Friday, 10 July 2015

Book Review: The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy
The craving for happiness is human and universal, but the ways thought right to achieve it are at least as many as there are people on this planet. Especially in hard times – like the Great Depression of the 1930s when millions worldwide were without jobs and struggled day after day to somehow make ends meet – happiness is often equated with having money to buy things. Thus under harsh economic conditions even the outbreak of a war can appear like a blessing because it opens new opportunities to make a living. Regarding World War II this certainly was the case as forcefully shows the French-Canadian novel The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy. In the working-class district Saint-Henri in Montréal many join the army to escape the poverty and futility of their jobless existence, while others profit from the economic upswing at home. Either way the bargain is for happiness. 

Gabrielle Roy was born in Saint Boniface (today a district of Winnipeg), Manitoba, Canada, in March 1909. For some years she worked as a teacher, was involved in theatre companies and wrote articles for periodicals. Between autumn 1937 and spring 1939 she travelled through England and France and after her return she dedicated herself almost entirely to writing. The author’s first literary work to appear was the award-winning novel The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) in 1945. It was followed by many others, namely Where Nests the Water Hen (La Petite Poule d'Eau: 1950), The Cashier (Alexandre Chenevert: 1954), Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault: 1955), The Hidden Mountain (La Montagne secrète: 1961), The Road Past Altamont (La Route d'Altamont: 1966), Windflower (La Rivière sans repos: 1970), and Children of My Heart (Ces Enfants de ma vie: 1977). In addition she brought out the short story collections Enchanted Summer (Cet été qui chantait: 1972) and Garden in the Wind (Un jardin au bout du monde: 1975) along with journalistic work and some stories for children. Gabrielle Roy died in Québec City, Québec, Canada, in July 1983. Her autobiography titled Enchantment and Sorrow (La Détresse et l'enchantement) appeared posthumously in 1984.

Saint-Henri district, Montréal, Canada, is where the story of The Tin Flute begins in February 1940. Nineteen-year-old Florentine Lacasse is a waitress in the “Five and Ten”, a little diner and shop where industrial workers from the neighbourhood can get a quick and cheap lunch. One of the regular clients there is young Jean Lévesque who works as an engineer in a nearby factory and usually doesn’t pay attention to women because he is determined not to allow a love affair to thwart or just delay his plans to advance professionally. Nonetheless Florentine intrigues him for being different from other girls in a way that he can’t yet define and he certainly doesn’t mind a little flirt. He enjoys above all teasing the meagre and sickly-looking girl whose soul he tries to fathom despite himself. Florentine is repulsed by Jean’s arrogant as well as rude behaviour and at the same time she is strongly attracted to him since being dressed in expensive, always impeccable clothes and reading technical text-books at table he represents for her the better life that she has been dreaming of all her miserable life. In fact, with her poor job Florentine has been supporting her family already for several years, sometimes even all alone. Her father, Azarius Lacasse, is well in his forties, but still looking like a young man and also spinning high-flying (and unrealistic) dreams like one which makes him unable or unwilling to keep a job like that of a taxi-driver for long although he has his wife Rose-Anna and seven children to provide for apart from Florentine. Rose-Anna Lacasse, on the other hand, is a withered woman, marked by many pregnancies – she is expecting her thirteenth child – as well as the constant efforts of somehow finding the money to house, feed and decently clothe her family. Jean Lévesque despises the poverty reigning in his native district and pities Florentine whose story he doesn’t know though partly suspects. One day he takes his only friend Emmanuel Létourneau, who has just enlisted with the army, to the diner hoping that this will help him to keep his distance to Florentine and to get her out of his head. The soldier falls for the girl almost immediately, while she has only eyes for Jean and the bright future that, once seduced, he will give her…

The original French title of The Tin Flute is Bonheur d’occasion and would usually be translated into English as Second-Hand Happiness, but this would convey only a poor or even distorted idea of the original meaning which links happiness with opportunity or bargain in a way that can’t be fully reproduced neither in English nor in German. In fact, to me the happiness that Florentine and the other protagonists achieve in the end appears all but second-hand although admittedly it rarely is their first choice either. In the course of the novel each one of them just seizes an opportunity that presents itself in the context of World War and that looks like a good bargain. The author skilfully displays the desperate living conditions of the francophone neighbourhood in Montréal, that is scourged by unemployment and poverty, as well as the individual lives and pondering of Florentine, her two suitors and her family in great detail through the eyes of a detached third-person narrator. An important and timeless focus of the novel is also on the situation of women in the still rather devout Catholic environment with Florentine and her mother serving as typical examples. The language used is clear and appropriate for a social and psychological novel of the kind although having read an original French-Canadian edition some subtleties may have escaped me.

All things considered, reading The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy has given me a better idea of the difficult lives people outside Europe had during the years of the World Economic Crisis of the 1930s and at the dawn of World War II. So far my look on the period has been above all European if not Austrian although I read some books of John Steinbeck ages ago. More importantly the characters populating this novel and their problems seem timeless to me and make reading it even more worthwhile today.

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