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This novel won the 2019 Prix Goncourt – France’s top literary award – yet I can only find one other of Dubois’s novels translated into English, A French Life, 2007. After reading Not Everybody Lives the Same Way, I hope they hurry up and give the rest to David Homel.
I spent an inordinately long time musing over this novel before concluding that the title is the best summary of its contents. Yes, we could say, it’s obvious that we live different lives, big deal. But that single sentence also tells us that some people do live the same way, at least for a time. It is the kind of novel that leads the reader from episode to episode, taking its time to reveal the mystery we think we need to know the answer to – why Paul Hanson is in prison – whilst telling us about the many people that have impacted on his life.
It opens with cell mates Paul Hanson and Patrick Horton. The former is a quiet apartment building superintendent, who has spent 26 years looking after the capricious Excelsior complex, whilst the latter is a Hell’s Angel, a disciple of Harley Davidson, and probable killer. Patrick is a ‘man and a half,’ whose fearsome reputation keeps Paul safe in the prison. These two men, who share initials as well as a prison cell in the freezing Montreal winter, have to make their very different personalities work together in the ‘closed world of caged suffering.’ The prison sections of Paul Hanson’s story sidestep the usual clichés. The guards here are dull turnkeys avoiding trouble rather than inflicting it. The warden is a fellow Harley rider. Bland food and sporadic violence is there, but what we are shown is how Paul and Patrick deal with the peculiar intimacy of prison life, where men must sleep, shit and eat in a tiny shared space. They carefully cover the toilet with a clean towel when it’s not in use, and endure each other’s gut upsets with stoic politeness. In a prison writing workshop I once led, one of the men told me how he and his pad mate would hang a red scarf over the central light in their cell to make it more snug when they settled down to watch TV in the evening.
‘Imprisonment lengthens the days, distorts the nights, stretches out the hours, it gives time a pasty, nauseating consistency. Every man feels like he is labouring through a thick layer of mud, and with every step he must pull his foot free to keep from bogging down in self-disgust. Prison buries us alive.’
We need to see more people. Though we keep returning to the prison narrative we are also shown Paul’s parents, Johanes and Anna, the unlikely duo of Danish pastor and French independent cinema owner, tending to their different audiences in radical 1968 France. Johanes’s sermons try to ignore the changes that are going on around them, to hold on to what is timeless, whilst Anna takes ‘casual advantage of the world as it presented itself’ with her programming. “Little Big Man,” “The Confession,” and “M*A*S*H” are all hits with the young audience ready for new stories.
Johanes originally discovered his faith when he saw an abandoned church buried in the sand with only a part of the bell tower visible. This image inspires Johanes but he understands that if it had been a station buried in the sand perhaps he would have become a railwayman. That image – indeed that faith – gives him the ability to ‘navigate constantly through the permanence of doubt’ by which he is surrounded. Anna, on the other hand, is motivated by bringing movies to her audience that chart the changing world, as shown by the success of “Deep Throat”which brings in huge audiences but causes Johanes to lose his position as pastor. No matter his rage, Anna already has the divorce papers prepared and Johanes moves to Canada to preach to the workers of the huge asbestos mines. Paul follows him, and watches as his father discovers the fever-pleasure of gambling, which ruins his life when he puts his faith in this different system of belief.
Back in Bordeaux prison ghosts from his past visit Paul. These are not chain-dragging shades or prophetic wailers, they know no more than he does of the future, but they ensure he is not alone. Paul’s wife, Winona, part Irish, Part Algonquin explained to him about the infra-world where the living and dead stand side by side. The Algonquin dead are buried with ‘all their things so they can continue their activities elsewhere.’ Paul ‘loved the fragile logic of that world cobbled together with hope and love.’
In the prison an administrator asks Paul if he regrets the crime that put him in prison. Paul cannot voice any regret for his crime, and anyway, there is nobody waiting for him on the outside. Patrick encourages him to tell them what they want to hear, “the rule is very simple. You have to convince him you have no balls.”
Many of the characters in the novel find different ways, and different systems to measure human life. Kieran Read, one of the residents of the Excelsior that Paul maintains, is an insurance adjuster who calculates the worth of human life to the last dollar. He has to decide whether it’s more cost-effective to recall faulty, life-threatening machinery, or pay out to the inevitable victims. The numbers can be huge but are dwarfed by those of the 2008 banking crisis that blow Patrick’s mind as he tries to calculate how many Harleys could be bought with the two thousand billion dollars lost.
Through the novel we see people as part of larger systems, like prisoners in cells, like Paul becoming superintendent to an apartment complex where he will not only have to tend to its tetchy swimming pool, aged pipes, and electrics, but also to its residents as their health fails. He serves them like his father the pastor served his congregation before horses and roulette wheels took over. Fate brings a new manager to the Excelsior who will also count every cent spent and who will dock Paul’s wages for attending the funeral of a workman killed in an accident there. The man who knows the cost of everything comes up against the man who knows the value. It seems appropriate that the Prix Goncourt awards the winner a mere ten euros but hopefully brings the book to a wide audience.
Prisons, churches, and even apartment blocks are held together by the will to hold them together, to believe in their purpose. Sometimes they run smoothly, sometimes they break down. As we get nearer to the reason why Paul has spent these two years in prison, we see how all the different strands led to this place. This is a short novel, 226 pages, yet by the end we feel we have lived these different lives fully, in a way that normally requires the 600+ pages of A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Together with these glimpses of other lives we also have the mysteries of Winona’s Algonquin infra-world. Ghosts that can walk through prison walls, and wolves that can possess a man and lend their ferocity to claim vengeance. It is much more subtle than what I’ve just written, but I think there are enough hints to convey the truth of this.
And it is true that not everybody lives the same way, but that some of us will for a time. In this wise and beautiful novel Dubois seems to be telling us to choose wisely what we put our faith in; Harleys, wolves, cinema, or the quirks of our many technologies. Even if one may serve you no better than another, it will steer you though that sea of doubt.
by Jean-Paul Dubois
Translated from the French by David Homel
Maclehose Press, 256 pages
David Kendall is a writer, workshop facilitator, and co-director of Penned Up - a literature festival organised with, and for, those in prison. He edited the anthologies The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics, and The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics.