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Augustino and the Choir of Destruction

by Marie-Claire Blais; Nigel Spencer, trans.

Marie-Claire Blais, one of Quebec’s most prolific and celebrated writers, delivers the third volume in a prize-winning trilogy. Augustino and the Choir of Destruction is a dense and daring apocalyptic literary vision. Set on an island somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, this final volume is as much an examination of moral philosophy and the consequence of inaction as it is a reflexive inquiry into the limits of language.

Blais’ novel is a complex whirlwind of interlacing stories, gently guided by an unnamed narrator. We are privy to the inner monologues of characters from all walks of life: Mai, a troubled youngster; Petite Cendres, a transvestite addicted to heroin; and Nora, a conflicted humanitarian.

Much of the book’s complexity is due to Blais’ unconventional use of punctuation: there are almost no full stops in the text (not more than 25 in well over 200 pages) and no quotation marks, so the responsibility of indicating a shift from one narrative to another, or an exchange of dialogue, falls to the comma. The results are varied. One is keenly aware of the work as artifice; the text calls attention to itself as text that refuses to adhere to the dictates of grammar, giving the reader a powerful feel for the interdependence of all the book’s many themes and threads. This flowing structure also has the effect of giving the eye no place to rest, the mind no time to digest. A sense of tension and urgency is created as a reader trips over the next phrase before fully absorbing the one that came before it. A reader who is too careful or deliberate, however, runs the risk of missing Blais’ undulating and inspired rhythms.

This book is not an easy read, for whatever it’s worth. It is, however, an enriching and stimulating read, a tour de force that will fit in comfortably with the rest of Blais’ finest. Indeed, Augustino and the Choir of Destruction sings.