Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spring Tides by Jacques Poulin (French translation)

Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman

Supporting the translator, to every means possible, seems to be the theme of this unsettling and comic book from Jacques Poulin. The story told is held up by the elements of myth and fable that make the island setting and bizarre visitors seem to impart a greater meaning than had they been placed anywhere else. Translator (Teddy) seems to be the focus, there’s also a Prince, an Author, the Boss, the Organizer, a Professor, a ghastly woman called Featherhead, and an Ordinary Man who come to share the small island with a princess named Marie and a family of cats. Of course, the Author is a grump.

Teddy arrives first, and his work as a comic book translator appears top-secret as his boss frequently flies in to check on him and his work, while also delivering, via helicopter, any possible item that Teddy might find helpful (which is how Marie arrived). Teddy works and swims, and focuses on the tides that isolate the island but also seem to keep it, while stationary, in fluid motion.

Interactions between characters are what propel the events, more so than the arc of a plot. Each character reveals something completely different to what we’ve understood about Teddy. So as they arrive, he appears to unravel a bit, both in our perception and in his literal mental health.

Reading this felt relaxing and amusing. The little digs at publishing, especially the character of the Author, felt spot-on. But something about this made me feel I was missing a bigger picture. Almost as if it might have been even more tragic-comic had I known what the joke was. Because that’s what I felt, as if I only had heard the punch line and was missing the setup of an “in” joke between the author and the story. What am I missing? I tried to find some literary link to another island with similar characters and all I could get was Gilligan (and don’t worry, this is not Gilligan’s Island).

Despite that, I did enjoy the word play, especially the behind the scenes nature of translation and why Teddy chose particular words over others, and his explanations for doing so.

While I review for Algonquin, this was acquired as purchase I made two years ago.


  1. Nice post.Very interesting story.
    I might say I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?)

    These machine translators are ok when all u need is a quick understanding of a some rather simple text, but if you are running a business, or otherwise depend on accuracy of a translation, using professional translation services is the only way to go.

  2. The bigger picture: the Garden of Eden? There are a lot of parallels, not least the book's first words being "In the beginning"...

    (I'm guessing that was all being acknowledged, though, when you referred to "elements of myth and fable".)

    But loss of paradise, more widely - as well as the ebbs and flows of happiness and melancholy - also seems to be a Poulin theme - and, given the main themes (the colonisation(s) of America and Canada; discovery vs. invasion) of this book's successor 'Volkswagen Blues', perhaps the loss of paradise in 'Spring Tides' isn't intended only to be analogous to that in Genesis...?

    (The last suggestion is somewhat of a retrospective guess, though; in as much as, although I recently read 'Volkswagen Blues', which has the same central character (though both books stand alone perfectly well, too), it's some while since I read 'Spring Tides' and I haven't yet had time to go back and see exactly how the two books complement/extend each other.

    It seems worth mentioning 'Translation Is A Love Affair' here, too. I can't quite remember whether it's actually the same central character again but, regardless, it makes a nice companion piece to both books - especially to 'Spring Tides'.)

  3. Tim, I haven't read the other titles you mentioned by Poulin, although I'm midway through Mister Blue right now. I like your Garden of Eden reference: definitely fits in many ways. However somehow I felt all the added characters were all part of Teddy's whole.
    Poulin seems to repeat the translation motif, as well as many references to brotherhood, tennis, but of all, Mister Blue seems to be the biggest name-dropper of the titles. Lots of remarks on Hemingway, etc. And it's protagonist seems more of a searcher than Teddy, where everything came to him (literally!).

    Following the Genesis motif you mention, do you think him finally leaving the island was essentially being cast-out? But on his own terms?

  4. Look forward to reading your review of Mister Blue - it's on my To Read list :)

    When I read 'Spring Tides', even though I had the biblical allegory in mind from the beginning, I remember that as an explanation of it all, it didn't quite satisfy... I think, the closest I came to an explanation that (almost) satisfied me was to wonder if Poulin wasn't, perhaps, intending a sort of existentialist take on a creation myth - if an existentialist creation myth isn't a contradiction in terms :) Or to put it another way: a story that might serve, for existentialism, the same sort of function that myth, fable and parable does in older traditions. (In actuality, though, I wouldn't go that far; even if there certainly seem to be plenty of existentialist dimensions to the story.)

    But Genesis isn't the only point of allegory, I gather...

    In the previous comment I was wondering about there being a Quebecois dimension to the allegory - given the themes of 'Volkswagen Blues'. I've just found this paper, which argues that 'Spring Tides' should be read as an allegory for Quebec society post-Quiet Revolution, and the transformations within and of Quebec society during the 60s and 70s - leading to characters such as Teddy (and perhaps Poulin?) feeling and/or becoming gradually marginalised, then excluded...

    Knowing next to nothing about Quebec at the time I read it, though... the level on which I (very much) enjoyed 'Spring Tides' was, on the whole, as a universal fable about the difficulty of trying to live in society and the search for happiness/contentment. The moral being, perhaps: we can't impose happiness on another by assuming that what makes us happy will make someone else happy. (And perhaps, equally, we shouldn't keep our own needs too hidden?)

    So yes, to eventually answer your question(!): I think Teddy is cast out. Partly involuntarily. But, partly on his own terms too: in as much as, despite knowing the consequences (if I correctly interpret Marie's story about the giant squid and the cachalot), he refuses to fight, and refuses to become someone other than himself.

    As for the Genesis motif; I wonder, too, if it's there as criticism of the Quebec government? To imply, that is, that - perhaps with the best of intentions, though not enough humanity? - they tried to play God - with, for some people, mixed results. (Although, like I said, I really don't know the politics here.)