Reading Nijinsky, Rioux's enigmatically retitled novel (the 1995 French text is transparently dubbed Traductrice de sentiments), is another love storyalbeit a much less conventional one. This is not a book about the great dancer, although his diaries do provide the aphorisms which open each chapter. It tells the story of Éléonore, a translator of popular romances, who leaves her home in Montreal to spend the winter on the coast of Spain. While abroad, she is to translate Wolfman, the autobiography of a serial killer named Leonard Ming.
Éléonore has no personal connection to Ming, but she has decided to translate this singularly violent book out of a kind of obsession: she gave birth to a daughter when she was fourteen years old and was forced to put the child up for adoption. Later, when she attempted to make contact with her daughter, she found that she had died at the age of three. Éléonore never learned how her daughter died, but she has been haunted by visions of her child's bloody death. She approaches Ming's autobiography in an effort to learn just what it is like to rape and murder a child, and just why someone would do such a thing.
Éléonore stays aloof from the inhabitants of Almuñecar, the Andalusian town that she selects as the site of her working holiday, but she does make contact with a few other displaced individuals, including a bereaved mongrel and a septuagenarian Russian émigré. Most importantly, she meets Lukas, an Italian-Canadian lawyer, who lives in Rome and works for the United Nations, and who quickly takes up the role of the romantic lead. He does have one dark secret in his past, but he is in the book primarily to allow for one good earnest love affair, consummated slowly, but without serious consequences.
As Éléonore's stay wears on, and as she becomes increasingly involved in her translation of Wolfman, three local teenagers disappear in an apparent abduction. They become a morbid counterpoint to Ming's story, and to the mystery of Éléonore's daughter's death. Leonard Ming's killings, however, remain the focus of Rioux's study of extreme violence. It would not be true to say that she treats this material "unflinchingly," for all of her accounts of torture and murder are mediated by several layers of narrative distance, even if they are still graphic enough to be seriously disturbing. This is, of course, the point: without becoming these people we cannot imagine the role of killer or victim. When Éléonore and Lukas first make love, she asks him to tie her up, to spit on her, to insult her and defile her. He refuses, and they return to the conventional "lies" of romance: "I love only you." When paraphrased like this, the sentiment is banal, but Rioux's novel makes it all too vivid.
For the most part, Rioux's writing is effective and unpretentious, but not unpoetic. Only the final love scenewhich seems to have been lifted from a particularly tacky late-night film or one of the novels that Éléonore has spent her life translatingrings false, even though Reading Nijinsky's flirtations with genre fiction almost justify it. In translation, the prose is surprisingly naturalthe book's preoccupation with linguistic interplay lets it leap into English quite easily, and Jonathan Kaplansky has kept the narrative clean and meditative. Reading Nijinsky works like a concerted assault of pulled punches; Rioux makes her book examine evil, then turn away, leaving a kind of romantic idealism intact. Jack Illingworth
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada