Like Songs in an Unknown Tongue

Charles Bolduc

Translated by: Renée Masson

Original text: ""Comme des chansons dans une langue inconnue" dans "Les truites à mains nus” "

Artwork by Louis Joncas


One day we woke up and decided not to eat anything. A hunger strike. We had no transcendent reason to stop eating, no good cause to defend, no flouted right that we could have publicly demanded. We were improvising, just like that, to see how far we would go, to scare off the passerby with our faces, pallid from fasting, and to listen all night to, like songs in an unknown tongue, the wild cries of our begging stomachs.

     We began by opening up the fridge and the pantry to rid ourselves of temptations: the food fit into four grocery boxes that we rushed to the neighbour upstairs. She was with a bearded guy who was gloomily glued to an old brown couch from the Salvation Army. The guy didn’t get up when we came in. The neighbour never bothered to make introductions, so we acted like he didn’t exist. The whole time we were at her place, he didn’t move a muscle, didn’t utter a single word, and, by the end, the awkwardness in the apartment was so thick and perfect that we were totally worried he’d do or say something. The whole thing had a surreal side that we really liked, the sort of phantasm we’d want to set up at our place, a morose and caustic guy who fancied himself a statue, with marble features, really decorative. We were thinking about renting him from the neighbour for a few days. We would take good care of him. We’d set him up in the living room or next to the sideboard in the dining room. It would be chic.

     But let’s rewind a bit to the neighbour’s “movement of surprise” when we showed up at her place with our boxes full of provisions.  Her whole being became so contorted in a look of stupor that we had never seen on her before: she folded her arms into a defensive position and looked us over with the dazed gaze of a reptile. That lasted a short half a second—a flash—but later on, we remembered and we drew pictures of her as a turtle that we pasted to the bathroom mirror.

     She was nice, appeared curious, wanted to know why we were trying to rehouse our foodstuff. She plied us with simple questions like “What’s going on?” “Why are you giving me all that?” “Are you going to answer me or not?” –waiting without a shadow of a doubt for the warranted answers, simple answers to her simple questions; only we didn’t have any, so we contented ourselves with garnishing the shelves in her refrigerator, while making little gestures with our heads in the direction of the bearded guy on the couch we would never see again.

     We scrambled out of the neighbour’s place bolting down the stairs, and then we were back home. The cat greeted us by rubbing himself against our legs, excitedly meowing—the big sneaky bonehead. His name was Gavroche, but we’d ended up calling him Kitty. Listening to him, you’d think we’d abandoned him for two weeks. We hadn’t decided yet whether we were going to deprive him of food too, so we bent over and asked him for his opinion. A stormy grey sky was threatening to cover the city; the thunder growled outside, in the background, and the cat ran under the bed to find refuge.

Charles Bolduc

Charles Bolduc is an award-winning Quebecois novelist. His first book, Les perruches sont cuites, was finalist for the 2008 Grand Prix littéraire Archambault. His most recent book, Les truites à mains nues, was finalist for the 2012 Governor General Award and recipient of the 2013 Prix Adrienne-Choquette.

Renée Masson

Renée Masson is an Ottawa-based French-English translator pursuing an M.A. in literary translation at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation.