REVIEW: Flowers of Spit

Flowers of Spit
By Catherine Mavrikakis
Translated by Nathanäel
BookThug (2011)

Read by Alexander R. St-Laurent

I can see why Nathanäel would want to translate Flowers of Spit since Catherine Mavrikakis’s novel broaches themes that the poet has explored in her own work (see either Touch to Affliction or The Sorrow and the Fast of It) themes of the intersections between sign and signifier, sex and death, and direct and indirect attachments to the physical body. Theirs is a natural literary union and Nathanäel does a wonderful job of capturing some of the poetic beauty and angst in her interpretation of Mavrikakis’s work, the negotiation between highly stylized prose and a use of rhythm and vocabulary of vulgar speech with sentences such as “We’ll fertilize the soil of tomorrow with our pathetic existences” (174) or “Today the church is jacking off. Tossing frenetically” (237). But perhaps some context is due.
Mavrikakis’s protagonist, Flore Forget, is an overworked surgeon who has recently lost her mother to cancer, which prompts her to confront not only the return of her long lost war veteran brother, but an existential crisis as well. Flore’s story is ultimately one of struggle: with the death of her mother; with her brother’s poisonous presence; with the complicated dynamics and history of her family; with her role as a mother herself; with identity; and with the meaning of life and death. Yet, while each of these concerns is rich with dramatic possibility, they do little to push the story forward: everything has already happened. What remains is Flore’s struggle to accept the events of her life through ten chapters of tempestuous and nihilistic soliloquies. Now don’t get me wrong, I love nihilistic prose as much as the next student of Beckett or Bernhard, but Flore’s grievance lacks two important ingredients: insight, and more importantly humour. Of course, the character’s lack of insight may be excused seeing as this seems to be the crux of the novel: Flore’s inability to move on from her plight, whether or not she accepts it or understands it. Flore does little more than wail into the void, offering fleeting thought after fleeting thought of vitriol and decadent anger, and one is ultimately left wondering not only if anyone is listening, but if she is even listening to herself. After nearly two hundred pages of references to Freud, Saussure, Céline, and Sophocles, she admits to a figurative inability to read:
Hervé tells me I should put myself to literature more than I do. How much better it would be than meds! That’s where he finds consolation. But I don’t know how to read. I only know how to spit. I’m like a dragon. I vomit words of fire. Literature is another story! I don’t know it. (182)
Perhaps the point is that there is no escape despite one’s attempt to accept the inevitable. While Flore is laughable, and I say this not as a criticism of the construction of the character but as an interpretation of the character herself, there is little humour to her brand of nihilism which leads this reader to question the integrity of her philosophical plight. Flore only superficially grasps the weight of her contemplative ramblings as she lacks any of Vladimir or Estragon’s, for instance, conviction or confusion. That is not to say that Flore is not confused, for she is. But my estimation is that she is confused about what it is she wants out of life, and not so much about the metaphysical musings of life and death. Yet, again, this may very well be the point: one can contemplate the meaning of life and come to terms with her death all she wants, but ultimately it does not matter.
Am I alive? Deceased? Flowering? Wilted? Blossoming? Withered? I’m but a flower, a perennial, not an annual. I flower, I flower again and I don’t know how. (239)