- Doomed Quests in the Old WestAn Interview with Dominique Scali, Author of In Search of New Babylon
Dominique Scali is an award-winning French Canadian novelist and journalist. Her novel À la recherche de New Babylon (2015) won the 2016 First Novel Award at the Festival du Premier Roman, held in Chambéry, France. It was also a finalist for the Governor General's Award for French-language fiction (2015), the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal (2015), and the Prix des libraires du Québec (2016). The English edition, translated by W. Donald Wilson, titled In Search of New Babylon, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for French to English translation in 2017.
The novel opens just outside the town of Paria, where the unconscious form of Reverend Aaron is found face down in the dirt, both hands severed at the wrists and the stumps cauterized. The mystery surrounding the Reverend's origins, his identity, and the events that led to his mangled body being discarded somewhere along the trail between Paria and the Sevener homestead appear central to the novel's action. We soon learn, however, that
Most people will read this book to find out everything they can about Charles Teasdale. Mexican readers will want to learn the fate of Vincente Aguilar. Others will be looking to better understand Russian Bill, or Pearl Guthrie. But this book is dedicated to the people of Paria, for only they will turn its pages to know more about the Reverend Aaron.(14)
The complicating of these initial expectations is in keeping with Scali's novel as a whole, which captures a sense of disillusionment with the legend of the West.
Alongside the ersatz preacher Reverend Aaron, Scali introduces us to outlaw arsonist and bare-knuckle fighter Charles Teasdale, [End Page 193] whose various brushes with the hangman's noose quickly turns him into a legend. There is the single-minded and independent Pearl Guthrie who absconds from her family home in the dead of night in search of a "real man" to take as a husband. And finally, Russian Bill, an outlaw who claims to be a Russian aristocrat and the only character in the novel based on a real historical personage. What unites the stories of these disparate characters is the sense in which they are each drawn to traverse the American West in search of something meaningful. For Russian Bill, this is the quest of the novel's title. Bill is seeking to set up his ideal of a western town, a dirty, dangerous, gunslingers' paradise he will call "New Babylon." But, as with all the other ideals posited in the novel, reality confounds his plans.
In charting a series of repeatedly frustrated quests, Scali's novel foregrounds the ways the Wild West as a place of myth and legend is perpetually out of reach. There is a sense of movement as the action moves from town to town, but it is the cyclical movement of repetition rather than progress. As the character Charles Teasdale puts it: there is "no difference between always moving on and going in circles" (103). The novel is built up of short chapters, each named for the specific town where the action of that chapter takes place, "Paria," "Bullionville," "Panamint," and so forth. Yet these chapters are grouped into sections that highlight the repetitive nature of the action against the changing backdrop of these various towns: "The Ten Hangings of Charles Teasdale," "The Thirty Marriages Pearl Guthrie Never Had," "Russian Bill's Hundred Killings." In this way In Search of New Babylon balances the weary cynicism of a modern Western with the readability of a fast-moving novel.
In August 2018 I spoke to the author about the work that went into writing this novel; the influences and experiences that inspired her writing, her writing process, and her perspective on the Western genre as a writer working from outside the US context.
I thought I'd start by asking you about the title of your book In Search of New Babylon. What is the significance of "New Babylon" for you? [End Page 194]