After a first collection of short stories which won the Trillium Prize in 2020, Ottawa screenwriter and translator Paul Ruban returns this time with a novel with equally caustic humor. And if literature is indeed a form of entertainment as he believes, we can say without hesitation that he has succeeded again with The Scent of the Whale.
The context of the novel could not have been more appropriate for a closed session. Nor more zany, for that matter.
The Scent of the Whale recounts the week in an all-inclusive of a couple who seek to rekindle the extinguished flame of their relationship, by treating themselves to a vacation in the sun… in the company of their teenage daughter. But once in these supposedly heavenly places, an unpleasant surprise awaits them: a whale has washed up on the shore, spreading an atrocious stench to the point of forcing everyone to wear pince-nez.
“The novel really arrived with this somewhat bizarre and disconcerting image of a whale carcass on the beach of an all-inclusive,” confides Paul Ruban, visiting Montreal this week. There was something about the contrast of this image that I wanted to explore and which reminded me of Kundera’s phrase: “There is little that separates the horrible from the comic.” »
Humor is also an excellent way, according to him, to address these “perhaps more disturbing” things behind the scenes: the dilemma of an eco-anxious mother who was reluctant to take this vacation in the South; the threat of a latent separation; the distress of a teenager caught in the crossfire, who flees the bickering of her parents by drawing compulsively on her magic slate.
The tone could easily have been dramatic, but lightness and the absurd are naturally present in the novel. All of this, tinged with this irresistible black humor, discovered in his collection of short stories, Puncture in a hearse.
“All-inclusive is a deliciously ridiculous microcosm, a rich distillation of all the failings of our society. It seems that the rules that apply in society do not apply in an all-inclusive setting, that it is a parenthesis in our lives where, often, the worst of us comes out. And so, I had a lot of fun with the sometimes ridiculous side of the place because it’s an artificial bubble, in a way. »
As a reader, Paul Ruban says he himself is a great admirer of humor in literature – he thinks of Suzanne Myre, Francis Ouellet, and the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli.
“I think humor is a way of resisting the absurdity of the world. German author Otto Julius Bierbaum says that humor is when you laugh anyway. I try to find the humorous interstices in this “even so”. And it seems like the older I get, the more I observe the world around me, the less seriously I can take it. »
In turn, the author slips into the skin of the six characters who make up the backstory of this choral novel. Because in addition to the little family, there is this devout flight attendant who treats herself to a week of vacation and who cannot get rid of her ghosts. This narcoleptic cleaning lady that no one notices. Or even this old employee of the hotel complex who is now relegated to oblivion after having devoted his life to it – a pretext, for Paul Ruban, to address the treatment reserved for seniors in society.
“It’s a form that I really had fun with. I really like playing with words, and I try to weigh each word when I write. »
His writing is undoubtedly not foreign to his scriptwriting experience, he adds, nor to the fact that he likes this choral form for what it is both entertaining and playful, as in his novels. of heart, Making sugars, by Fanny Britt, and The anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier.
After the “happy accident” that was his collection of short stories, born from stories written in his spare time, he is convinced to continue writing – he is already working on the next book. And judging by the broad outlines of this new story that he describes to us (before being sorry for saying too much!), we will undoubtedly be served in terms of entertainment.