Canada, Literature, 2020, in Berlin


Photo: Jasper Kettner

Literature holds secrets, but not all secrets are alike. The literary magic of the Canadian writer André Alexis’s novels is not stoked by unfathomable mysteries or unsolvable puzzles. Where bored gods hamper innocent suburban dogs with the gifts of thinking and speech, where mayors walk on water once a year and talking sheep restore the shaky faith of skeptical priests, it is easy to reach for the label “magic realism.” Alexis roundly rejects it, and rightfully so, for indeed “Days by Moonlight is not a work of realism. It’s not a work that uses the imagination to show the real, but one that uses the real to show the imagination.” Those are the author’s own words in his afterword to his most recent novel, and they can be applied directly to the rest of his oeuvre.

Days by Moonlight (2019) follows Pastoral (2014), Fifteen Dogs (2015), and The Hidden Keys (2016) as the fourth installment of his Quincunx series. The fifth and final installment is on its way. And although each of the novels promise to examine a major theme—faith, place, love, power, and hatred—no thematic stamp can circumscribe what goes on in these wild and rampaging works that were written with so much philosophical wit, implicit meaning, and unbridled, joyful improvisation, as though the author were continuously outsmarting himself at his own writing desk.

A quincunx is a symmetrical pattern of five points—a five-spot on a domino—and even if a scientist with spiritual tendencies still maintains that God does not play dice, in Alexis’s telling, God seems to do nothing else. The Trinidad-born author finds his small miracles and mysteries in reconfigurations of the familiar and amidst lovable misfits who, despite being rough around the edges, still slip smoothly into the subdued but inexhaustible landscape. It is a very Canadian landscape in which Alexis inserts his metaphysical pranks—,an interlaced archipelago of eccentric towns and villages in southern Ontario, places “where it rains five days a week, even when it doesn’t rain at all.”

And the gods are never far away. In Fifteen Dogs, which has also been translated into German, they sit at a counter in Toronto listening to dogs, which with their newfound gift for language compose poems out loud. In Pastoral, the gods have cozied into the fluffy wool of suspiciously glaring sheep. And in Days of Moonlight, their spirit emanates from fictitious psychotropic plants such as the edible oniaten grandiflora, which looks like a hand with five arthritic fingers and cracks like a chicken bone when chomped on.
Readers emerge at the end of Alexis’s books transformed, their skeptical minds not so much won over by faith as becoming “irreligious in a different way.” After all, besides boozing and playing dice, the main thing the gods do is sleep. “When God awakens, we will vanish,” murmurs one thought-provoking line. Let us hope, then, that the gods persist in their dogmatic slumber so that we can continue to read—and experience—novels like these for a little while longer.

Text: Samir Sellami
Translation: Jake Schneider

Claassen, München, 2000 (Ü: Henning Ahrens)

McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2008

Coach House Books, Toronto, 2014

Fifteen Dogs
Coach House Books, Toronto, 2015

Fünfzehn Hunde
Tiamat, Berlin, 2016 (Ü: Norbert Hofmann)

The Hidden Keys
Coach House Books, Toronto, 2016

Days by Moonlight
Coach House Books, Toronto, 2019

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