Deni Ellis Béchard’s latest novel, invited to the Montreal Book Fair on Friday, spans more than a century and four continents. Behind his harmless title, A song from afar contains tales of war and abandonment written over a period of 20 years, which remind us that reality is a construction close to fiction.
It is not exceptional that Deni Ellis Béchard takes time to complete a book. Remedies for hunger had taken him a good fifteen years. He surpasses himself on this level with A song from afar : it is a story that he began two decades ago, that he left to rest, constantly coming back to it to flesh it out.
The writer, journalist and globetrotter didn’t think he’d come to the end of his manuscript – over 700 pages! – until he realized he was doing too much. That he had to cut to find its essence, to best reveal the web he had woven in his head when embarking on this ambitious project: to tell in a fragmented structure the story of a family that had been broken several times over several generations.
“Often that kind of story is told in a linear fashion. This is not how we live our history, he notes. We receive it in bits and pieces, like fictions, based on what our parents or our grandparents say. I wanted to write a book that shows the difficulty of grasping the history that created us. ”
Putting together the pieces of his history, that’s what Hugh seeks to do, who hardly knew his father. He tries to unravel the mystery when, on his death, he reconnects with Andrew, his half-brother. The legitimate son. This segment, which opens the novel, is not its heart. This is only the starting point of a genealogical and warlike fresco crossed by the ghost of an Irish tune played on the violin.
From one chapter to another, Deni Ellis Béchard follows different characters who, as we will discover over the pages, are linked to each other in a distant way. Going from Kurdistan after Saddam Hussein to the trenches of the First World War, from the Boer War in South Africa to a guerrilla war in Mexico, the novelist tells more than a family story: he also evokes the myths and tragedies on which are define nations.
Edit the truth
“The identity that we have in the present is a fiction,” judges the writer, for whom there is no doubt that countries and people are both constructed from truncated versions of the past. “I wanted to expose these fictions, to show how difficult it is to find the truth in all these stories. ”
However, it would be wrong to summarize his novel as a quest for the truth. Rather, it is a work that recognizes the strength and importance of fiction in the present day. That a war story could never elicit support without being “edited” a little … That in order to create heroes or a national ideal, one avoids, for example, telling the massacres.
The idea emerges from this novel that reality and fiction are contaminated and, basically, are equal. For better or for worse. It is therefore no coincidence that Hugh believes he finds his truth in a novel written by someone with the same surname as his father. Nor that, tens of pages later, at another time, the author of the book in question specifies to a reader also in search of answers: it is only a novel.
Beyond considerations of memory and reconstruction of reality, A song from afar is also a novel about men. On the transmission of a warlike masculinity and the refusal, by some, to adhere to it. Andrew and Hugh’s father, for example, took refuge in Canada so as not to wage the Vietnam War. Gesture of rebellion through which he nevertheless sought to be perceived as a hero, while being an absent father.
And this is precisely what interests and preoccupies Deni Ellis Béchard: a vision of the man who serves no one.
It interests me because man’s need to be celebrated, individually recognized as stronger and greater than others, is very damaging to society.
Deni Ellis Bechard
However, he denies having written a “moral” work. “It’s a book that seeks to understand,” he says.
His thoughts on masculinity come from his past, among other things. He spent part of his childhood with a violent father, a bank robber. “As a child, I heard stories of men fighting. Men who believed themselves to be stronger, smarter, who were looking to do the biggest hits, ”he says. As a teenager, in Virginia, he was also surrounded by young people from military families for whom being a man was also being strong and fighting.
Behind it all, he saw a lot of suffering. “This is what happens when you become a prisoner of mythologies,” he observes. And if he does not necessarily believe that art revolutionizes or heals, he believes that fiction gives “a space where we can deconstruct and rebuild ourselves”.
“It is very important to be aware of the power of fiction, because otherwise you can be easily manipulated by those who are aware of it,” says the writer. That’s more the question of the book: if we don’t build our own fictions, we fall back into those of others. In this age of “alternate facts”, this is not a trivial matter.
Deni Ellis Béchard is participating this Friday in a virtual discussion entitled Developing Dialogue, with Waubgeshig Rice, writer from the First Nations, and El Jones, African-Canadian poet and activist, where it should notably be a question of cultural appropriation. The meeting stems from a collaboration between Metropolis Bleu and the Montreal Book Fair.
A song from afar, Deni Ellis Béchard, Quai No 5 / XYZ, 322 pages.