Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner

Nikolski is the story of three people connected tenuously through a used bookstore in Montreal’s Little Italy, specifically through a curious history of pirates that passes through that bookstore. That little book is a gem; we are first introduced to it by Noah, a teenager born and raised on the road in Western Canada.

The day came when the maps were no longer enough to slake Noah’s curiosity, and he turned to the only tome in the family library: a battered book forgotten by Jonas when he had left in haste.

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.

It was called the Book with No Face, because its covers had been torn away since the dawn of time. It was a kind of anthology of sailors’ yarns, whose first page reproduced a map of the Caribbean that never ceased to amaze Noah. How could such a mass of water coexist with such a small amount of land? It resembled a negative of the map of Saskatchewan, where there was a lake for every island, and oceans of grain intead of the sea.

NikolskiThe book will disappear and reappear in new hands until our unnamed narrator examines it and realizes it is, in fact, a unicum—“a book of which there is only a single known copy in the whole world. … It’s made up of fragments of three books. The first third is from a study on treasure hunting. The second comes from a historical treatise on the pirates of the Caribbean. The final third is taken from a biography of Alexander Selkirk, who was shipwrecked on a Pacific island.” That’s quite interesting really. I want a book like that. But it only disappears and reappears, doesn’t actually propel things in any way.

Something else I liked about Nikolski was that it takes us so geographically far and wide (like Canada): to Tête-à-la-Baleine, Québec, the grainy seas of the Prairies, and Nikolski itself, actually an American outpost in the Aleutians. Even the scenes of the novel set in the tropics are remote: Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. And the Montreal action is based in Petite Italie, an outlying neighborhood where the used bookstore is on St. Laurent but kilometers from downtown.

Joyce Doucet’s was my favorite thread to follow, because I was intrigued by her remote childhood on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but in the end she didn’t hold up for me as a character. Her mother ran off when she was a baby, and she’s learned from her grandfather they are descended from pirates.

What’s more, she suffered from claustrophobia, a natural condition, no doubt, for someone born into a family that was scattered far and wide across North America. She suffocated in tight spaces—the kitchen, the school, the village, her father’s family—and nothing brought her more relief than to lose herself in her Grandfather Lyzandre’s pirate stories, his bitter tea, and the shaky house where she would once again become the great-great-granddaughter of Herménégilde Doucette.

“no doubt” indeed. That sort of thing bothers me. As if there should be any connection other than some vaguely mystical-sounding “opposites, oh opposites” business. Unfortunately, much of Joyce’s future will be built around similarly vague feelings that result from something about her family, her upbringing, her past—and the same will be true for the unnamed narrator and for Noah. Nikolski, missing fathers, missing mothers, childhood homes left far behind. All of these will follow all our protagonists, haunting them and shaping their paths through the world.

It is a preoccupation that doesn’t do much for me, in the end, but the stories are ably drawn and I feel like someone slightly different from myself would really enjoy it. I can’t speak too much to the writing, as I (sort of accidentally) read this in translation, but it is good but not really special. And there is some looseness: When Joyce Doucet reads a story in the paper about a female Doucet who fled Canada as a criminal, and she has reason to believe her mother did the same, why did she not assume (like I did) that this was her mother, but some other distant relation? What exactly does stealing credit card numbers have to do with any of the ideas about pirates Joyce would have had, either? Also things like: there is significant mention of the Oka crisis, Canada’s native population, South American natives, radical archaeology, and other political issues, but it seems half-formed. In the end there is a feeling of a thin web connecting each character, not just the unicum but little bits and pieces of everything, but it’s hard to know why when they all end up as separate and isolated as when they started.