By Martin Dumont, trans. by John Cullen
Other Press, 2020
160 Pages, $14.99
Review by Giselle DeFares
French author Martin Dumont’s debut novel Schrödinger’s Dog (Other Press, 2020), revolves around a father grappling with the reality of his son’s impermanence. In the face of illness, is honesty the best policy or could you soothe one’s pain with deception?
The widowed taxi driver Yanis Marès only has two loves in his life: his son Pierre and his never-ending love for freediving and exploring the underwater world. He cites his longing for the embrace of the sea: “To dive is to fall, but it’s a fascinating fall. An intoxicating loss of balance.” Just like the vastness of the water that shows an impenetrable surface, Yanis tries to cover his impending all-absorbing darkness that lies beneath.
Yanis is middle-aged and a single parent to Pierre, a twenty-year old biology student and aspiring novelist. He lost his wife, Lucille, years ago — though he can’t fully accept the circumstances surrounding her death. When Pierre was a small child, he drove around for hours with his father in the taxi, and they had a marvelous time. In the present, the one thing that truly bonds them together is diving. It’s something that the father and son can use to connect with each other. Everything changes during a three-day diving trip when Pierre complains of fatigue and that his back hurts. The diagnosis turns both of their lives upside down. The feeling of time changes drastically, and Yanis struggles to objectively cope with reality.
“Whatever follows is in the realm of the imagination. Or faith. Reasoning does no good, it never really works. Can you just stop your thought processes?”
Becoming a father ignites a fundamental change: you’ll stay the same but at the same time everything changes and you have to reinvent yourself. Pierre was a hyperactive child, and now a bright young man with dreams of becoming a published author. He never truly knew his mother and his father was all he had. Love and loss, the truth and lies, all soon become intertwined.
“The results aren’t good,” the doctor tells them. It’s a short sentence with a devastating aftermath. Yanis crumbles and succumbs to the feeling of powerlessness that comes washing over him. Where Yanis drowns in his emotional turmoil, Dumont’s sentences are short, straightforward, to show ultimate control. “There we were, too alone and too ignorant not to torment ourselves.” Throughout the novel Yanis is the narrative voice desperately clinging to life itself; to the buoys in the swirling sea of his despair, waiting for happiness to arrive.
We ignite the flame of illusions to cover our fear. We want to keep on living, but the decay is spreading, and it clouds the mind. To Yanis it feels like failure. What’s the solution? Is it fabricating lies to keep your son happy? Is it necessary to always tell the truth? Consider Pierre, his beloved son, who has cancer. He was filled with dreams and hopes. Once surrounded by friends, lived life to the fullest. Now there’s only chosen solitude. He keeps clinging onto life with his fingertips with the news that his manuscript will be published, before he has to let go.
Dumont is an observant writer. He does not hesitate to show the secret, banal and shameful feelings of his main character. His smooth yet honest language paints a realistic universe of painful lies and loss, as highlighted in the fraught relationship that Yanis has with his parents-in-law. Years after Lucille’s death he still carries around guilt, he lies to them of Pierre’s literary success to ease their pain. Or is it to numb his own devastation?
The doctor realizes that he can’t cope with the impending death of Pierre. She urges Yanis to reframe his own thoughts about the lies he told Pierre in order to cope with reality. “If you consider that reality is dependent on the observer, then why would his be less real than any other.” For some, there can be comfort in the power of subjective belief.
It’s a short and somber debut novel where Dumont explores the nuances of fatherhood, unconditional love, and the dilemma one has when faced with helplessness. A father-son relationship is filled with love but you can’t predict the future.
What then, is true and good?
For Yanis and Pierre it’s their shared love of freediving. A safe space, far removed from life’s sorrows, in the depths of the sea.