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LINGUISTIC VAGABONDAGE: THE DRIVING FORCE IN JACQUES POULIN’S VOLKSWAGEN BLUES ROBERT SAPP MOVING across the world, the nomad carries his home in his native language . But, if he were to lose his language or if it were replaced, would he sever himself from his home? Drawing on this new language, could he create a new notion of self, and subsequently a new identity? For the exiled, language may bridge “the unhealable rift […] between the self and its true home,” described by Edward Saïd (49). While language can operate as a link to an idyllic personal past and a concrete notion of identity, it risks tying the speaker to a predetermined concept of self. In fact, this view of language does not take into account the heterogeneous blending of language and culture that one encounters on the transcontinental journey depicted in Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues. Here, Poulin explores the rapport between language and identity that emerges from the collusion of Anglophone and Francophone cultures in North America calling into question the notion of a homogeneous self derived from language. This study explores the ambiguous rapport between language and identity in Volkswagen Blues examining the use of English by otherwise Francophone characters within the context of Jacques Derrida’s conception of the otherness of language developed in Le Monolinguisme de l’autre. Far from innocent, the choice of English is not merely a pragmatic recourse to the langue vehiculaire described by Deleuze and Guattari in Kafka : Pour une littérature mineure (43), but a violent refusal of a past that has become unrecognizable. Derrida explains that while the impossibility of possessing language permits the discourse between belonging and language, it becomes necessary to combat these ideologies in order for language to function properly (121). The transient nature of language described by Derrida reveals 345 the plasticity of cultural identity derived from it. Since no person or collective culture can claim ownership of a language, it cannot be responsible for a single, unified notion of identity nor can it be appropriated as such. While language offers intimate access to previously foreign cultures , it is insufficient as a carte d’identité. That is, although a requirement for citizenship in many countries, knowledge of the native language , even the ability to speak it well,1 is insufficient in terms of belonging to the culture in which it is spoken. While Derrida maintains that language is insufficient as representative of a single unified sense of belonging, it has been suggested that some aspects of identity cannot be changed. As Tzvetan Todorov explains, we are far from the notion, alleged by some Lumières of the 18th century, of perfectibilité which maintains that the human spirit operated as a tabula rasa, capable of distancing itself from its native culture and consequently adopting whatever culture for which it was best suited (22). Certain indelible aspects of identity are linked to our own personal past. However , in a postcolonial context, one in which the gap between self and other has diminished if not disappeared, questions of language and identity inevitably arise. The complex relation between language and identity drives Jacques Poulin’s Volkswagen Blues. The Volkswagen itself is an ambulatory library that has travelled throughout Europe crossing geographic and linguistic borders. Traces of a previous life are found throughout the vehicle. For instance, a citation attributed to Heidegger inscribed in the driver’s side sun visor, an indelible trace of past travels, expresses a particular sentiment with regard to language and identity: Die Sprache ist das Haus des Seins.2 Interestingly this message etched in the Volkswagen , the means of propulsion for the transcultural journey the protagonists undertake, reaffirms the colonial imposition of language as source of identification that Derrida writes against. Indeed, while the transcontinental journey Poulin depicts exposes the instability of cultural identity 346 ROMANCE NOTES 1 In Maryse Condé’s Le Coeur à Rire et à Pleurer, the narrator witnesses firsthand the insufficiency of language as means of belonging when a Parisian waiter fails to recognize her families presumed “Frenchness” despite their command of the French language: “Pourtant nous sommes aussi français qu’eux, soupirait mon père. Plus français, renchérissait ma...


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pp. 345-353
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