Hubert Aquin’s Hamlet’s Twin (original title, Neige noir) is a strange, hallucinatory, experimental novel from Québec. But in a book concerned with twins and doubles of all kinds–though with the recognition that no twins are in fact entirely alike–it is Spitsbergen, the archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, that stands in for Canada, or is Canada’s shadowy duplicate.
For all its twists and turns, the plot is in some ways simple enough. An actor by the name of Nicolas is playing Fortinbras in a TV production of Hamlet, but decides that he will leave the theater to write and direct his own films. Before doing that, or as part of the break from his old life, he takes his newly-wed wife, Sylvie, on a honeymoon to Spitsbergen. Once there, however, Sylvie dies in mysterious circumstances on a camping trip into the snow and ice. Nicolas returns to Norway and hooks up with his friend Eva, who soon comes to stand in for Sylvie. He also decides that his film will be autobiographical, and so that the death of his wife will be at its heart. But he can’t quite bring himself to write that crucial scene.
Where things become complicated is that the novel itself is presented as a screenplay, perhaps as the screenplay for the film that Nicolas is himself writing. So it is shot through with reflections on the nature of representation, particularly the differences between filmic and literary representation, and the relation between fiction and reality. In some ways, then, Hamlet’s Twin is almost classically postmodern: the distinction between characters and the people who play them, or between author, narrator, and protagonist, are all made the object of both literary play and somewhat disturbingly undermined.
And when the scene of Sylvie’s death is finally written, it turns out to be particularly gruesome, and we are left to decide whether it is the product of a particularly disturbed imagination, or whether it is the violent mark of something like the real, at least within the terms of the metafictional apparatus that the book establishes. Eva, for one, becomes convinced that the film that Nicolas is writing will end up a snuff movie, and makes haste to warn the actress who is set to play Sylvie of the danger she believes is on the horizon.
For this actress, Linda, has also become another twin of Sylvie’s; and moreover Sylvie is revealed to be split in other ways, too, until the fact that her body is never recovered from the Arctic wastes (and the fact that her true fate is ultimately undecideable) is a way of telling us that this character, around who the entire novel revolves, is going to remain inaccessible for us, as much as for Nicolas or the other characters. For after all, she is but a character in a novel, even though we are over the course of time slowly seduced into concern for her fate such that the graphic representation of her violent demise comes to be shocking, however much we recognize that this is, after all, just another novel.
For ultimately, Hamlet’s Twin is about the hold that fiction has upon either the viewer (in the case of film) or the reader (in the case of literature). At one point Aquin points out that one difference between the two genres is that in the cinema, the viewer can’t simply put down the narrative to resume it later, whereas a reader can leave a book to be continued anon. Playing with this fact, then, just before the novel’s climax the narrator suggests that now might be the time for a break “for the reader who is waiting until the end of the story to make love with an impatient partner [. . .]. Come on, a nice break! It will be easier to concentrate afterwards, and tackle what is about to happen in the story” (184).
Of course, the point is that Aquin wants to implicate the reader all the more affectively and almost corporeally into the story. We are to imagine (or perhaps in fact to act out) having sex just before the representation of a most brutal perversion (though Aquin might also suggest apogee) of sexual love.
So for all its many games, its allusions and cleverness (not least the fundamental conceit that the book itself is some kind of disturbed twin to Shakespeare’s Hamlet), ultimately this is a novel that, perhaps more desperately and yet unerotically than almost any other I can think of, really wants to grab us quite violently by the short and curlies. It seeks to get beyond the fact that representation is only ever going to be itself the inevitably perverted twin of the real, to break that unequal bond in order to establish a new relationship with the reader.