[QC Fiction; 2024]

Tr. from the French by Melissa Bull

Born in Boston, I grew up during the interminable era of the Big Dig, when the city was overtaken by the towering vertebrae of cranes, the incessant pulse of drills, the honks of rerouted traffic jams, and the cold-comfort promise of a better tomorrow. The Big Dig set out to transform the face of Boston by moving the unsightly Central Artery highway underground. Despite its now infamous connotations (the project took over twenty billion dollars and twenty-five years to complete), the Big Dig was meant to herald a new era of urban development. Gone, said the state’s progressive leadership, were the days of large-scale public works projects that razed entire neighborhoods—often deemed “slums”—in the name of renewal. After all, Boston’s Central Artery, built in 1959, had displaced twenty thousand residents and divided the city’s downtown.

That earlier era of city-defining public works projects had its heyday in the second half of the twentieth century. In North America, such projects reshaped the fabric of entire cities, from New York City, Toronto, and Los Angeles to San Francisco, Chicago—and Montreal. In Morel, the first novel by Canadian author Maxime Raymond Bock, translated from the French by Melissa Bull, we see this story through the eyes of Jean-Claude Morel, a Montreal construction worker who helps build the modern city that today ranks among the world’s most livable. 

But Morel is no paean to Montreal’s transformation into a global capital of commerce and culture. Instead, Bock imagines one of the countless souls who built contemporary Montreal, giving their bodies for the city that, in turn, displaced them. Retired and alone at the novel’s opening, Morel is visited by an estranged granddaughter who wants to hear his life story. Narrated in a close third person that mirrors Morel’s salt-of-the-earth modesty, the novel unfolds as he turns to the past, a chaotic “tangle of unpredictable scenes followed haphazardly by another . . . with dead ends, threadless plots, unresolved narratives, and unexpected disappearances.” With Bock’s winding and dense sentences, reading Morel feels like flipping through an out-of-order family photo album that can, at times, be hard to follow.

The specifically francophone Montreal of Bock’s novel is preserved by Bull, a writer and translator of several Montréalais authors. With its sprinkling of Quebecois profanities, Bull’s translation carries over traces of Joual, the dialect of Montreal’s francophone working class. A world of big families, Catholic tradition, and proletarian solidarity, Bock’s Montreal is far from the bobo multiculturalism of Mordecai Richler’s Montreal. Morel grows up in the gritty Faubourg à m’lasse, a now vanished working class neighborhood that is most poignantly chronicled in Francis Ouellette’s (yet untranslated) Mélasse de fantaisie. The Faubourg is a crowded neighborhood of dilapidated apartment buildings that abuts an industrial wasteland, where “the air is as toxic as ever, rife with backfiring trucks, ships suppurating black wakes.”

In Bock’s novel, the narrative weaves back and forth along the timeline of Morel’s memory, spurning the need to identify characters or places forthwith. Born during the Great Depression into a big family packed inside a small apartment, Morel drops out of school at grade seven. He roams the Faubourg with his friend Morissette, “grime ringing their necks and their ears, crusted under their nails and in every fold of their skin.” They pilfer vegetables from the market and seek adventure with “Richard the hobo.” Morel discovers a passion for building, marveling at the feats of civil engineering. The untimely death of his father, a factory worker who loses his arm in a workplace accident, ushers Morel into adulthood.

After World War II, Quebec was ruled under the clerico-nationalist government of Premier Maurice Duplessis, which was deeply conservative, corrupt, and anti-unionist. But Duplessis’s sudden death in 1959 paved the way for the electoral victory of the Liberal Party under Jean Lesage the following year. Under Lesage’s premiership, Quebec’s society would be transformed through a program of state-led economic modernization, political reform, the creation of a welfare state, the secularization of its society, and a newfound pride in Quebecois identity. These changes, now called Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, are reflected in Morel. The hero’s childhood revolves around the Catholic Church, which, before the Quiet Revolution, controlled Montreal’s education, healthcare, and social services. By the time Morel starts his own family, the Church’s importance has greatly diminished, and his family only visits “out of weary habit, faithful to appearances like the majority of the good folks down here.” More broadly, Morel’s gradual escape from the outright poverty of his childhood into a more secure retirement aligns with Montreal’s development and investment in social programs. But in many ways, Morel is most immediately impacted by the material manifestations of the Quiet Revolution.

In Montreal, the reformist mayor Jean Drapeau sought to transform the city into a world-class destination through the rapid build-out of skyscrapers, multi-lane highways, sprawling parking lots, and a new metro system as well as several prestige projects, including Expo 67 and the 1976 Montreal Olympics. These projects would, however, require the destruction of entire neighborhoods, and the city was turned into one big construction site. Morel is on the ground, excavating the tunnels and trenches of the Montreal Metro, paving the city’s new highways, and even raising the artificial islands built in the St. Lawrence River for Expo 67. But he and his fellow workers remain out of sight, “erased underground, carrying rubble, tonnes of rubble, incalculable masses of rubble.” Even so, Morel takes pride in his role in the city’s metamorphosis: “We’re shifting Montreal one dump truck at a time.”

As the city is on the move, Morel’s family is chased from neighborhood to neighborhood, facing the perennial threat of expropriation and demolition: “His family flattened, split up by the brutal shamelessness of developers.” At one point, Morel finds out that his childhood friend Morissette is squatting in the last remaining house in a neighborhood slated for destruction. Morissette pleads for Morel’s support in his hopeless campaign: “You see, all this is ours. It belongs to us. And them’s that’re coming, they just want to take it away.” But families like Morel’s are priced ever further out of the city, caught in a “vicious cycle that would have him work to destroy his home in order to earn the money he needed to pay for another.”

Bock’s hero—his unusual name nested in the name of his city—becomes a metonym for a generation of Montreal’s working class. Haunted in old age by aches and pains, Morel is a “grey, perpetually broken and patched body, left piece by piece to the city.” Some workers give their lives, falling down ventilation shafts or stairwells; others drown in hot asphalt or are killed by falling debris. Though their bodies form part of the new Montreal, they are only pawns, forced to “compete with each other when they’re equally together in this mess, ruin their bodies and souls for fistfuls of change when they made towers surge from the ground for multimillionaires.”

Despite Morel’s rising sense of inequality and injustice, Bock only obliquely calls out the forces profiting from the city’s development, who trumpet an “ultra-powerful modernity that tears everything down with the incoercible momentum that enthusiasts deem progress.” In an Orwellian fashion, Morel and his fellow workers are instructed: “Destroy to build.” They hate the “[a]ssholes sitting pretty in their big Outremont mansions,” but these sources of money and power are conspicuous by their absence in Bock’s novel. They only seem to exist by occupying what Morel has built—and where he never returns. He feels unwelcome in Place Ville Marie or Nuns’ Island, places “where he left teeth and blood.”

Throughout the hardship that is his life, Morel maintains a deep love for his family. The novel traces the intimate dramas of Morel’s family life: the courtship of his wife Lorraine, the birth of their first child, the death of their youngest. “We didn’t live rich, but we lived well,” Morel proudly asserts. By and large, he seems content with the hand he has been dealt: “Because sometimes happiness does show its face, and Morel doesn’t have to be told where to look to see it.” Bock’s plain-speaking style emphasizes Morel’s humility.

Given the attention accorded to Montreal’s economic story, it is notable that Bock chooses to omit other politics of the period. The years over which Morel’s story unfolds saw tremendous political upheaval, in no small part due to the Quiet Revolution’s renewed emphasis on Quebec’s unique identity and the French language (codified in the 1974 Official Language Act). The Faubourg à m’lasse was razed in 1963 in order to build Maison Radio-Canada, a centerpiece of the new francophone media landscape. This period, with its nationalist underpinnings, gave rise to the Quebec autonomy movement under René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois, the terrorism of the Front de libération du Québec in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Quebec independence referenda in 1980 and 1995. None of this seems to affect or interest Morel. In fact, Morel grows disillusioned early on by political action and labor organizing. In his view, the “opposition, the demonstrations, the popular mobilizations, have only produced fatigue and disgust.” But his oldest son, André, throws himself into the world of activism among workers “who’d felt the revolt blossoming in them for a long time.” Shaped by the student movements of the 1960s, André is of a more politically and socially engaged generation. Morel spars with André over his activism, leading to their eventual estrangement.

The rest of Morel’s family also splinters, marking a break from the crowded intimacy of his childhood. His other children grow up and move out, and he and Lorraine get divorced. After an indolent spell as a bachelor, Morel enjoys several years of happiness with Monique, a kindred soul whose marriage also fell apart after the death of a child. But Monique’s eventual death leaves Morel finally and definitively alone. That is, until Catherine, one of André’s daughters, begins to visit her estranged grandfather, hoping to fill in gaps in her family history. Morel wonders, “What’s there to tell? Not much that’s interesting about the life of an old man like me. I didn’t do anything important.”

Morel comes to understand that Catherine isn’t after an epic tale—just the mundanity of his life as he lived it. He concludes that “[l]ife’s boring for all of us. And painful, too. It’s violent. But maybe it’s just the way we talk about the dull parts that makes it meaningful.” And, in truth, his life story embodies the breakneck pace of Montreal’s evolution. Morel’s ancestors first arrived in the city hungry, abundant, and poor; Catherine’s world is almost unrecognizable. With its occasionally plodding attention to detail, Bock’s novel is nigh on elegiac in its attempt to bear witness to one man’s life.

One day, Catherine brings Morel to her office in a skyscraper overlooking Montreal’s skyline. Together, they observe “cranes, cranes, more cranes tower over a thousand erect structures—offices and condos all hastily built to take advantage of the deregulated altitude limits agreed upon by the last corrupt administration, whose only wish is to gradually asphyxiate anything created on a human scale.” Perhaps, Morel wonders, less has changed than meets the eye. But still he sees himself as the quintessential everyman: “he was just another worker among all the men occupied with the imperious, integral concreting of the city.”

Morel is a hymn to a Montreal that has vanished—not by twists of fate, but under the pummeling of asphalt driven by an insatiable capitalism. This new city was born, painfully, on the remains of Morel’s Montreal. In Boston, too, the Big Dig drastically changed the face of the city, with its fair share of supporters and detractors. But while it was meant to inaugurate a new era of inclusive urban renewal, the Big Dig instead marked the end of a short-lived period of idealism over big public works projects in the US. In the years since, the face of many North American cities, for better or for worse, has hardly changed. The Montreal Morel built may endure for some time yet.

Eamon McGrath is a writer and critic currently based in Brooklyn. He writes about literature from Southeastern Europe on Instagram @balkanbooks. His work has appeared in Balkanist, The Upper New Review, and La Piccioletta Barca, among other places.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.