."
In a sense, Browning's translation was also a desperate kind of self-expression. He undertook it on his own time, and only through a chance encounter with a French professor from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., learned of the existence of Guernica Press in Toronto. Guernica's Antonio D'Alfonso undertook negotiations with Gallimard, Ducharme's Paris publisher, and with Claire Richard. Ducharme himself read and approved the translation, but never spoke to Browning. "I'm grateful he gave his permission, and I'm resigned to the fact I'll never meet him," says Browning regretfully.
He feels some kinship with Ducharme's bicultural issues through his own marriage to Teresa Boucher, a Spanish professor at Boise State who was born in New Hampshire of French-Canadian parents.
"In translating Ducharme," he says, "I'm trying to bridge the gap between the two Canadas, just as our marriage bridges the French and English-American gap in our own lives."
The only other professional translator to attempt a Ducharme novel is British writer Barbara Bray, who brought out The Swallower Swallowed -- generally considered Ducharme's greatest novel -- back in 1968. (Canadian TV personality Robert Scully translated L'Hiver de force as Wild to Mild in 1980). In Canada, publishers have not been willing to pay for the extra time a translator must invest in this kind of fiction.
This, says Browning, is a great loss. "If English Canada could understand the irreverent, passive-aggressive, 'Poof! now you love me, now you don't' attitude of Ducharme, they might understand Quebec better."