One thing about majoring in English at university, you read a lot of books. You also accumulate a lot of books, some of which you get around to reading at some point. Others end up being those books that sit on your bookshelves and get packed up in boxes and moved to your next apartment, house, or bedsit, depending on where you are in life.
By my reckoning, my copy of Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute was moved about 18 times. The last time I remember seeing it in my bookcase was three years ago, when we lived in Guelph and were moving to Victoria. At that point I decided I was probably never going to read it and gave it to a friend. A few days ago, continuing with my 1001 Books reading, I picked it up from the library. It’s a fascinating read.
I think what held me back from reading this, Roy’s first novel, was the title – I got it into my head that it was a military story, not my first choice when it comes to reading for pleasure. I don’t know why I thought that, except for the fact that it’s set at the beginning of World War II. (I may have been confusing it with The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass.) The military does play a part, in that several of the young men – and one older one – enlist, but it’s really a backdrop to a story of poverty and struggle in the slums of Montreal.
Which makes it sound depressing. Well, it’s not a knee-slapper. But it’s one of those books whose characters do more than simply come alive…they remain in your head after you’ve finished the book. You find yourself wondering how things will work out for Florentine, the vain, self-doubting young waitress who falls for the wrong man and finds herself in an all-too-familiar predicament – made worse by the fact that this is 1939 and the sexual revolution is three decades away. Her life, and that of her family and neighbours, is dictated by poverty and the Church, not necessarily in that order. Her tastes are superficial and naive, and her motives not particularly altruistic, except where her mother is concerned. Yet Roy draws her with such tenderness, such insight, that you feel for the girl. You want her to succeed, even though you’re pretty sure that, in the end, her life will turn out very much like her mother’s – too many children and too few choices.
Her mother, Rose-Anna, was originally intended as a secondary character, but as often happens when creating a narrative, she developed into a complex and fascinating figure in her own right. Pregnant with her 12th child (yes, 12th – this is 1930s Quebec, remember) she juggles the demands of a hungry, needy family. Her reward is to lose one child to the army, another to illness, and another to a marriage based on a lie. Eugene, her oldest son, signs up to fight in order that his mother will receive a monthly cheque from the government. Her husband, Azarius, is weak and a dreamer; in the end he recovers his self-worth by enlisting, the only way he can see to finally provide his wife with a reasonable income.
I’ve said the war is a backdrop to the story, and it is, but Roy also explores the motives behind all those young men leaping into uniform to sacrifice themselves for their country. They are all driven by need – financial in many cases, as this is the tail end of the Depression and jobs are hard to come by. But money isn’t the only reason – Quebec at the time still has strong links to France, the “mother country”, even though most of its inhabitants have never set foot in the country. For many, it’s the right thing to do – for others, especially the working-class poor living in the Saint-Henri slums of Montreal, it’s one way out of a miserable existence.
The Tin Flute is considered Montreal’s first urban novel. Written in French and translated into English shortly afterwards, it won both the Governor-General’s Award and the Prix Femina of France. Its publication left the old Quebec behind for ever – the old seigneurial system of farms and habitants dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. As Philip Stratford writes in the afterword to my copy, “It banished forever the folkloric, romanticized image of the province which had changed little in the previous three centuries. It set Montreal squarely in the mainstream of subsequent fiction.”
I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. Better late than never.