Any Mail? and Other Stories
Translated by Rachelle Renaud
- Honourable Mention — John Glassco Translation Award
Shortlisted for the John Glassco Translation Award, Any Mail? and Other Stories takes the reader around the world. But this is no mere travelogue; Any Mail? is not only a journey through space, but also through time...we accompany the narrator on a return to his childhood in Manitoba, his adolescence working on the DEW Line in the Arctic and his adult teaching experiences in Africa. A full and vibrant life unfurls before our eyes in these stories, which at first seem to be disparate tales but gradually become part of an interconnected whole. With his engaging style—both incisive and humorous—Tougas succeeds in enchanting the reader, regardless of where he takes us around the globe. We are carried by the vigour of his writing, which unfolds before us with the same quiet intensity as the prairies themselves. Any Mail? is pure reading pleasure.
Marcel had long dabbled at writing, and in defiance of the attitude that prevailed in his small village of Sainte-Luce in Manitoba, that hinterland of the French-speaking world—Frenchmen are so arrogant, people would say, they think they're so smart, always waving their hands around like they're mad about something and you can't understand the actors in their film— she loved France passionately, venerated it as if it were some noble ancestor. He idolized Hugo, and read the Lettres de mon moulin while dreaming of Provence; to finally see France was nothing short of a pilgrimage to his cultural wellspring. And as he traversed the ever-changing landscape, not a junkyard in sight—things here were ancient but never old—he could escape from life's "sour prizes" as he like to call them, and feel the excitement, the sweet yearning, the fever of a lover undressing his mistress. His wife Hélène, whom he still adored, though somewhat less ardently than he once did, had come with him on the trip, delighted that for once they wouldn't be spending their holidays sandwiched by relatives on the fertile prairies.
They had originally considered renting a house in the south of France for three weeks. But at Renaud and Claudine's insistence, which sounded like an order over the phone— Non mais, qu'est-ce que c'est que cette histoire, vous venez chez nous —they abandoned that idea and accepted their friends' invitation.
Hélène and Marcel had arrived, exhausted after a sleepless night flight from Montreal, and as they made their way from Charles-de-Gaulle airport, through Paris, and on to the suburb near Senart Forest where their friends lived, Renaud asked Hélène: What are your plans? What do you want to see? You were born here, Hélène replied, and you're the expert on France, so why don't you decide? It had been 12 years since the two couples had last seen each other; a long time. They tried hard to get onto the same wavelength, but there was admittedly some static. They had met while on neo-colonialist stints in Niger. Renaud had opted to teach math there in lieu of military duty, and Marcel was an English teacher in the same lycée, inspired not by missionary zeal but by the chance to double his salary, earn hardship pay on top of that, and pay off his debts. The grand reunion on French soil was a bit awkward. They dwelt on the past. How else do you renew a friendship after 12 long years, especially when you can't even say whether it was honest affection that originally brought you together, or just boredom and the isolation of a foreign land? So you talk about the harmattan, the Peuls and Touaregs, the Haouassa and Djerma horsemen on their Arabian steeds, small in stature with richly coloured trappings, parading through the streets of the capital to commemorate their country's independence. You recall the Christmas celebrated in the company of a Guinean in voluntary exile from Sekou Touré's regime, a jet-black karate instructor dressed up as Santa Claus with a flowing white beard handing out gifts under an acacia, cut down from the Kollo plain near the airport to serve as a surrogate pine tree; the donkey and ox found wandering near the huts; the roar of the dromedaries emanating from the sandy haze. The women laughed recalling that all they were expected to do in those days was go to the markets, the Petit marché and the Grand marché, and haggle effectively over the price of radishes and zebu steak. And the locals had nicknamed them Madame Paris and Madame Canada!
Let's now take a peek inside the small Peugeot. Why feign ignorance? He who knows all, who holds the pen for the sheer pleasure of watching the black ink flow and travel sensually from left to right across the white page; he who then types each word onto the computer's cold keyboard, who starts the printer grunting and groaning; just to see what all this might look like on the page of a book. Why pretend we don't know? He's God the Father up on his cloud, looking into our hearts and our loins, seeing all, knowing all. But he does have a soft spot for Marcel, to whom he has entrusted his faith, through whose eyes he sees most things an unjust God. And what interests the Almighty just now is not the distant future he can see into at will, since, in poetic parlance, his eyes, like Iynx eyes, see beyond the real world. Nor is he interested for the moment in catastrophe and the final hours of our four protagonists. What he's focused on is the doomed but inescapable present, the here and now—he's philosophical too—the time-space construct in which they struggle through their petty problems, their dark secrets and hidden fears, counterbalanced by a few modest pleasures like the relaxation induced by life's better offerings, such as the whisky they sipped in Braslou after their exhausting drive in the rain—a cruel God. What he sees, knows and hears, however, is that within the little Peugeot, against the backdrop of a magnificent corner of France that exemplifies worldly splendour as far as Marcel is concerned, things are becoming tense, to put it mildly. They're driving along, but not so smoothly; the ball bearings are wearing thin and starting to grind, the universal joint is wearing out and, like Cromwell's urethra, allowing tiny grains of sand to slip inside and change the course of history. It occurs to Marcel that the two couples they form are like beat-up old cars with a lot of mileage on them. But these are Marcel's metaphors, for which God accepts no responsibility.
Call it uncomfortable. Renaud addresses his wife Claudine as my sweetheart, my dear wife, my beauté fatale, you know I'd do anything for you, my little bunny, I'm your slave. But you can tell every time that he really means: Don't say another word, don't ask me anything, you're bothering me, I can't stand you. Meanwhile, in the back seat, Claudine enlists Hélène as a conspirator, communicating all her unspeakable responses to her husband in writing on a miniature notepad. The messages, which Marcel will hear about later, are hardly sweet: He's so full of it, but you haven't heard anything yet; He grinds the gears so bad he's wrecking the transmission sprockets. If I did it even once, I'd get a whole lecture, a philippique he'd say, cultivated classicist that he is. He's so annoying! Or, she would write: Why is he asking Marcel for directions, when he knows every road in France? But you'll see, if he takes a wrong turn he'll find a way to blame me for it. The walnut trees and plane trees and straight stands of poplars whiz by.