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Kaie Kellough’s Accordéon: His, My, and Your Montreal

Kaie Kellough’s Accordéon is a delight to read, especially for those of us who live or have lived in Montreal. Kellough’s experimental book guides us through the city in an extremely vivid manner, offering an honest, panoramic and specific view of Montreal. An anonymous and unnamed narrator, who is a Montreal itinerant, guides us through a monologue that weaves multiple voices, portraying this city’s multiculturalism. Accordéon is a beautiful and extremely creative representation of a multi-dimensional and dynamic Montreal.

Through telling their stories, Kellough represents minorities, outsiders, and iconoclasts; he includes the homeless, the working class, and the wealthy; he describes Montrealers born and raised, immigrants, students, parents, and artists. In a non-linear, fragmented testimony, the narrator saunters through time and space, shifting from past, present, and future. They “talk about everything that is happening and everything that has happened and will happen in and to this city.” Accordéon mixes fantastical elements, historical events, contemporary issues, routines, traditions, and cultural values that are reminders of the city.

Even though the narration is a monologue, it surprisingly manages to represent multiple voices. We never know who the speaker is, because the narrator’s voice is always shifting, creating a polyphonic ambience. The city “exists inside and outside this monologue”; similarly, “everything is inside and outside of everything, and that is the moral of this story.” For Kellough, it is essential to represent all those voices because they each contribute to the shaping of Montreal’s society. People born and raised in Montreal, but whose parents are immigrants, feel discriminated, even though it is their “birthright […] to publicly discuss the conditions of [their] existence.” It is also the birthright of those who were not born in Montreal. The author himself is the first in his family to be born in Canada—Vancouver, not Montreal—and he reminds us of how difficult it was to grow up in the 80s and 90s if you were different.

Kellough portrays how people move and how they are restricted within Montreal. He understands that each one sees and feels the city differently: white, middle-class locals have a very different experience from immigrants and people of color, for example. The narrator comprehends that as well, which is why they “talk through a million mouths, in a million different voices.” The narrator “allow[s] everything to vibrate through [them], and once it is all vibrating [they] feel the different tempos of vibration, and [they] open [their] mouth and those tempos become talk.” It is interesting that he uses the phrase “tempos of vibration,” as it resonates with Kellough’s profession as a word-sound systemizer. I highly recommend listening to his interpretation of the alphabet (easily found on YouTube). It immediately makes me think of an accordion, for he recites the alphabet in an extremely innovative way, going back and forth several times before reaching “z” and then doing the same backwards. Not only is his concentration mind-blowing, but so is his creativity in transforming something as simple and straightforward as the alphabet. It is definitely a shift from the usual ABC song we learn since we are little.

The book’s title itself is a beautiful representation of Kellough’s intention to depict this multi-existent Montreal, for there is more than one way to interpret the title Accordéon. It can be a representation of how verbs work and how people are in accord with each other. Despite the “chaotic and contradictory storylines” and “unresolvable situations”, as Kellough himself points out, the messy narrative weaves together an extremely reliable and cohesive portrayal of Montreal.

It is also interesting to think about the title’s meaning in French: accordéon is the French word for accordion, an instrument which stretches and compresses, and which looks like a book when played. “The way it unfolds and folds back in, like it contains infinite space” resonates with the narrator’s multivocality and shifts through past, present, and future. Just like time, an accordion also “collapses and expands”. Even the visual of the book conveys this idea of expansion: letters which seem to be individually and insignificantly printed at the top of the pages—scattered and expanded throughout the book—reveal a quote at the end: “un jour nous serons en faveur de vivre éternellement à l’aube attendant la fièvre du jour.” Something that initially does not make sense and may be overlooked by readers turns out to have meaning, and the random letters end in accord with each other.

The book’s layout and structure also contribute to portray this multivocal, multilayered Montreal. Kellough’s original intent was to have no page numbers whatsoever—but his editor was against it—the few that are scattered throughout the book offer an interesting layout, also resounding an accordéon: it is as if the pages with numbers and the pages with texts correspond to the indentations of the musical instrument.

Different from his Accordéon editor, who recommends a “hierarchy among narratives,” Kellough is an advocate of “narrative equality,” because he believes hierarchies cause cultural biases. There is even folklore present in his novel to portray that, like the flying canoe. According to Kellough, “the canoe can be seen as holding many different kinds of people, representing different contesting entities in society, with the canoe itself being the society.” It is a beautiful and significant image, since the canoe is such an important folkloric emblem of the French-Canadian culture.

The flying canoe is only one of the references present in the book. Accordéon has many cultural and historical references that require from us a knowledge about Montreal. Student protests on Berri street, Marc Lépine, responsible for the 1989 massacre in Montreal, Hubert Aquin, writer and revolutionist, Jean Coutu (“the people’s pharmacy”), Montrealers bidding farewell to Bixis as the cold arrives, and Parc La Fontaine, amongst many others, all contribute to a vivid representation of the story’s psycho-geography. Kellough believes the setting is essential in a story, for “place produces narrative.”

The book may garner different reactions, depending on the reader, their experiences and their history. Kellough mentions that a reason for including references to artists is that they are “part of the physical landscape” in the sense that we do, indeed, run into them. The author himself has seen Dany Laferrière in the metro station, and when he mentions this in the book, it echoes Laferrière’s own experience of running into Henry Miller, which he describes in one of his books. Not coincidentally, Accordéon’s readers (like me) also have the privilege of running into Kaie Kellough in Montreal.

In an “attempt to curate a vision of society, down to reaching into people’s personal lives,” Kellough travels through multiple corners of Montreal, ensuring that everyone and everything in this city is represented in his work. Like the instrument accordion, Kellough’s writing style involves “subplots that multiply to infinity.” Accordéon’s experimental, multi-vocal narration offers us a rich and honest portrayal of Montreal’s past, present, and future. The narrator remains anonymous all throughout, but we end the novel with a perfect understanding of who they are and what Montreal is like.

By Marcia Ramos


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