Nancy I. Bailey
[A closer look at La Guerre, Yes Sir!] suggests that its wide appeal may come less from a regional social realism than from the universal themes around which Carrier builds his fable, themes as true for Europeans and Americans as for Canadians. Carrier dedicates the novel (which he says he has "dreamed") "to those who have perhaps lived it." The vividness of his treatment of the lives of his Quebec villagers during World War II often resembles the grotesque, slightly enlarged scenes of dream and nightmare. But his themes, though mirrored in the concreteness of the French Canadian village, are concerned with the issues of our time: the hatred of war and the impossibility of being isolated from it; the failure of the Church to deal with problems of faith, or morality, and of alienation; the difficulty of relating to other cultures in the global village; and above all, the strange, stimulating presence of death as a means to authentic existence in life itself. These are not trivial themes, nor are they of concern only to French Canadians. (p. 43)
Throughout the novel we are kept aware of the villagers' religion—a popular form of Catholicism, to which the older people cling for comfort. The younger people are more inclined to use its sacred terms—hostie, calice, tabernacle, crucifice, etc.—in their blasphemies. The theological implications of prayers for the dead rise to the surface now and then: Corriveau was not bad enough to be burned in hellfire for ever, but he was bad enough to be burned in purgatory for quite a while, and God, who put him in the milder flames for his purification, will take him out sooner if they all keep repeating their garbled, nonsensical prayers. No wonder they need frequent draughts of cider to keep them at it. (p. 44)
The many parallels Carrier establishes between the war and the Church convey his criticism of this the dominant institution of the village. Through images too he links the Church to the life-diminishing forces of the community. The holy water freezes as the priest sprinkles Corriveau's grave. In the warped mind of Henri the Church and death are so closely associated that Corriveau's coffin becomes the ark into which the whole world enters. The nun with her thin smile and sharp teeth appears like a vulture peering in through the open window from the dark cold winter night on to the mourners, "whose sweat turned to ice on their backs." (pp. 44-5)
The book is founded on a paradox and itself participates in the paradox which it discovers to us, namely, that it is death which teaches us to appreciate life, just as hunger makes us appreciate food, and absence makes the heart grow fonder. Carrier has observed that the villagers are never so enamoured of life as when they are celebrating a wake. He therefore makes his novel the story of a wake. But paradoxically, the book, like the wake, turns out to be a celebration of life. The characters, who may at first sight appear to be a bunch of warped individuals, full of frustrations and inhibitions, turn out, on better acquaintance, to have a healthy love of life—and more common sense than the Church.
The bilingual title of the novel reflects the division between Canadian cultures but also the more essential thematic conflict between the negative force of death and the positive affirmation of life. Through Carrier's mastery of the technique of the modern...
(The entire section is 1405 words.)