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Toi aussi mon fils by Jonathan Pedneault

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw Occasionally, as I navigate my world of bilingualism living on the Left Bank of the Ottawa River, I come across a Canadian work of fiction in French that undoubtedly one day will be translated into English. Toi aussi mon fils is such a novel. So, here is a before-the-curve review for you, and perhaps, the translators and publishers among you. Toi aussi mon fils, inspired by Julius Caesar’s words to Brutus, his adopted son, just before the daggers plunged into his body, is at its core a story of filial love, resentment, longing and escape. The story is told primarily by Antoine, the father, and his son Matisse. Both are journalists, and both travel through hellfire to discover and recover what eludes their lives as they bear witness to the depravities of humanity in war zones around the world. But it is Antoine’s story that holds the reader spellbound as it does Matisse, his son, obsessed by both escaping his father’s arrogance and cynicism while peeling away the layers of his story. Antoine’s notebooks found by Matisse long after his father’s mysterious disappearance are the vehicle for much of the narrative. In them, we follow a journey across several continents where Antoine’s journalism exposes the worst of humankind and reveals his own fragility and self-contradictions. Bisexual and yet homophobic, traumatized by love affairs and the stupidity of men, Antoine is the epitome of the flawed protagonist. He portrays the world in biting terms and is the antithesis of political correctness. He shows no respect for women, which he uses and abuses while not really gaining any pleasure. His sexual trysts with men at times seem more meaningful, but his struggle with his sexuality drives him away from any longstanding relationship. Matisse seeks to better understand the father who disappeared during his youth, but the notebooks confuse him even more with the cynical and narcissistic behaviour in them. Can he truly love this man who put his personal freedom above that of everyone around him? Can he excuse the lies, neglect and ego-centrism of his progenitor? Can he, Matisse, be a better man, a better father than Antoine? These questions haunt him throughout the novel. Despite all the rawness and violence of the narrative, Toi aussi mon fils depicts tenderness in, at times, surprising ways. Pedneault deftly takes us on a journey from Paris to Berlin to the conflict zones of Africa and the Middle East, and even Montreal and Martinique. He plunges the reader into the depths of intimacy, the protagonists’ and just perhaps their own. His depictions of sexual encounters are graphic, and perhaps offensive in a world of political correctness, but they exude authenticity, not fantasy. While the novel stumbles at times with an exaggerated attempt to draw on colourful Parisian slang, for the most part, the language and the rhythm are finely attuned to the characters and their time and space. This is no mean feat for a first-time novelist. When I met Pedneault two months ago, and we spoke briefly about our mutual interest in writing, he mentioned that there were definite autobiographical elements to his novel. Some may be obvious in that Pedneault has lived through many conflict zones in his career as a journalist and human rights researcher. There is no doubt that Pedneault’s struggle to deal with the absence of his own father and coming to grips with his own sexuality seem reflected in his writing. But there are obviously areas where the biographical connection is less clear, and to what extent Pedneault identifies with Antoine or Matisse or a symbiosis of both remains yet to be understood. Perhaps, when he next picks up the quill to continue his literary journey, we might discover more threads between the creator and his fiction, and hopefully in both French and translations into other languages. Toi aussi mon fils is published in French by Éditions XYZ.


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