by Philippe Arseneault
VLB éditeur, 2014
Welcome to the far reaches of 19th century Finland. Welcome to “a forest peopled with strange and very ugly creatures known as fredouilles.” Welcome to the Inn of the Farting Bear, where the scum of the earth and the dregs of society like to meet up for prostitution, under-the-table abortions, and widespread wickedness.
But you are not welcome. This is not a welcoming place. The impressively named innkeeper Seppo Petteri Lavanko has not rolled out the welcome mat. Beware. Be careful. Run!
For this is no place for innocent strangers. Here outsiders are attacked and clubbed over the head, reduced to fat and broken bones, hacked to pieces and frozen in magical blocks of ice. This is a fallen world, “a sordid little kingdom,” a grotesque place of outcasts, poverty, misery, suffering, and death.
The action is fantastic, the characters ribald and uncouth. A man with no limbs, for example, comes to the inn, his wife carrying him in her backpack. Ella the backstreet abortionist is a regular at the bar. There’s Kalle Normio, “a rapist and sometime violinist.” Plants wilt, trees die, buildings are “decrepit and unsteady.”
There’s the tale of how three generations of Russians die within the space of five minutes, the story of how Seppo came up with a rib-breaking recipe quite by accident, the grim end that lies in store for poor Leon the apothecary. It is into this world that Zora is born to Seppo, “a man of unequalled wickedness […] quite simply too ugly to be loved.” Ignored, mistreated, and neglected, she is not baptized Zora Marjanna Lavanko (by an old hag passing through the inn) until she has seen her third winter. She is not a Disney princess. She is ugly. Filthy, too, “all bone and angles.” Sold by her father to the despicable whoremonger Captain Boyau, she is rescued by one of the few good men in the novel: Tuomas Juhani Korteniemi, treated with genuine affection everywhere he goes.
Tuomas takes Zora home and, at the ripe old age of 84, makes her his wife. (He treats her as a daughter; she treats the aging man like a son.) A second part of the novel begins, a world of intense brightness, sunshine, possibility, and wonder. A world of magical horses and bedrooms that smell of warm bread and vanilla. Tuomas is an alchemist, one tantalizing ingredient away from concocting a life-prolonging elixir. Zora has become educated and is now “more beautiful than a doe at twilight.” It is as though we are still in a fairytale world, but one in which the wicked stepmother has unexpectedly breathed her last.
We have to leave this watercolour-like setting, though, passing through places like Rat River and the beautiful Forest of Mist. We meet the handsome doctor Tero, who hides a terrible secret, and it is with Tero that Zora confronts Glad the Argus, the black bard, in an incredible clash in which the book descends wholeheartedly — and dramatically — into pure fantasy for several pages.
We come upon a fredouille tasked with shovelling moonlight before it purifies the forest. Zora hurls abuse in an ancient tongue at Glad the Argus, each insult driving him further down into the ground (though not for long). And ultimately we are told the beautiful — cruel — tale of how Zora Marjanna Lavanko died of… love.
Zora is a mythical novel. Not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of language, scope, and ambition. There are hints of Rabelais throughout a text that is often infused with old French expressions, while many of the lush descriptions are worthy of Süskind’s Perfume. This is a book that is firmly anchored in Arseneault’s virtuoso performance of the imagination, in a make-believe 19th century Finland, and yet the reader is quickly immersed in this strange world, believing in its wretchedness and codes of honour until everything about it seems all too real.
We are swept away by the beauty of the writing, the horrors occasionally toned down with generous servings of black humour, until we come out on the other side, having survived a tale of epic proportions, and realizing that despite the darkness and the terror, there is goodness, too. Enough of it for us to describe the whole adventure as a celebration of life. Because everything here is bigger, badder, and brighter. The evil reaches almost unimaginable levels, but the love is stronger, too. And that’s what makes the whole thing so damned beautiful.
In all, it’s a difficult novel to categorize. It’s beautifully written literary fiction. It’s much more than page-turning fantasy, although the pages turn almost by themselves. First and foremost, it’s original. Above all else, it’s a story. And what a story. What a book.
Review by Peter McCambridge
Now available as Zora, A Cruel Tale from Talonbooks. Translated by Fred A. Reed & David Homel