Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi Press; 632 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Wayne Grady.
Of all the books on this year’s Giller Prize longlist, Louis Hamelin’s October 1970 immediately piqued my interest. That was mainly for two reasons: (1) I’m attracted to real life historical events, especially if they involve politics and crime, that are turned into fiction; and (2) I knew absolutely nothing about this period of Canadian history and thought it sounded fascinating.
But reading this book proved to be somewhat of a challenge and my dislike for it may say more about me (and my lack of knowledge about Canadian political history) than the author. In other words, don’t let my review put you off — especially if you are Canadian and have a better understanding of what actually happened during the October Crisis.
The October Crisis
For those of you who aren’t aware of events that form the hub of this novel, this short article in The Canadian Encyclopedia gives a quick rundown.
Essentially, the terrorist group Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the British trade commissioner, James Cross (renamed John Travers in this book), from his home in Montreal on 5 October 1970. They also kidnapped — and later killed — a government minister, Pierre Laporte. During the crisis mobile forces of the Canadian Army intervened in Quebec and the federal government instigated the War Measures Act, which allowed the arrest and detainment of individuals without charge. By all accounts it was a controversial, chaotic — and frightening — time.
In early December 1970, members of the cell holding Cross were given safe passage to Cuba in exchange for his release. About a month later, members of the cell that kidnapped and murdered Laporte were caught, convicted and sent to prison.
The author takes those real life events and imagines what might have happened from the perspectives of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. He tells the story, not in a straightforward linear fashion, but as a series of episodic “flashbacks”, none of which are revealed in chronological order. He then frames this complicated narrative as a kind of detective story in which a freelance journalist, Sam Nihilo, investigates some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the events of that time.
As you would imagine this makes for a rather “interesting” and somewhat convoluted storyline. While the narrative essentially focuses on the events between October 5 and 17, it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and not all of it centres on October 1970; some of it goes back decades earlier to help explain the FLQ’s motivations. Furthermore, some elements are told in the first person from Sam’s point of view, while others are told in the third person. And the list of characters — secret agents, police officers, politicians, lawyers, actresses, kidnappers, hostages, fast-food delivery men and so on — is so dizzying my edition came with a three-page dramatis personæ and even then I couldn’t keep up.
What this means is that I had to hold a lot of information in my head for the narrative to make any kind of sense. But this was a rather Herculean task, and while I enjoy challenging reads, October 1970 was just a little too confusing for my liking.
That said, I enjoyed following certain character’s stories and found the ties between the police and the Mob fascinating, and the level of corruption in all facets of society astonishing.
And Hamelin knows how to write easy-to-read prose, has a penchant for crafting seemingly perfect lines — “He oozed grease like a pan of bacon”; “When Mr. Chevalier suggested he run for class president, he was elected as smoothly as a letter passing through the post office”; and “They laughed at the first somewhat ambiguous lines, sucking a joke from them like juice from a lemon” — and knows how to lighten the moment with unexpected bursts of humour. He is also excellent at capturing certain moods so that you can feel the fear (or the excitement) resonate off the page.
In short, there’s no doubt that October 1970 is a big, bold and ambitious book, one that may well appeal to history buffs or those who lived through events of that era. But as a work of fiction it falls far short of what I expected, because no matter how complicated the plot or how long the cast of characters, if the narrative lacks drive or any kind of page-turning quality, what’s the point of turning it into fiction at all?