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That Jacques Poulin’s lovely and obscure 1978 Canadian novel Spring Tides has suddenly, after 30 years, arrived in America becomes less surprising when you learn that the publisher is the Brooklyn-based boutique press Archipelago Books. These, after all, are the folks who ushered Witold Gombrowicz’s extraordinary collection Bacacay into English (from Polish) after nearly 50 years. Since 2003 or so, they’ve been finding untranslated masterpieces and curiosities, binding them handsomely, and making them available to a mostly unaware American readership. Get aware, reader. Mr. Poulin’s Spring Tides is another strange pleasure.
Spring Tides concerns a comic strip translator who is known only by his nickname, Teddy Bear, which derives from “T.D.B.,” or “Traducteur de Bandes Desinées.” The eccentric owner of the Quebec newspaper where Teddy works has taken an odd interest in Teddy’s spiritual well-being — “Apparently you’re a ‘socioaffective’ … I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’ve got a question for you: what can I do to make you happy?” — and offered to let him live and work in solitude on a forested island, Ile Madame.
At first, accompanied only by his cat Matousalem and the Quebecois waterfowl, Teddy settles into a daily routine of playing tennis against a “matte black and solidly built” mechanical opponent and industriously translating strips like “Tarzan” and “The Phantom.” Then the boss arrives in his helicopter to drop off a new inhabitant, Marie, “blonde with very short hair and eyes as black as coal.” As only a cute, clever, “goofy” girl can, Marie proves a persistent and not unwelcome distraction. She and Teddy go for walks, swim, cook meringue, and generally make the prospect of being sequestered on a woodsy Canadian island with a good companion seem pretty appealing.
Unfortunately, the boss’s helicopter returns to Ile Madame with increasing frequency, ferrying in visitors who, with a certain sense of unpleasant inevitability, become inhabitants. Increasingly imperious (“Silence means consent!”), the boss seems determined to populate the island as a sort of vaguely defined social experiment. The new people include the boss’s festive but saggy wife, Featherhead; a literal-minded intellectual called Professor Moccasin (his book “Human Paths” is not philosophical, it’s about paths in the woods); a querulous, self-absorbed Author; an Ordinary Man; an ominous Organizer, and lastly, Old Gélisol, who “emanated a warmth so intense that in the Arctic where he came from, it melted the permafrost on which he sat.”
All of the newcomers seem essentially innocuous — Teddy’s amiable interactions with the group take up most of the book’s central third — until suddenly they don’t. While it is pleasurable to share an island with one charming and casually beautiful woman, it’s less of a thrill to be there with a shifting community of people who can, say, form a self-justifying collective and apologetically gang up on you. Other people aren’t quite hell in Spring Tides, but the more there are, the worse it gets.
For a while, it seems as if the novel will have no plot, only an accumulation of characters. In the end, that isn’t true; Poulin gently builds something out of the odd, almost arbitrary daily rituals on Ile Madame, and it’s only in retrospect that you see what he’s done. It also seems for a while that the book will stir only the intellect and not the emotions, but that’s not true either — there are two passages at the end, one of parting and one of departure, that are written with such elegance and reserve that I went back and reread them to confirm they were as affecting as I’d remembered.
Poulin’s language is simple, even affable, but he can also summon an austere and chilling beauty. Here’s Marie as she tells the story of an “old cachalot” (a sperm whale) descending into the ocean’s cellar to battle a many-tentacled “Onychoteuthis” (guess): “Above his head he sees a vast luminous carpet, gradually moving away from him. … It is becoming colder and darker. At three hundred meters, the water is dark blue. The cachalot goes even deeper, slowly, like a great submarine, and the light turns violet, then there’s black, icy darkness.” And later, Marie writes a strange little poem down from memory. It begins: “Animals are born, they pass by, they die. / Then comes the great cold, / the great cold of night and the dark.”
The most affecting aspect of Spring Tides, I think, is the unexpected sense of loss that sneaks up on you at the end of the novel, like a sudden deep pain, as if Poulin has been distracting you by making shadows with one hand while the other did its subtle, cutting work.
Mr. Antosca last wrote for these pages on Rupert Thomson.