Tuesday, July 21, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 1st review - The Cashier

Gabrielle Roy's novel The Cashier begins in one direction, exploring the life of a relatively minor man, who works as a bank cashier in Montreal, and then moves in quite different directions.  I'd actually paired it in my reading list with Vladislavic's The Restless Supermarket, thinking that the cashier worked in a supermarket.  (Cashier is more of a British usage; in the US and anglo-Canada, as far as I can tell, his job title would be called bank teller.)  As it happens, The Restless Supermarket is only incidentally about supermarkets; it certainly is a bit of misdirection as to what the bulk of that book is about.  In contrast, we do see the cashier, Alexandre Chenevert, at his job in several scenes in The Cashier, though almost exclusively in the first section of the book.  Chenevert is not at his post in the second and third sections for a variety of reasons, good and bad. While even the blurb on the back of the book makes it pretty clear what is going to happen, I want to make sure there are sufficient SPOILER warnings before I proceed.

SPOILERS throughout the rest of this review.

Roy establishes Chenevert as a unassuming man, never expecting much out of life for himself, but one who is a bit prickly.  He cares a great deal about things that he cannot control, such as world politics, and because he cares so much about these issues, he is more than a little quarrelsome to his (very) few friends.  He comes very close to being a crank, and for a while I considered him very similar to Aubrey Teale from The Restless Supermarket.  The motivating force is a bit different, however.  Teale is thoroughly conservative and wants nothing more than the Johannesburg and Hillbrow he grew up in to be frozen in amber, Chenevert seems to have some longings for world peace and social justice more generally.  (He is completely gutted on the death of Gandhi for example and actually briefly tries fasting, only to find out that he cannot focus on his job.)  Nonetheless, in his personal behaviour, he is correct, measured and a bit narrow-minded.  He is also very cheap, though this seems to stem more from his limited prospects at work than anything else.  It was a bit of a shock to find out that he was living in Quebec in an era before universal health care, and he only took out medical insurance on himself, since his wife wasn't contributing to the household budget.  In the end, she needs some procedures done related to "female troubles" and they have to save up for that.  On the other hand, he does scrimp and save and manages to contribute to a life insurance policy so that his wife and daughter have something to live on in the event of his death or disability.  (Again, Roy mentions that old age pensions are just slowly coming into the picture in Quebec and Canada more generally in the late 1940s.  It took quite a while to build up the safety net, and it looks like it may take only another generation to dismantle it, though this is certainly eroding faster in the U.S. than Canada.)

You do get a sense that Chenevert is kind of a small, cramped man, who may be perfectly correct in dealing with customers, but he just doesn't have that assertiveness and a real touch with others that would have propelled him to become assistant bank manager for example.  There is an interesting passage where the bank manager has to assure Chenevert that he won't be fired for losing $100 from his till, but that he will have to pay it back in installments over the next few months!  This manager is very much of the school of Dale Carnegie and believes that if people do the right thing, they will be rewarded.  He actually finds Chenevert very threatening to his world view, since this is a man who will clearly not naturally rise to the top, even though on the surface he has done the right thing.  (Again, I find quite a few parallels with Teale, who apparently was a good proofreader, but never was able to achieve his dream of proofreading a dictionary!)

At any rate, a customer returns from vacation and discovers the extra $100 in his account and notifies the bank.  Faced with this windfall, Chenevert saves much of it, but it able to go on vacation himself.  Interestingly, his wife goes to stay with her family, and he rents a small cabin in the countryside.  Section two of the novel takes place during this vacation.  He is very much the city boy quite out of place in the country.  He is not dressed appropriately, and starts off being quite stand-offish to the farmer from whom he rented the cabin.  It is not clear if Chenvert has ever even been outside the city.  Within a few days he finds himself enjoying the bounty of nature and open to life in a way that he has never before experienced.  He spends time with the farmer and his wife, and even asks in a very hesitant way if one, like himself inexperienced in country life, could learn to live off of the land.  The farmer assures him that between fruits, vegetables and plentiful fish, one can easily life in high style.  While Chenevert does seem to seriously consider making this move (one can only imagine his wife's reaction...), at some deeper level, he realizes this is just a fantasy, not only because he could not actually make a go of becoming a gentleman farmer but that the rural world is ultimately too alien for someone raised in the city.  Nonetheless, he experiences a full day of bliss and is quite grateful for it, even thinking in his own mind that this is a memory that will help sustain him for the rest of his life and in his decline (which happens far more quickly than he could have anticipated).  He even tries to write some aspects of this epiphany down but gets it all scrambled.  This section, particularly the idea that one amazing day can sustain the soul, is very reminiscent of the film After Life (the Japanese near masterpiece (Ebert's review) and not the schlocky horror film). Every so often I wonder what my best day would be, and it is nearly impossible, since I generally think back to a day when my mother visited me in New York City or in Toronto, but then that excludes any time with my children, who were born long after she died.  I think it is quite a conundrum for people who have had very eventful lives...

The third section sees Chenevert to Montreal and to his post behind his cashier's window in the bank.  He is somewhat more generous in spirit after this trip.  Roy could have gone in two directions, I think.  Either the epiphany truly changed him (an optimistic view) or that, like most people, his good spirits and intentions did not last (a more jaded yet realistic view).  She actually goes in a third direction, which is that Chenevert gets quite ill very quickly.  The doctor is a bit annoyed that men like Chenevert don't seek out medical attention while there is still hope, though in this particular case Chenevert has an aggressive form of cancer and there really is not much that could be done.  Chenevert is extremely reluctant to have a colostomy but he is reassured that he could live for 10 or more years with it and still work at the bank, so he goes ahead with the procedure.  Unfortunately, this makes little difference, and he is back in the hospital in a very short time.  While he starts off as a bit difficult, he becomes a model patient.  There is a priest who finds himself affected by Chenevert's suffering and attempts to become a better priest, realizing that a priest who has never suffered from ill health may not be in the right posting.  This is a very minor subplot, but it did remind me a bit of Power's Morte d'Urban where a priest gains a more thorough understanding of faith from his parishioners. Personally I am not that interested in characters who gain nobility through suffering, so I was less interested in this section than the first two, but it is still generally well-drawn.  I thought there were a few parallels with Dostoevesky's The Idiot, though most of his suffering was essentially self-inflicted.

It's a little hard to rate the book, since the three parts are so different, but it did make me think quite a bit for such a short novel (just over 200 pages), so on the whole I would recommend it to readers who have a bit of a philosophical outlook (and are not expecting a lot of action).  It does require an openness to a book about an underdog who does not triumph, so if one requires a happy ending (aside from the bit about achieving nobility through suffering) then this might be a book to avoid.

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