A question for author Eric Dupont from translator Peter McCambridge
Peter: I often found myself translating La Fiancée américaine with tears in my eyes. Bad things happen, sure, but one thing that strikes me is the sheer goodness of the characters, with Zucker plotting Madeleine’s getaway before a certain body is even in the ground, for example. Was writing the novel driven by any particular faith in humanity? By a sense that people in general—or at least your characters—are essentially good people doing their best, people we should care about and give the benefit of the doubt to?
Eric: I’ve never been asked at all about Siegfried Zucker. He doesn’t play a very big role in the book. He’s a ferryman, an agent of change. I never really stopped to consider the fact that he offers Madeleine a way out of Rivière-du-Loup before The Horse’s body is even in the ground. Zucker can see that Madeleine has no future in Rivière-du-Loup. What isn’t explained is that his own move to Montreal has been in the works for a while. He won’t be coming back to Rivière-du-Loup either because he has big business plans in the city.
It’s also the first time I’ve been asked about my characters being good people. Until now I’ve mostly been accused of creating individuals that are hard to identify with or become attached to because of all kinds of hideous character flaws. Zucker is a good person by nature, that’s true. Being an outsider in this very conservative environment allows him to stand back and better understand the situation. Zucker does not belong to the world of Rivière-du-Loup. He might sell flour to the people who live there, but he doesn’t think like they do. He’s able to see that if Madeleine stays in Rivière-du-Loup, she’ll fall prey to the gossips. He also knows what Irene is like and he’s able to anticipate her decline and fall.
Some characters in Songs for the Cold of Heart are good by nature but don’t concern themselves with proving it to those around them. Sister Mary of the Eucharist is a good example. Magda, too. They live according to a personal code of ethics that goes beyond good and evil. But to get back to Zucker, I came up with the character by drawing inspiration from the pedlars who roamed the Quebec countryside up until the 1960s and ’70s and could even be found in Quebec City suburbs like Château-Richer. They were often known as “the Jew,” even when they weren’t Jewish. They would haggle and that was enough for them to be Jews in many people’s eyes back then. It was a deliberate decision to update a stereotype that was once widespread but that no one would dare use today. If I made him an Austrian, it’s because in Austria I often saw men like him: they were calm, generous, happy to help train new talent. It’s a little like the Lehrling system, a tradition that has deep roots in Austria and Germany. Zucker saw an apprentice in Madeleine, a person who had what it took to succeed. He wouldn’t have done it for someone else. If he’d been a musician, he’d have taken no interest in her. He’d have set his heart on a musical talent instead. But Zucker is a businessman.
I think that characters like Zucker are in the book to reflect my experience of the world. This has taught me that sometimes, when the going gets tough, help doesn’t necessarily come from those who are supposed to help us. People are prepared to reach out save us. But it’s up to us whether we let them!
Born in 1970, Eric Dupont lives and works in Montreal. He has published 5 novels with Marchand de feuilles and in France with Éditions du Toucan and Éditions J’ai lu (Flammarion). He is a past winner of Radio-Canada’s “Combat des livres” (the equivalent of the CBC’s Canada Reads contest), a finalist for the Prix littéraire France-Québec and the Prix des cinq continents, and a winner of the Prix des libraires and the Prix littéraire des collégiens. Songs for the Cold of Heart is his fourth novel and his second to be published in English with QC Fiction. It was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Translation and the Giller Prize.