#7 – Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner

When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, one of my summer jobs was working Confined Space Safety Watch (known colloquially as Hole Watch) for the Weyerhaeuser pulp and paper mill in Dryden. The job was pretty simple. The mill would shut down for ten days of the annual top-to-bottom maintenance period, a lot of workers, both contract and union, would have to crawl into some very cramped spaces to work, and often those spaces were dangerous. My job was to put on a tonne of heavy gear, grab a first aid/emergency rescue pack and a walkie talkie, and sit outside a confined space for twelve hours a day making sure nobody died. I worked in the bleach plant, the recovery boiler, the chemical plant, flak dryers, precipitators, black and green liquor tanks, and a few places I can’t remember the names for. I did it two years in a row (earning, in each ten day period, about twice my current monthly income), and there were never any accidents or emergencies on my shifts. I got a lot of reading done. On one particularly scorching afternoon I was working in the precipitators—a relatively easy post, because there was a place to sit, it was easy to keep track of the workers, and there were normally at least three other watchers there with you—and I happened to be seated next to a woman whose name I can’t recall. The precipitators were an ugly, almost frightening place. To us it was a long, narrow iron corridor with iron doors on either side, like the watertight doors of a battleship. There’d be welders and other tradesmen (always men) on the other side of the doors, balanced on thin, tightly grouped iron rails, a great, black, breathing emptiness far above and below. Even in the heat of the afternoon it was a grim, dark place, like something David Lynch would have built for the Baron Harkonnen. We didn’t want to think about our surroundings, and it was too filthy a place to bring a book, so we’d talk. The woman I sat next to on that afternoon told me what she did to pass the time. She would pick a person at random, me, say, or one of the welders, and imagine an entire history for them. Would they have a family? What did they do for fun? Where did they live? If she liked the way her story turned out, she would find a way, small and innocent, to put herself in it, to make it, just briefly, her own story as well. She never wrote any of it down. It all just happened in her head, and when she was done, she’d let it drift away like smoke.

Nikolski is about serendipity, three characters whose lives barely brush up against each other, never quite connecting. Noah, the itinerant archaeologist, Joyce the dumpster diving pirate, and the unnamed bookseller with the ocean in his basement. They are united by the Book with No Face, by trash, and by a shared bond of blood that they don’t even know exists. Set in Fournier, Lazer Lederhendler’s translation is lovely to read as the three protagonists fumble in the dark, unknowing but, strangely, far from lost. That, I think, is the conventional reading, and it’s certainly the best one.

I’m going to offer an alternative.

One of Dickner’s protagonists, the only one without a name, and not coincidentlaly, the only one who is allowed to narrate his own story, works in the S.W. Gam Bookshop in Montréal, the only place visited by all three characters. Nikolski begins in 1989 with him cleaning out his dead mother’s house, taking with him the Nikolski compass—a cheap plastic compass that points to the island of Nikolski, where our narrator’s father lived and eventually died. It’s the only thing he has left of his family. The novel also opens with garbage, bags and bags of it, full of history, of treasure, of the stuff that Noah and Joyce will build their lives with.

I wonder if there may not somewhere be a Britannica of our desires, a comprehensive repertory of the slightest dream, the least aspiration, where nothing would be lost or created, but where ceaseless transformation of all things would operate in both directions, like an elevator connecting the various storeys of our existence.

Our bookshop is, in sum, a universe entirely made up of and governed by books—and it seemed quite natural for me to dissolve myself in it completely, to devote my life to the thousands of lives duly stacked on hundreds of shelves.

This could be Nikolski, the book our narrator writes himself, the chapter in the Britannica that contains his slightest dream, the one where he has family, connections. I can imagine him sitting behind the counter, looking at the customers, seeing which books they buy (or steal), finding common ground, making up stories like the woman who sat next to me in the industrial hell of the precipitators. This woman buys books about marine life and shoplifts books about computer programming. That man comes in with a child and browses the dinosaur books. Before that, there was a woman, loud and frantic, with a book that was decades old and falling apart. How do these things connect? I see our unnamed protagonist as the narrator of the entire novel, taking his mother’s collection of travel guides as a jumping off point and reaching back, creating a mythology of wanderlust and a family tree to support it, putting up the scaffolding that will let him build the courage to leave a life that holds no connective tissue for him anymore.

Of course this is just me grafting my own experiences on top of a narrative that works exceptionally well as it stands, but I think that any book that can open itself up this way, that can be read as a complex, adventurous, but still accessible novel and like a box of puzzles and secrets, like a map to pirate treasure or a midden heap, is a book that should win Canada Reads. I have two books to go, but I think I’ve found the contender I’m rooting for. And as an aside, if this is the sort of thing that’s going on in French Canadian literature, English Canada needs to get working on more translations as good as Lederhendler’s.

Nikolski was my third selection for Canada Reads, and my eighth selection for the Third Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Moody Food, by Ray Robertson.


Writer. Editor. Critic.


  1. Oh, that is brilliant! An absolutely brilliant theory. I like it, and it does make sense. I just finished the look last week, so it’s still pretty fresh for me.
    As a story on its own, I liked it, like you said, but with that quote and your thoery, I like it even better. Parts of the story would veer into fact, about islands, or groups of natives, or garbage, like filler in a story by a person(narraotr) making things up and needing to land on solid ground of known facts for a while.

  2. I’m glad you thought it worked. There were more things I wanted to say about how such a theory might break down, but this Canada Reads/Canada Reads: Independently schedule I’ve set myself is the most intense reading, in terms of volume over time, since university, and I’m an exceptionally slow writer. Leaving things out was the only way this was going to see the light of day in anything like a reasonable amount of time.

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