A search across a continent on the track of a long lost brother, as a middle aged writer departs from Québec, in the company of a young Métisse (mixed blood, half-Indian, half-white) woman, an an old and rusted Volkswagen minibus constitutes the scene of Volkswagen Blues, but to merely recount this is to leave out so much from this remarkable Québécois novel, a story which despite its seeming simplicity, something which makes it simple and easy to read, is such a brilliant and moving novel, one which brings together so many strains and produces a text which can stir the spirit and fascinate the reader.
My relationship to Volkwagen Blues is perhaps part of why I grew so fond of it, having asked in a small bookstore in Belgium, Brussels to be exact, if they had any specific recommendations for a Québécois book, since I wanted to get one for a friend of mine from Québec who doesn't read much in French anymore. This book, which speaks deeply to the Québécois spirit and the history of the land, is one which was perfectly suited I think to my request.
A story of adventure and a metaphor for the French impact in North America and the colonization of the land, this story is one which plays out in the traditional scene of a road trip, from Québec all the way to San Francisco. The search for the brother, Théo, is the critical piece of the book, but it is the journey which is the true experience, as can be testified by what they find when they do arrive in San Francisco - although it too, carries with it its metaphor, its commentary, upon the colonization of this land, this paradise pursued by the greed and the hope of man. Following along the roads which were once taken by the wagons heading West, along the paths of the old explorers, the forts, the massacres, the sites of settlement, enables one to follow a story of identity, discovery, conflict, and becoming. From the very beginning, one is pulled into this, and it is both a story of the discovery of self but also a hunt for the past, almost a detective's story or a mystery, as one travels West on the slightest trail of clues in the search of a long lost brother. This sense of excitement, adventure, mystery, is what binds together the book and which forms such a crucial glue and animates it, never crass, but never boring either.
Furthermore, I find the characterizations present within to be extremely well done. La Grande Sauterelle - literally Big Grasshopper - the Indian girl who forms part of the duo of characters, has such a superb and well written mixture of eccentricity, brilliance, emotion, weakness, a woman split between two worlds. What a brilliant name as well, so perfectly reflective of this energetic, dynamic, volatile woman, who sees so clearly and can change with such quicksilver speed! Look at her when confronted with a Gatling gun in a museum for her dash and spirit, or her confessions to her companion for her when she is at her saddest and most doubtful: she changes and is capable of an immense range of truly genuine emotion. La Grand Sauterelle is achingly human, with her own quirks and personality, fascinatingly different from the main masculine character - himself flawed, imperfect, frustrated, but with his hopes, dreams, strengths, and natural reactions. One grows to know and sympathize, to feel for them, over the course of this book. And so too, for their constant companion, the little black kitten of La Grande Sauterelle. In its sense, the book carries with it its element of love and romance, but it is an aspect which is refined and subtle, often humorous, and which makes it more grand and meaningful than if it was a simple and cheap story.
There is a charming nature to the alternations with English, when there are discussions with Anglophones throughout the United States. I find the interplay and the alternations to be a richness in the novel which reflects the Québec experience, and the way in which one switches to and fro from one to another, when people demand what certain words are, finding Francophones at random and hearing their stories, is an aspect of innocence and adventure which completes the novel. It serves a symbolic role, showing that it is a story which has for its nexus Québec and the Indian world, and the trip across America is something which is the scene and the stage, rather than being the core of the novel. The English text seems out of place, discordant, strange, and this very alien nature set among the French does much to enrich itself. It is a book which strikes me as difficult to translate for just this reason, for although the text may be easy to read, this important psychological and mental role played by the dichotomy of the English and French cannot be easily replicated with a text in purely English, and to simply switch the roles and to make French the intruder language would not match.
At its heart, Volkswagen Blues is a story of a voyage, along the wagon ruts of the pioneers and explorers who crossed America, about the conflict and the contact between the worlds which came into conclusion. Its kindness, genuineness, simplicity, and mystery are the mainstay of this great adventure, and it is a book which I earnestly recommend, to be carried along as well on the road across North America, following in the tracks of rusted Volkswagen with an aging author, a young and spry girl, and their midnight-dark and loyal cat, to discovery, happiness, love, and tragedy.
© 2019 Ryan Thomas
Liz Westwood from UK on May 21, 2019:
This is a review of an interesting book. Nothing like the in-depth analysis of the car brand that I ecpected from the title.