Translated by Alan Brown
The “you” in that excerpt is Rose-Anna Lacasse, matriarch of the Montreal family who are the central characters of The Tin Flute, and those two sentences aptly summarize her approach to life: poverty is there, will be there forever and the best way to deal with it is to treat it as “a sickness you put to sleep inside you.”
Silent, she thought that poverty was like a sickness you put to sleep inside you, and it didn’t hurt too much as long as you didn’t move. You grew used to it, you ended up not paying much attention to it as long as you stayed tucked away with it in the dark; but when you took the notion of going out with it in daylight, it became frightening to the sight, so ugly you could not expose it to the sun.
Rose-Anna is not a dreary, defeated character — she is anything but. Yet there is a rigorous code that she applies to life: whenever things look to be improving, take care to contemplate the downside that will inevitably follow. It is just fine to enjoy the moment when you can, but don’t enjoy it too much — that will lead to even greater heartbreak when things return to the worse.
Her husband, Azarius, is the polar opposite. A qualified carpenter, the Depression has left him wandering from one hopeless job to another for years (and there were periods spent on the dole as well). Unlike Rose-Anna, who takes care to treat her poverty as a given that should never be ignored, Azarius lives in a dream world where escape is just a lucky heart beat away. Here’s the way Rose-Anna evaluates him:
And Azarius, poor fellow, he’d never learn, what new idea did he have up his sleeve. True, he was working and bringing home his pay — not much but enough to make ends meet. Yet day after day he was dreaming up new projects, wanting to quit his job as a taxi-driver, try something else — as if you could be choosy when you had children to feed, and fresh worries at home every minute of the day. As if you were free to say, in such a case, That job suits me, I have no use for this one … But that was Azarius all over, always ready to give up a sure thing for something new, his whole life long.
As The Tin Flute opens, Rose-Anna and Azarius have been living with their contradictory approaches for almost two decades — Rose-Anna is expecting the couple’s thirteenth child (although not all have survived). They have spent all those years in the lower-class, industrial neighborhood of St. Henri in Montreal, surrounded by the gloom of belching factories with a railway line cutting through the public square.
There are bigger, broader tensions that are ever-present in the background of Gabrielle Roy’s novel. The conflict between the rich Anglos and the working class Francophones. Urbanization, which has led to farm-raised girls like Rose-Anna having to find their way in the city. And that peculiar Montreal institution where tenancies in lower-cost housing all expire on May 1, setting off a city-wide outbreak of household moves — for Rose-Anna and Azarius, that has meant every May a relocation to accommodation that is a step or two below the one preceding.
The biggest over-riding factor of all in the present of the novel, for the young Francophone males of St. Henri at least, is World War II. On the one hand, enlisting means lining up to fight in a war to defend the English oppressors who have created this poverty — and the dreaded prospect of conscription looms. On the other, enlisting provides a steady income, albeit at some risk — and if you stretch things, the future of Mother France herself is at stake in this foreign war.
I have come a long way into this review without even introducing the most important (well, at least most sympathetic) character, Rose-Anna and Azarius’ daughter, Florentine. She works at the lunch counter at the Five and Ten in St. Henri and represents the prospect of “future”, whatever that might mean as the novel’s opening shows:
Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty.
The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clicking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life in St. Henri.
Florentine is not the only voice of the future in The Tin Flute — her two suitors, Jean and Emmanuel, bring opposing alternatives (brutally speaking, the selfish and altruistic) into play. Suffice to say that author Roy is realist enough that the careful “middle path” represented by Florentine (and her mother) is the one that proves most appropriate in this novel.
Indeed, Roy effectively illustrates that in a poignant scene that provides the title for The Tin Flute. Florentine’s youngest sibling, the sickly Daniel, has expressed a desire for a tin flute. Rose-Anna, in a rare excursion outside the immediate neighborhood, has dressed-up and stopped in at Florentine’s counter for lunch. It has been a good “tip” day for the daughter and she gives her mother two dollars to spend and watches as Rose-Anna heads off into the store proper:
Suddenly all the joy Florentine had felt turned to gall. Her happiness at being generous gave way to an aching stupor. What she had done had led to nothing.
At the back of the store Rose-Anna stopped at the toy counter. She was looking at a little tin flute, but she quickly put it back when a salesgirl approached. Florentine realized that between Daniel’s wish and the shiny flute there would always be her mother’s good intention — an intention repressed. And between her own wish to help Rose-Anna and the impossibility of doing so, nothing would be left but the hurting memory of today’s small, vain attempt.
She made herself smile at her mother who, in the distance, seemed to be asking for her advice: Should I buy the shining flute, the slim and pretty flute, or the stockings, the bread, the clothing? Which is more important? A flute like a ray of sunshine in the hands of a sickly boy, a flute breathing sound of happiness or the daily bread for the family table? Tell me, Florentine, which should I buy?
I don’t need to tell you which choice Rose-Anna makes.
The Tin Flute was published in 1945, the same year as Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, another volume in my 2013 project reviewed here a few months ago. Both tell the story of a Quebec that is struggling to come to terms with its mid-twentieth century reality — in a short afterword to the New Canadian Library version that I read, critic Philip Stratford aptly summed up the different approaches:
MacLennan’s novel described the political and economic tensions of a society in transition; Roy’s captured the social and psychological stress of a generation migrating from country to the city. His approach was that of the historian; hers more the dramatist’s.
If I may be permitted to risk a comparison, Roy plays Dickens in contrast to MacLennan’s Trollope. I tend to prefer novels that have a broader, societal context so it is no surprise that Two Solitudes said more to me but in no way is that a put-down of The Tin Flute — in its own way, the family drama of Roy’s novel is even more compelling and I can understand why many readers regard it as the better novel. I can only say that almost 70 years on, both deserve reading.