Canadian novelist André Alexis spoke with Ann van Buren about his latest book The Hidden Keys (Coach House Books). It tells the story of Tancred Palmieri, a talented thief, who is hired by a wealthy, aging heroin addict, Willow Azarian, to find a hidden treasure. While on this quest, Tancred unlocks personal enigmas that shed new light on the obstacles in his life and the ways in which we all compensate for our flaws. In this masterful, literary, and often amusing puzzle book, Alexis explores notions of good and evil, God, and personal responsibility. Alexis was born in Trinidad and raised in Canada. The author of nine books, his 2015 novel Fifteen Dogs won the annual Scotiabank Giller Prize.
The Rumpus: The Hidden Keys is part of a series of five books, each of which explores a philosophical theme. At the same time, readers enjoy some very amusing characters as they compete in a quest for hidden treasure. Can you talk about this mix of genres?
André Alexis: I don’t know if you’ve read Fifteen Dogs and Pastoral, but they also wrestle with tricky ideas in genres that are not necessarily known for being deep. HK was inspired by Treasure Island. In that book, its protagonist tries to make a distinction between those who are good and those who are not. Once the possibility of the treasure comes in, the characters engage in a bloodlust. It’s not a light book, morally, yet it is popular.
Rumpus: How is HK a “puzzle” book?
Alexis: Although I did not designate it as such, as a reader, you go though HK wondering, “What does Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water have to do with Glenn Gould and Mirò?” That implicates you in this chase for an answer. Although the puzzle is central, it’s all about the characters, the codes they go by, the decisions they make, and the ways in which they define and defend the lives they are living.
Rumpus: The book asks us to examine ideas of personal responsibility. Daniel Mandelshtam, a close, childhood friend of the protagonist, Tancred, thinks, “…weakness was a habit, one that led to a kind of contented incapacity. It made no sense to help the weak, because that was what people called ‘enabling.’ But as to the vulnerable—there was a different story.” What is the difference between weakness and vulnerability?
Alexis: There’s a tangle between weakness and vulnerability. Behind both Daniel and Tancred is Baruch Mandelshtam, Daniel’s father, who is an anarchist from Winnipeg who believes in the overthrow of the capitalist system. He hates the idea of his son being a policeman because he is serving the strong. Baruch is the origin of the idea of weakness as a sign of indulgence, versus vulnerability, which is being the victim of circumstances beyond self-control.
Alexis: Yes, we are.
Rumpus: I think you show that in both Tancred and Willow’s character.
Alexis: Definitely. They are mirror images of each other. The world is difficult for Tancred to interpret. It’s not only difficult to know what the clues mean—which is the obvious part of this search—but also to know who is good, who is not good. Each character presents sides to themselves that are personal and something that you would identify with, as well as sides that are conniving and unpleasant. Even von Würfel, who, on one level, seems simply intellectually curious, is a trickster.
Rumpus: He makes “art” that is always a replica or that matches the living room couch. He doesn’t have any qualms about it. In this way, he’s more honest to himself than all of the other characters.
Alexis: Yes. He also represents a questioning, which is why Tancred feels close to him. von Würfel reveals himself when he talks about God being a detriment to the good. He is looking for the genuine, even though he perpetuates the un-genuine.
Rumpus: The book offers sympathy for the part of us that hurts others without explicitly intending to do so. Is it only possible to resolve that guilt if we’re open about it and if we face the consequences? Even if we do face that guilt—is it possible to rid the world of it? In other words, does the survival of one person, or the achievement of one’s goals, always require some sort of demise that is borne by others?
Alexis: By the logic of the novel it is true that, as beings who cannot know the outcome of any particular action, it is difficult for us to act in a way that will be necessarily beneficial to another, or necessarily detrimental. We are stuck with not knowing what our actions will actually lead to. At the end of the novel, Olivier, a fellow thief, says that he doesn’t know why men don’t worship chance, since it seems to be just as powerful as any other god and you don’t have to eat fish on Friday.
We are subject to this ignorance and accept it, as Olivier does, or, like Tancred, we build codes of conduct such as those suggested by Baruch—codes of conduct that sometimes allow ourselves to hide our flaws. In the end, Tancred comes to the decision that he wants to be responsible; he wants to be an adult. He accepts his fallibility and that he can’t know the good, ultimately. The important thing for me is that one accepts that one is irretrievably flawed and as you say, takes responsibility for those flaws, rather than hiding them in some code that allows “this” and doesn’t allow “that” as if there were a way of being sure of how to be good in the world.
Alexis: He is faithful to Willow, partly because he perceives her as someone who has fallen because of circumstances that are beyond her control. Within his own code, she is vulnerable and not weak, and he must be faithful—not to her weakness—but to her vulnerability. In doing that, Tancred hides from himself the pleasure he gets from stealing. He tells himself that the stealing is justified—for personal reasons, such as his connection to Willow—and for deeper philosophical reasons connected to Baruch’s sense of social justice that allows him to take things away from the wealthy that they didn’t earn. I think Tancred gradually comes to question the pleasure he gets from this. When Freud dies, he has to come to terms with the damage he has done, inadvertently. He’s also seen that picture of the couple whose car he stole and he knows that he has hurt human beings. That suggests that his motivation is his resentment of his own place; he has no father and he is part of the bound class. He takes personal pleasure in stealing and he has hidden the reality of his resentment and his pleasure from himself until he finally has to face it. His motivation is partly to steal, partly because he has got a code of conduct that allows him to steal, and partly because he is resentful and unhappy about what has happened to him. There is a moment when he compares his father to God, and he says that it’s too late for God to comfort him because God has been absent in his life for too long. He resents this, and I think that’s part of his motivation.
Rumpus: Another quote from the book is “What a tiresome way to learn again that all earthly journeys end in earthly things.” I’d like to talk about the philosophical underpinnings of this statement. Aren’t Tancred and Willow and Colby living out an agenda that was set for them by their deceased parents?
Alexis: Parental influence is hugely important because God figures as an absent parent in this novel. It’s the one novel of the five that I’m writing in which there is no specific mention of the deity. Tancred finds that earthly journeys end in earthly rewards because after he has inadvertently caused the death of someone, he finds himself away from home and in exile and wonders, is this is the price that he has paid— for what? Well, tons of money. Is that what he was after? He may have thought so, but in that cankered moment, he confronts the millions of dollars at his disposal and realizes that this does not compensate him for what he has gone through. He recognizes that wealth, earthly things, are not significant to him, at least not in that moment. He is at the end of a quest that promised much more.
Rumpus: I want to talk more about that in relation to the question of God. Some have asked how we can worship God in light of the terrible things that have been done in God’s name.
Alexis: This view is closer to von Würthel, who says that God is detrimental to the good. A few years ago, when I sat down to write my book Pastoral, and A—which is not part of the five books but which has the same theme—I realized that I’m interested in the idea of divinity. What is divinity? What does it do? How does it work? What are its implications? In the case of the HK the idea of divinity is very important but it is hidden. With Fifteen Dogs and Pastoral you see the gods. In HK, I wanted God in its hiddenness to be part of the structure of this novel.
Rumpus: We’ve established that Tancred, like all of us, was blind to his own flaws. Is Tancred like the “good thief” on the cross, who acknowledges that he has sinned and asks for mercy, as opposed to the other thief who suggests to Jesus that there’s a chance to just totally escape?
Alexis: I have to say I’m moved, because that is a lovely question to ask me. That is one-hundred percent part of what I was thinking, because of my Catholicism and because because one of my literary masters is Samuel Beckett. He speaks of the beauty of Augustine’s lines about one of the thieves being saved and the other thief being damned.
Rumpus: And to save yourself, you have to face your flaws.
Alexis: I can’t think of a better revelation about the book than that, because in that story, Jesus is absent, yet he is not absent, because there is the possibility of salvation. Now I’m a Catholic agnostic by the way. Yet those myths still live within me.
Rumpus: Speaking of religion, you also mention Oshun, a female deity whose origins are in Africa and the Caribbean. Can you talk about her?
Alexis: Oshun is central to the third book in the sequence that I’m writing now. In our male-oriented God phase, it’s always about conquering and control of life and death. This power leads to a kind of thinking that is no thinking; it is only sterile and what can overcome. To reach that depth in terms of female divinity is to accept nurture as godly. It’s not just something that your mom does for you when something’s broken and you need a bandage; it’s about something deeper and it is in contradistinction from the endless displays of power.
Rumpus: In the endnotes, you say you are influenced by many books, including Sinking of the Ordratic Stadium. How does this book, by Harry Matthews, connect?
Alexis: Of the books that the novel quotes from, five are invented and ten of them are real. The one by the artist, David Rokeby, is not real—though he would like to read it. Even down to the critical apparatus, there is doubt as to what is real and what is not.
Alexis: Anyway, I correspond with Harry Matthews and I think of him as my mentor. HK resembles the plot of Sinking of the Ordratic Stadium in that it is a novel of understanding that happens slowly.
Rumpus: This brings me to my last question. David Rokeby, like you, lives in Toronto. Is there a café or gallery where these questions of morality and ethics are being discussed? If so, I know a few people from the US who would like to check it out!
Alexis: There’s a book publisher called BOOKTHUG, run by Hazel and Jay Millar in Toronto. They host readings in their living room. Gary Barwin, who was just nominated for a Giller for Yiddish for Pirates, and Alisa York and I just read there. If you’re a reader, you can request the kind of pie that you want Hazel to make—and everybody gets to eat. For HK, I requested a piecakin, which is a pie buried in a cake. I chose a cherry pie buried in a chocolate cake. You get to hear really good writers; I think Madeleine Thien read last month. It’s my favorite thing to do. And the piecakin was cool.
Author photograph © Hannah Zoe Davison