CANICULE, a novel by Louis Armand. ISBN 978-0-9571213-3-1. Paperback. 222pp. Publication date: April 2013. Reviewed by Kristen Valentine. First published in Black Heart Review. Photo: Jeanne Moreau, in La Baie des Anges (1963) dir. Jacques Demy.
Canicule opens with the clipped language of a film treatment: a man, setting himself on fire. Just cinema? No, it’s really happening – this man is the protagonist’s childhood friend, and this shocking beginning is the catalyst for a dizzying, painful reflection on failure and film.
We first meet our hero, failed filmmaker Hess, when he gets a phone call learning of his friend’s death. Ascher, a struggling painter, was burdened by an unfaithful wife and deep doubts about his own artistic talents. Hess may also be similarly afflicted, but he’s chosen alcohol instead of self-immolation as his own punishment and/or escape. The third member of their childhood trio, Wolf, has become a shadowy figure on the fringes of the law. They’ve been dancing around each other for more than twenty years but, as the violent opening scene tells you, this is no sweet tale of enduring friendship.
Canicule is made up of 3 layered stories: Hess’s less-than-idyllic childhood in the Baltic beach town of Laboe, Germany, during the tumultuous final decade of the Cold War; a flash-forward in time to Hess and Wolf laying Ascher to rest; and an in-between narrative of Hess’s doomed marriage finally falling apart after his wife is brutally raped in a French resort town against the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian conflict of 2005.
The word canicule is French for the dog days of summer, the hottest July and August nights. When considering Canicule the novel, what with the obscure title and even more obscure Czech painting on the cover, you might get the impression that this is a difficult, frustrating work – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But Canicule is deserving of far more attention than it’s gotten since its release last summer. Erudite and experimental, Louis Armand’s prose is also lush and haunting, from the sumptuous descriptions of the hot summers at the beach, to the bleak realities of Hess’s marriage:
“It’d become a habit for Hess to think of his wife as a type of enigma with whom he happened at times to live… The true nature of their relationship was complicated, though he was vaguely aware he himself was the source of that complication.”
And to the pitch-perfect turmoil of the era:
“’83. The year the US embassy in Beirut got bombed. The year of the phoney Strategic Defense Initiative some genius dubbed ‘Star Wars.’ We still made-believe in Superman, kryptonite, fast-breeder nuclear reactors and critical mass. Missile silos and coolingstacks populated the distant exotic landscape of our imagination. Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov danced into the sunset of a world with no future. We cranked up the fat lady’s anthem to the closing credits, till the batteries ran flat. Glasnost was half a lifetime away.”
Armand uses language to paint a picture just as vividly as if we were watching this unfold on screen. This is a gruff coming-of-age story that masterfully avoids sentiment altogether, instead reminiscing with a bitter understanding that history is nothing but a broken record, and we – both as readers and as people – are nothing but captive audiences. This is a highly recommended read.