Why do we create narratives for ourselves? How do we define who we are through story? Nancy Huston’s Instruments des Ténèbres takes this idea and pushes it about as far as it can go…initially, by giving us a narrator who is actually a writer, whose daily business it is to create a narrative, create a series of characters and give them life. But later, she reworks this same idea into the entire construct of the novel, bringing the novel’s two stories together so they become one complete work.
I use the word ‘work’ here on purpose. Narrator Nadia’s creation – her notes on her own life and the fictional story she creates for the reader in parallel – is a process, un vrai travail, a labor. In essence, Nadia undertakes a painstaking restoration of herself. In the beginning of the novel she admits she is no longer Nadia, but Nada. A nothing, a no one. Through her work, the creation of her Sonate de la Résurrection (a title which alludes to rebirth and transformation), she does the hard work of not only fictional creation, but the re-location/definition/creation of herself.
As I mentioned before, there are two stories – called, respectively, Le Carnet Scordatura and the Sonate de la Résurrection. For the first, she explains that scordatura is a musical term for dissonance but that its root, scordare, means to forget – so, on the one hand this notebook is Nadia’s claim to otherness, her assertion of herself as an element of discord, but at the same time, it’s her method of forgetting, of moving away from the past. The second story, set in France in the 1600’s, is an intensely beautiful story of a set of twins, Barbe and Barnabé.
One of the aspects of this book that struck me from the beginning is Nadia’s voice. In the first few pages, as she introduces herself to the reader, she is both compelling and repulsive. A dangerously bitter woman:
…la haine est une de mes grandes et belles spécialités intimes, mon coeur renferme toute une université qui n’enseigne que la haine, propose des séminaires en haine avancée, distribue des doctorats en haine.
[…hate is one of my greatest and most beautiful secret talents, my heart houses an entire university which teaches only hate, offers lectures in advanced hate, gives out PhDs in hatred.]
Yet the reader is wise to be wary of her claims – she admits she has a penchant for exaggeration and lying. She claims apathy for all things beautiful and an indifference to love, friends and family. But as soon as she opens her other notebook – the Sonate – and begins her creative work, the story of Barbe and Barnabé, the reader slowly comes to see the cracks in that other voice. This is the same narrator, but she depicts these twins with an incredible gentleness and love. And as she returns to her Carnet, she isn’t able to leave that other narrator’s voice completely behind and suddenly we start to see her who she really is – this is the first clue of how she bridges these two seemingly disparate narratives. Slowly, this mingling of Nadia’s voice intensifies as the novel lengthens and eventually not only Nadia as a narrator can be detected inside the story of Barbe and Barnabé but suddenly, and quite cleverly, Barbe and Barnabé (as symbols, if you will) become the main focus of Nadia’s modern-day narrative.
This is a book which begs to be read and re-read, it contains quite a lot – religion and trauma and loneliness, a reflection on writing process and the catharsis found in writing, in history’s continual influence on the present. I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Lastly, for anyone interested, Instruments des Ténèbres was translated by Huston as Instruments of Darkness.