“Volkswagen Blues”, published in 1984, is a road novel written by French-Canadian author Jacques Poulin. During the novel, we follow the protagonist, a writer under the pen-name Jacques Waterman, in his search for his estranged brother Théo. Near the start of his journey, Jacques picks up a hitchhiker named Pitsémine, who is a young Métis woman who is nicknamed “La Grande Sauterelle”, and her cat Chop Suey. After this, the couple embark on the journey from Gaspé to San Francisco, travelling through many of the large North American cities such as Toronto and Chicago, in order to find Théo. As the story unfolds, it is clear that the novel is far more than solely a story about finding Jacques’ brother, it is clear that it contains many metaphorical features which give the reader much information about the relationships between the White Francophone and the indigenous population of North America. Furthermore, Poulin gives us an insight on the exploration of the continent by the Europeans and the indigenous people’s attitudes towards them.
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In order to analyse the novel as an exploration of the rapport between Francophones and indigenous North Americans, we must place it in its historical context so we can examine the attitudes of the two populations during this period. The previous ten years before the novel was published were an important time in the attempt to establish a peaceful relationship between the varying populations in Quebec. In 1976, the political party “Parti Québécois” came to power in Quebec under the leadership of René Lévesque. This signalled intent from the population of Quebec for a referendum on national sovereignty, and this was granted in 1980 when a public vote took place to decide the future of Quebec. However, the outcome was a defeat for those encouraging national sovereignty as they only earned 40% of the vote, although this still showed there was a large divide in opinion amongst the people of Quebec. Moreover, in 1982, two years before the publishing of the novel, tensions amongst the separate populations increased further when Quebec refused to ratify the terms of Canada’s new constitution. This historical information tells us that the metaphorical issues of integration and multiculturalism were at the forefront of the political agenda during the period which the novel was written and published. Therefore it seems reasonable to take these political features as the main theme of the novel and ultimately this is why Poulin wrote the story.
Furthermore, the main characters of the story alone, without even considering the events that unfold, tell us much about the political motives of the book. For example, the main protagonist Jacques Waterman is a middle class writer who has no clear background and seemingly no true foundations in Quebec. Pitsémine is Métis who appears quite independent with many competences, for example she is a mechanic who has driven lorrys. Straight away we can observe the diversity within the Quebec region, and perhaps Pitsémine’s skilfulness as opposed to Waterman’s passivity is a message conveyed by the author in order to emphasise that any racism in Quebec towards the native population is unfounded.
Moreover, this couple come together from the two separate groups in order to go on a searching journey, it is clear that Poulin intended this search as a metaphor for the political and cultural situation in Quebec. The two protagonists are not solely searching for Théo, but many different elements which Quebec as a whole is also searching for in the period in which the novel is written. They follow in the footsteps of the early European discoverers of North America in search of wealth and prosperity, the narrator mentions the mythical, golden city of Eldorado in order to reinforce this. Furthermore, the protagonists are also venturing through North America in order to clarify their identities, they are on a search to find out who they truly are. This element is also relevant for Quebec in this era as it was starting to question its identity and place in America as a result of the large diversity that exists. Moreover, the main purpose of the journey is to find Théo who it seems is symbolic in the same aspects as the United States in the elements of freedom and liberty, he has left Quebec and is therefore deemed as free and doing as he pleases, again this is a metaphor for something that Quebec is looking for.
Nevertheless, there are many other aspects which support the view that the novel is an exploration of the relationships of the different populations in Quebec. For example, Poulin makes use of both English and French in order to reinforce the multiple ethnicities of the region. This underlines to the reader that in many ways the two languages run side by side peacefully, however there is also an underlying impression of independence of cultures and language which can sometimes cause division. It could be said that Poulin is trying to convey the message that if the two languages can go together in the novel then there is no reason as to why they can’t co-exist in reality. Furthermore, during their journey, Jacques and Pitsémine meet many monolingual Americans, for example the bull rider’s wife, and Jacques struggles to communicate effectively in English. This could be deduced as an allusion to the domination of English in modern North America and could perhaps hint to Quebec that they should try to preserve the Francophone tradition there. Moreover, despite Jacques’ incredibly competent ability in his native language, French, the reader is told of his struggle with English, we know that he is an intelligent man as he has had many books published. It could be said that this is a metaphor for the division that exists between Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec and how difficult it could be to integrate the two groups into eachother.
Nonetheless, during the journey we can observe that Jacques and Pitsémine are not always certain that they are going in the right direction and often get lost. Furthermore, they are not totally sure of the goal of the journey and this is much the same of the journey of Quebec and the population who live in it. This uncertainty is reflected in Jacques as he does not necessarily understand the main reason as to why he is looking for Théo, who he has not spoken with for many years and is only a memory inside his head. It is possible that the author is trying to convey the message that Quebec is also uncertain of how it wants its journey to finish. Much of the population of the region at the time were calling for independence from Canada, however many people were also opposed to this, also a large number of people were calling for better integration of the ethnic groups of Quebec, again many people were against this as they wanted to protect the unique cultures.
At the end of the journey, the couple find Théo and to their surprise he is suffering from amnesia and paralysis, he is unable to remember his brother. However, as a result of this, Jacques finds the inspiration to write a new book and he seemingly has a fresher outlook on life, as though he is finally affirmed as to his true identity. Furthermore, the couple end up having a rather sceptical view of the ideological American dream, perhaps because they have travelled such a long way through the vast land of North America only to find Théo terminally ill rather than the wealth and prosperity that they had hoped for.
Therefore, in conclusion, it is evident that “Volkswagen Blues” has far more depth than just being a story about a man and his friend voyaging around North America looking for his long lost brother, but a sophisticated, politically and culturally metaphorical novel about the relationships amongst the ethnically diverse populations of North America and the future of the first setting of the novel, Quebec. We can deduce from the many aspects of the story, such as language and characters, that like much Québécois literature of this era, there are prominent political features and messages throughout the entire novel.
Postcolonialism in North America: Imaginative Colonization in Henry David Thoreau’s “A Yankee in Canada” and Jacques Poulin’s “Volkswagen Blues”
Adam Paul Weisman, The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 477-500.
The Quebec Novel Today: Multiple Perspectives, Mary Jean Green, The French Review, Vol. 67, No. 6, Special Issue on Québec (May, 1994), pp. 922-92.
Volkswagen Blues: Rebirth through communication, Andrea Portt, Guelph, Vol 2, No 2 (2009).
Writing against knowing, writing against certainty; or what’s really under the veranda in Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues, Roger Hyman, Journal of Canadian Studies (1999)
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