Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner-- much acclaimed when published in Quebec in 2005 and now translated into English by Lazer Laderhendler-- is a wonderfully rich puzzle of a book. Which must be explained in vague terms, for vague terms are all it presents us with. Three characters, their lives barely intersecting as they all end up in Montreal, loosely linked by blood ties and a strange "three-headed book". These barely-intersections filled out by fish, pirates, various islands and rising water. Dickner performing strange and wonderful feats with parallels and opposites: wheat fields and oceans, the Aleutians and the West Indies, orphans and their ancestors, of nomads and imagined home.
The book itself is gorgeous, fish throughout its pages. Throughout the story too, which reminded me of The Raw Shark Texts, but only in that this is a bookish story much concerned with fish-- quite a strange preoccupation for one writer, let alone two. But then bookish coincidences seem commonplace after reading this story, which is based around one. The "three headed book", which connects our three main characters-- the unnamed narrator who is a clerk in a bookshop, Noah the disinterested archeologist obsessed with garbage dumps, and Joyce the modern-day girl pirate. Oh, I could add more vague details, the maps, the fish shop, Grampa (a trailer) and Granma (a boat), the compass perpetually pointing towards the Alaskan town of Nikolski, a mouldy library in Venezuela, a couple of mysterious girls.
Nikolski is analogous to the three-headed book of which it speaks: "These are fragments, literally. Debris. Flotsam and Jetsam... It's a piece of craftsmanship, not a mass-printed object." And the reason for such a thing? "A passion for puzzles, maybe." But definitely maybe, for here every word and detail means something. As soon as I finished this book, I couldn't help but begin it again, and the significance of every sentence I'd read was just compounded. Which is not to say that I read solely towards a solution, which might prove only elusive, I think. But rather that Nikolski's puzzle itself was compelling enough, and-- no matter the way each bit just "clouded the issue rather than clarifying it"-- never ever unsatisfying.
"Nothing is perfect," so goes the next line in the story, but I really might put forth that Nikolski is. Cheers to Knopf Canada for championing literature in translation in general, French CanLit in particular, and a marvelous CanLit twist as their New Face of Fiction. Dickner has married cleverness with depth, sustaining his ideas with a tireless deftness. His characters are pieces of a puzzle, but they be characters all the same, Dickner somehow choosing exactly the right fragments with which to make this so. Indeed, the novel itself an item of craftsmanship-- not quite life but something next door to it-- and surely worthwhile in the sum of these parts, more than I have yet comprehended. A sum I still don't have my head around yet, but I look forward to rereading this book until I do.