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Nikolski

by Nicolas Dickner; Lazer Lederhendler, trans.

Nikolski, as we’re told by the unnamed young man who narrates one of the three interconnected threads in this debut novel, is a tiny village on Umnak Island in the Aleutians, “inhabited by thirty-six people, five thousand sheep and an indeterminate number of dogs.”

It is also one of the biographical and geographical correspondences that link the disparate lives of the novel’s three main characters: Noah, an archaeology student; Joyce, a fish-store clerk; and that unnamed narrator, who works in a used bookstore.The link is that Nikolski is the final resting place of Jonas Doucet, who is the biological father of Noah and also the narrator and the long-lost uncle of Joyce. None of the trio ever met this quasi-mythical man, a globetrotting sailor who, upon returning to his native Quebec after 10 years at sea, found that he could “no longer move about on steady ground” without suffering from severe dizziness, and subsequently wandered the continent looking for relief from his “land sickness.”

The three twentysomething protagonists all reside near each other in Montreal for much of the novel’s length and even cross paths at various points, but they remain ignorant of their biological connection, though it very much dictates their individual destinies. They all bear the spiritual and genetic stamp of Jonas’s incurable nomadism, and each grapples with that legacy.

Nikolski is, above all else, a novel about destiny. Ultimately, it is author Nicolas Dickner’s heavy-handed insistence on the power of predetermination, fate, and unwavering obsession that scuttles what is at times an enjoyable, witty read. The problem is one of character. In spite of their encyclopaedic knowledge of cartography, archaeology, history, literature, etc., the protagonists remain utterly flat as characters, puppets to Dickner’s overly schematic approach to storytelling and narrative.

This failure is most evident in their larger-than-life childhoods. The narrator is born to a woman who, after years of wandering the West Coast, returns to Quebec pregnant with Jonas Doucet’s baby. Chastened by her failure to escape her family, she takes a job as a travel agent in Montreal and never leaves the city again. Her son grows up ambitionless, carrying on his mother’s anti-nomadic legacy by never setting foot outside the city limits.

Noah’s mother, who is impregnated by Jonas on a shared cross-country car trip that ends when he abandons her in Alberta, raises her son in the trailer she drags behind her 1966 Bonneville station wagon, nicknamed Grampa. Noah and his mother never stay anywhere longer than two weeks, and he learns to read by studying the maps in the car’s glove compartment. When he leaves to study archaeology (specializing, of course, in the history of various nomadic peoples), his mother continues her lifelong journey along Canada’s highways.

Joyce, meanwhile, is raised by her stodgy father in a tiny fishing village on Quebec’s North Shore. Abandoned at birth by her mother, who is afflicted by the Doucets’ congenital wanderlust, Joyce dreams of becoming a pirate like her legendary ancestor, Hermenegilde Doucette. Seeing few opportunities for nautical piracy in the modern world, she becomes a computer hacker, pirating the identities of strangers.

It’s not the clichéd linking of ancestry to character that disappoints so much as Dickner’s unflagging insistence on these connections. Major and minor characters are utterly ruled by a single obsession and go through life like figures in some 19th-century clockwork, never wavering from their courses.

Noah’s mother “never owned a driver’s license” and Noah “made friends with no one.” Later, he falls in love with a woman who arrives at the library every morning at the same time to perform the exact same rituals in the same order. As a child, Joyce visits her grandfather “every afternoon.” She “love[s] everything about him,” though “no one ever paid him a visit.” As an adult, she always eats fish and devotes every moment to enhancing her supply of stolen computers. The obsessively sedentary narrator “dissolves [himself] in [the bookstore] completely,” subordinating his own life “to the thousands of lives duly stacked on hundreds of shelves.“

The novel never throws up any challenges to the characters’ narrow and obsessive worldviews. Even all those youngest sons and virtuous orphans in fairy tales have their inherent character traits tested by trials and riddles and quests. But Noah and Joyce and the unnamed narrator are, in spite of their tall-tale origins and obsessions, essentially static, their lives serving as compass points for Dickner’s musings on the human need for both home and the open road.