If you want to really discover literature, you should read about subjects that you don’t know or don’t like. It’s bran for the brain. You may be surprised by how your perspective changes and what you learn. Firebrands is a novel that I would normally not have even looked at. It is about activists, anarchists, and extremists, their agendas, plots, and ideas, and the very thin lines that separate the types.
I had to do a quick check on what was what when it comes to these firebrands – the term describes their personalities as well as what they do. (There is a summary on this page.) Having found that out, I was even more disinclined.
But there it was – just 186 pages long. So, I took a deep breath and read it.
Dear readers, if you want to get an idea how the minds of these people work, from both sides of any argument, read this. If you want to look at the world through their eyes, read this.
I was appalled, intrigued, revolted, furious, confused, put-off and pulled-in at the same time.
Marc Ménard shows such a high level of skill in the depictions in this short novel that, I suspect, he either knows the subject extremely well, or has had first-hand experience. I kind of shudder at the idea of anyone having had first-hand experience of these types of people and their activities.
The main character lives in Québec, Canada. If you are Canadian, and not from Québec, you may think of the Québécois as a fractious bunch, often in the headlines, who do more than the average amount of protesting and who seem to view themselves as closer to France than to the rest of Canada. (The movement for secession of Québec from Canada is very much alive.) The characters start with their protests and activism in Paris, France. They hone their plotting, tracking and sabotaging skills in anarchist hotbeds from one side of the world to the other. And then they go back to Québec and get into it all over again.
Characters so well written that I hated them
When an author depicts an unpleasant character or subject, one has to consider the differences between the author and their novel. How strong is the author’s voice? How much of the story is personal? With some authors, you know the link is tenuous, and they can explain how they created the narrative. With others, you know the similarities are greater, because they have, in their private lives, had similar problems to what they depict in their novels. And with some novels, what you read, is how it is: some authors’ creations are as insane, drugged-up or violent as they are.
In this novel, you have a conundrum: The characters are all nasty. I could not find a single thing to like about them or to make me care about them. I decided that the author’s life must be totally removed from the world that he depicts – because the alternative is just depressing.
I hated both main characters – the protagonist: spineless, pointlessly enraged, hanger-on “Philippe” – man, but he is needy! And the antagonist: the slimy, frontman “Mora”, with his fake charm and his lies. Ugh. What a narcissist. That moment when Philippe first meets Mora at his apartment in Paris, and Mora opens the door stark naked, I thought to myself, here comes trouble. It was immaterial who stood for which political party, or belonged to which faction. These two were as bad as the person they were hunting,
I hated them, because Ménard’s character development is really outstanding.
If you really hate a character in a film, you do not hate the screenwriter or the actor – rather the opposite, you have to admire them for being so good at creating a repulsive character. In Firebrands, I know my disgust with these people and their associates is because of how skillfully the Ménard depicts them. Well done, M. Ménard.
The devil is in the detail
Knowing how these activist movements develop, I had an idea of how the story could progress. Nevertheless, I was impressed with Ménard’s detailed, minute-by-minute, and suspenseful description of a crucial event in the book; a firebomb attack at a public meeting, in Berlin, Germany.
Germany in the 1970s and 1980s was a hotbed of anarchists and extremists, notably the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a.k.a. the Red Army Faction. (German author Bernhard Schlink used the Red Army Faction as the background of his novel, The Weekend.) One particular act by German anarchists made international headlines back in 1987, and I think that this episode in Firebrands is closely based on those events that happened on June 11 and June 12, 1987, in Berlin, Germany.
On Friday, June 12, 1987, US President Ronald Reagan made a public speech in West Berlin, near the Brandenburg Gate (here’s a link to a news report). The Berlin Wall was still in place at that time. Reagan was cheered by an invitation-only audience of about 40,000 people on the West side of Berlin—and guarded by some 10,000 riot police. His speech was designed to underline US political and military support for West Germany, on the event of Berlin’s 750th anniversary. Notably, he called on General Secretary Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall”, meaning the Berlin Wall.
So, that event was highly emotional, and was preceded and followed by protests and attacks by both supporters and opponents of German and American political leaders. It was a magnet for extremists.
The reason that the event of Reagan’s public address was so heavily guarded, is that on the night before, about 20,000 demonstrators marched through the city’s Kurfürstendamm and the slum district of Kreuzberg to protest his visit and US policy in Central America. The march turned violent when black-clad anarchists began throwing stones and fire bombs, and got into a fight with the police. This led to more violence, and a security clampdown the next day to prevent a recurrence.
In Firebrands, the characters who are the anti-heroes are members of an extremist group led by a Neo-Nazi called “Hans Wolf”. Philippe and Mora, and Mora’s supporters, have been tracking Wolf for ages. At the mass rally at the Brandenburg Gate, a fire bomb goes off – and Mora believes that Wolf’s gang did it.
Ménard describes all of this, from the graffiti on the Wall, to the streets, shops, and crowds, in detail (with faultless German thrown in). Leading up to the explosion, Philippe is confused, as usual:
When the blast goes off, however, all hell breaks loose, which makes up Philippe’s mind pretty fast:
The past comes back to haunt you
Philippe has, until the explosion in Berlin, merely been tagging along with Mora, breaking into apartments, threatening people, setting fires, and so on, but leaving arrests and prosecutions to the police. But this event leads Mora to become more desperate to find and kill Wolf, and Philippe no longer believes that Mora is on the side of justice.
The story is told through flashbacks, from 1986 and 1987 when Philippe is part of Mora’s movement, and then in Canada in 2002 and 2003. Fifteen years after those fiascos in Europe, Mora unexpectedly turns up at Philippe’s house and tries to persuade him to try one final time to catch the mysterious Wolf. Philippe is now 40 years old, he has two children and a wife whom he met in Paris. Will he fall for Mora’s story again?
A fiery climax
The climax of the novel takes place at a remote cabin on a lake, and it ends, as it would when firebrands are involved, with a massive explosion. And two survivors, one of them badly burned. The firebrands are hoist with their own petards.
When does an activist or anarchist get hoist WITH (not by) their own petard, as the saying goes? The phrase’s meaning is that a bomb-maker is lifted (“hoist”) off the ground with his own bomb, a “petard”, which is a small explosive device. It means an ironic reversal of fortune, or poetic justice.
What exactly the climax is, and what form the poetic justice takes, I will leave to you to read and find out.
One way in which an author ensures that the reader is fully immersed in the narrative, is to make the reader empathize with the characters. If the protagonists are unreliable narrators, as the ones in Firebrands are, the author cannot expect the reader to feel empathy for them, and instead might use the unreliable narrators as surprise elements in the story.
One such technique is to reveal that the character is unreliable (in other words insane, dishonest, not who they say they are, etc.), by building in a last-minute plot twist called anagnorisis, the discovery or recognition of the true identity or nature of a character.
In Firebrands, anagnorisis provides the final, outrageous piece of the puzzle before the climax. But Ménard does not give the novel a slick resolution – and it’s not a case of lesson learned, never again.
The story is a depiction of unlikeable people, absolutists who believe in hardline ideologies. Morally, on the other hand, they are ambiguous, living lives filled with lies and deception. Regardless of what ideology they believe in, they all think that people with opposing beliefs are wrong, and that only their own cause is justified and necessary – and vice versa. These contradictions add to the rising tension in the plot and the climax.
However, this mentality of the characters leads to what I think is an unsatisfactory, but inevitable resolution and conclusion to the novel. The ending is consistent with the underlying message that I think – if I understand things correctly – Ménard wants to express, which is that there are many sides to every argument and issue, that most people change their minds for the sake of their own sanity, and that firebrands come to fiery ends.
It reminded of the famous statement by the Genevan counter-revolutionary, Jacques Mallet du Pan (1749-1800), in which he said that the side that triumphs in a revolution or war, or defeats a regime, will eventually become the victim of the new order that it had helped to establish:
About Marc Ménard
Marc Ménard was born in Montreal, where he still lives. Firebrands is his second novel, and his first to be published in translation.
(Above, left to right)
Marc Ménard – Photo: Claude Barbeau;
Brasiers, by Marc Ménard, novel, published Aug. 2020;
Itinérances (meaning “roaming”), by Marc Ménard, novel, published by Tete Premiere, Collection Tête Ailleurs, 2001;
Un automne rouge et noir (meaning “a red and black autumn”), by Marc Ménard, novel, published by Tete Premiere, Collection Tête Ailleurs, March 22, 2022