Monday, October 05, 2009

The enigmatic Nikolski

This enigmatic book assembles, under the anonymity of a single binding--or what's left of it--three destinies once scattered over various libraries, or even over various garbage dumps. Which leaves outstanding the question as to what sort of twisted mind could have conceived of such an amalgamation, and to what end.

Or, as the unnamed narrator of a scant third of the narratives (I thought of him as Ishmael, given that the first line is My name is unimportant) in Nicolas Dickner's Nikolski helpfully identifies the fragments of the Three-Headed-Book, that coverless one-of-a-kind book won in a Tel Aviv poker game by the seafaring Jonas Doucet: a portion on treasure islands, a treatise on pirates, and a biography of a desert island castaway.

Confused? Don't be. While Nikolski is a fragmented text, the overarching story is easy to follow: scattered relatives of Jonas Doucet converge for awhile in the Little Italy section of Montreal but live tangentially, unaware of any family connections. Doucet's coverless book, already well-traveled before it came into his possession, will make its way into the hands of each relative, a sort of familial currency for three young people seeking their way in the world.

The unnamed narrator is truly a sort of anti-Ishmael--content to travel through second-hand books, particularly travel guides, in the Montreal bookstore where he's worked since he was 14. He treasures a cheap child's compass, his only link to the father he never knew, a man who'd struck out in the world at the age of 14. The compass is off-kilter, pointing not north, but as he figures out, through the last-known address of his father: Umnak Island off the coast of Alaska, or "more specifically, on Nikolski, a minuscule village inhabited by thirty-six people, five thousand sheep and an indeterminate number of dogs."

His half-brother Noah, tired of the nomadic childhood spent with his Chipewyan mother, who'd lost her right (as well as her desire) to live on the reservation due to a short-lived marriage to a white man, comes to Montreal to attend college ("An island," was all she bothered to mumble" when he opened the acceptance envelope). He arbitarily selects archaeology as a major, then realizes an affinity for trash archaeology. As his radical professor and academic advisor tells him:

. . . the truth is, we're ahead of our time. Archaeology is the discipline of the future. Every time an old IBM finds its way to the dump, it becomes an artifact. Artifacts are the main products of our civilization. When all the computer experts are unemployed, we'll still have millions of years of work ahead of us. That is the fundamental paradox of archaeology. Our discipline will reach its peak at the end of the world.

In the meantime, Noah and his professor are stuck studying indigenous prehistory, an irony not lost on Noah, due to the conservative climate of the university. Instead, it is his cousin Joyce who spends her nights dumpster-diving for treasure. Joyce has grown up in Tete-a-la Baleine, an isolated village on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence reachable only by air or water, and has wanted to follow in the footsteps of her maternal forebears and become a pirate. Inspired by a news article about a presumed female relative who's been arrested for heading an internet ring of pirates, Joyce runs off to Montreal and learns to build her own computers from parts she's found in the trash and eventually begins to ply her nefarious trade.

Recipient of several literary prizes after its 2005 publication in Quebec, Nikolski, translated into English by Lazer Lederhendler, was published in the U.S. by Shambhala back in May. I'm glad I didn't get around to reading my review copy until now since I wouldn't have experienced such a hightened frisson of connection with my other recent reads: Quebec and trash figure as well in Infinite Jest; remote Canadian villages and identity theft and South America figure as well in Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply; Noah isn't navigating by compass in the latest Anne Tyler; and reaching further back, cartography's found as well in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys an amalgamation of the unexpected in their fiction: marine biology, secondhand bookstores, islands off the coast of Venezula, flooding basements, dinosaurs evolving into hummingbirds, perfectly preserved heads of lettuce found by drilling down a garbage dump to where the flow of time has slowed.


  1. I had been wanting to read this! Your thoughts just made me want to even more. I'm definitely the sort of person who enjoys reading about those things you mention. :)

  2. This one sounds so interesting. Thank you for a great review. You have piqued my interest in reading something that I would not normally pick off the shelves on my own!

  3. I hadn't even heard of this one. But the curiosity is definitely piqued; it rang a few bells for me. Thank you!

  4. It's a weird little book. I'd love to read everyone else's opinion on it. It's certainly not one that's received a lot of attention in the book blogging community so far.

  5. Oh this sounds like fun! I love weird little books that are well written. They are nice for taking me out of the path of the usual. I will definitely be seeking this one out!


A bang, not a whimper

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