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Nikolski, By Nicolas Dickner, trans Lezer Lederhendler

Spaced out and all at sea in Canada

Canada, for all its bad rep as the Switzerland of North America, is a fascinating place. It seems to rattle around in its own wilderness. Yet it has a quiet, polite subversiveness which Nicolas Dickner's first novel epitomises.

Nikolski is full of wonderful imagery and eclectic characters. Professor Saint-Laurent rummages in Montreal trashcans to prove his theory that archaeology begins with the remains of last night's supper. Noah, separated from his nomadic mother by the expanse of North America, communicates with her by endless letters sent to addresses chosen arbitarily on the map. Joyce, who believes herself descended from pirates, recycles computers to pursue her piracy by credit-card fraud in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, our unnamed narrator holds onto a little plastic globe compass, reminder of the father he never knew. It is a talisman of his rootlessness, and, indeed, of his fellow characters'. His compass points, not to true north, but to an Arctic settlement named Nikolski. Eventually, it will bring all these roamers together, just as a Three-Headed Book – an antique chimera stitched together from a study on treasure hunting, a treatise on Caribbean pirates, and part of Alexander Selkirk's memoir (the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe) – becomes an esoteric manual passed from hand to hand.

Dickner's characters are appealingly idiosyncratic. Joyce has been brought up in a tiny French Canadian village, forced to look after her voracious uncles and cousins and to gut fish – a talent which comes in handy when she escapes to Montreal and finds employment in a fishmonger's. In the same apartment block lives Noah, now pursuing his studies with eccentric Professor Saint-Laurent. In the library he meets a Venezulan student of indigenous races – the scion of a wealthy Caracas family.

These exotic biographies add a hint of magical realism. Sea serpents and whales swim through the text. Moby-Dick is an intermittent trope, although Noah declares he has neither the time nor inclination to read it. And as with Melville's magisterial work, notions of statehood and belonging thread Nikolski's narrative. But racial identity is just one key to the way in which the book's protagonists are both removed from. and part of, greater political issues.

There is a randomness to this which may become infuriating if the reader is expecting all these plots to tie up neatly. They don't. The result is an allusive, often beautifully written and entertaining novel (elegantly translated from Canadian French). Dickner's book leaves the reader with an airy impression of having dallied in an alternative universe. Perhaps that's what living in Canada is like.

Philip Hoare's 'Leviathan' is published by Fourth Estate

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