Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: Nicolas Dickner, Nikolski

“Archaelogy 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.”
These are the wise words of one Thomas Saint-Laurent, a secondary yet key character in Nicolas Dickner’s crafty first novel Nikolski. It is an appropriate statement, as its undertones apply to all three of the main protagonists looping through Dickner’s literary excavation site. Dickner himself takes on the role of archaeologist throughout the novel, evaluating with ease and discipline the lives, experiences, and intentions of his multi-faceted characters. These evaluations occur in a similar fashion as to how we the readers may guide guests through a photo album or slide show, pausing on a singular photo, working through the memories from the bits of information contained within its boundaries and then moving on to the next without any further regard.

Nikolski initiates with the narration of an unnamed young man who represents one point on the interlocked triangle of Dickner’s archaelogical zone of personal destiny. Through this young man, the reader learns that Nikolski is a tiny village on Unmak Island in the Aleutians “[i]nhabited by thirty-six people, five thousand sheep and an indeterminate number of dogs,” and the final resting place of one Jonas Doucet.

For the unnamed narrator, Nikolski is the name with which he christens a treasured plastic compass, the only item he has of his father Jonas. This compass is a constant companion for the narrator following the death of his mother, strung around his neck like a grown-up version of a baby pacifier. It is the only link the narrator has to life as he knew it, and to the life he thinks could have been. The constant companionship of the compass with the unnamed narrator also keeps the reader tied to the soon-to-be colliding biographical and geographical worlds of the narrator’s yet unknown family branches, as evidenced in the compass’ refusal to point anywhere but Jonas’ final resting spot.

As the story progresses, it is revealed that Jonas is also the father of Noah, an archaeology student from Saskatchewan. Noah is half-Chipewyan, raised solely by his mother Sarah in the back of an ever-moving caravan nicknamed “Grampa.” Sarah and Noah roam across Canada, barely staying in any of the towns they encounter on their nomadic adventures. Noah decides to move to Montreal to study archaelogy, specifically nomadic peoples, leaving his mother to continue passing through the Canadian landscape solo. A large component of his story is the continuous act of writing letters to Sarah, picking post offices based on ever-slipping knowledge of her travel patterns to which to send his life updates.

The third protaganist is Joyce, recently transplanted from the East Coast where she was raised by her widowed father. Joyce grew up listening to the grand stories of her family’s long lineage of pirates and buccaneers from her grandfather, storied including the seafaring life of her uncle Jonas. One day Joyce learns that her mother is not dead, and has been seemingly peddling the family legacies south of the border. This knowledge propels Joyce to bolt from her small town existence and head for Montreal. Joyce dreams of being a pirate like her legendary ancestor, Heremegilde Doucet, and she makes this a reality by becoming a computer hacker and identity thief.

Once all three individuals converge on the same stomping ground, Nikolski starts to pick up a little steam by showing how their lives intersect, albeit independently, through the second-hand bookstore where the unnamed narrator works. Joyce finds a job at a local fish market, working with immigrant Maelo who happens to be sharing a flat with Noah. Neither Joyce nor Noah ever meet though despite their one degree of separation; they remain ignorant of their biological connections, their shared genetic predisposition to nomadism.

And the idea of nomadism is the arching untidiness that Dickner uses to define his central thesis. Nikolski is pinned together by coincidences and chances that fan together into an absorbing rumination on destiny. All three protagonists are soloists, seeking connection with the world around them but in controlled measures they believe to be of their own making. Yet Dickner writes their world and experiences such to portray that none of the characters escapes the machinations of fate. The events through which their connections appear and dispel are inexplicable, "[a]nd that is exactly the trouble with inexplicable events, you inevitably end up interpreting them in terms of predestination, or magic realism, or government plots."

The concept of predestination seems hokey but transforms under Dickner’s guidance into a charming exercise of narrative randomness. Each character’s story represents different points on the Nikolski compass with the needle swaying endlessly between desire for the open road and longing for a singular place to call home. The untidiness mentioned earlier inspires numerous loose ends that never get resolved by the conclusion of the novel. Readers may be discouraged at the lack of challenge or action devices thrown in the path of these characters.  

Nikolski is not a novel to pursue if wanting a perfunctory ending or conclusionary coda. Its cleverness lies in the ways Dickner plays with such potential inevitabilities through evocative imagery and a cast of eccentric and believable characters. He picks up and picks at the artifacts created through each character’s experiences and renders an elegant and creative view of their world. Nikolski is a high achievement in storytelling, by craftily threading an allusive story that propels the reader to do just the same.

*Winner - Canada Reads 2010
*Winner - 2008 Governor General's Award for English to French Translation
*Winner - 2006 Prix Anne-Hébert

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