Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner: A review

I love stories in which various unlikely characters are tied together in some way and often, as the reader hopes, come together, even if only briefly. The ways in which human beings find themselves somehow connected is fascinating to me. Often, too, these stories are told from the perspective of each main character; I’ve always enjoyed this. I can think of several books presented in this way, from Carol Shields‘s brilliant Happenstance to Julian Barnes’s humourous Talking It Over.

As for the unlikely characters and the strings of objects and/or events linking them together, look at Nick Hornby‘s A Long Way Down, in which four people find themselves surprisingly met in a strange location—the rooftop of Topper’s House in London—where each had previously decided, before they saw the other, to privately commit suicide.  More recent is A School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, in which eight strangers gather together for a cooking class and become transformed and connected through the art of creating and preparing food.

Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, the 2008 Governor General’s Award winner for translation, is one of these books in which strings of events, objects (a compass that points only to Nikolski, a Frankenstein of a book with no face, fish, books, and the sea), and themes (namely, archeology and history and pirates), as well as one man, Jonas Doucet, link 3 young people.

Told from the perspective of each, the story unfolds in a surprisingly original way, with humourous yet touching prose as Noah, Joyce, and an unnamed bookseller come from distant places in search of meaning and purpose, but either end up meeting or coming so close as to pass like ships in the night. Added elements of magic realism, which I especially enjoyed, make the story all the more compelling and wondrous. Dickner even acknowledges the unlikely by blatently labelling it so, which adds to the humour (you can tell he was having writerly fun): an apology of sorts without apologizing. The description of the Book with No Face was so excellent I read it aloud to my husband:

The book had followed an unimaginable trajectory. After several decades on the shelves of the library of the University of Liverpool, it had been stolen by a student, been passed from hand to hand, escaped two fires, and then, left to its own devices, returned to the wild. It had crossed thousands of kilometres in various bags, travelled amid the cargo in damp crates, been thrown overboard but continued on its way in the acidic belly of a whale, before being spat out and retrieved by an illiterate deep-sea diver. Jonas Doucet finally won it in a poker game in a Tel Aviv bar one intemperate night.

Its pages were brittle, spotted with countless small rust-coloured specks, and if you buried your nose in it you could detect vegetation patiently endeavouring to colonize the depths of the paper. Not only was this Noah’s one book, but it was also one of a kind, bearing a host of distinctive signs. In the middle of page 58, for instance, there was a large, brownish bloodstain. Between pages 42 and 43, a fossilized mosquito had made its home, a tiny stowaway flattened by surprise. And scribbled in the margin of page 23 was the mysterious word Rokovoko. (Vintage 2009, 28)

Much like the Book with No Face, the story itself is artfully pieced together, layered and complex, weaving in and out of time and space and perspective. We truly get a sense of loss and questing, of disorganization and looseness, of being adrift in the great world without much in the way of guidance. So much of me wanted to see these three people come into their own, find a sense of peace and belonging.

While reading this book I couldn’t help but keep thinking of Nino Ricci’s Origin of Species: I think it was the sense of learning, of myriad facts, of the ever-looming character of water, that caused this. That story, too, though, is richly layered and somewhat similar in theme; perhaps a study of the two would be an interesting paper! (Alas, those days for me are long past.)

I also have a soft spot for translated literature, and this book, masterfully translated from the French by Lazar Lederhendler, blew me away with its beautifully rendered prose. The words seemed so carefully chosen, the text so seamless and smooth, without a trace of awkwardness, that it was though it had been originally written in English. I regret not having kept up with my French enough to be able to read the original work. But I do not feel I’ve  missed out in any way. This is one book I’d recommend to anyone.

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