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Celine does Tehran

By Fred A. Reed

When Rolling Stone magazine left chanteuse Céline Dion off its list of the 200 greatest pop vocalists, seismic tremors shook Québec. Its leading artiste had been insulted, and by extension, the nation of Québec itself, ever sensitive to demeaning treatment. A handful of indignant citizens even demonstrated in front of the periodical’s offices.

Canada’s French-speaking province relishes its role as the little guy, or, as one suggestion in the ‘flag debate’ of 1963-1964 put it: nine beavers pissing on a frog. Thin skins and easily bruised sensitivities range from language, demography and immigration to Québec popular culture, where “vedettes”—notably female pop music stars, often plump and impassioned—enflame public opinion as no politician could.

Except perhaps for the late and powerfully lamented René Lévesque and, before him, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard.

How dare Rolling Stone? Céline Dion, though neither plump and motherly nor piteous, was one of ‘nous’, sanctified, in a manner of speaking, by her numerous Billboard hit singles in both official languages not to mention her success in France. A rather plain woman from a poor family, from Charlemagne, a town on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence, a place halfway between suburbia and the countryside, a place with a flourishing clandestine marijuana and motorcycle gang culture, a place where the biggest store in town is the down market retail outlet, Le Tigre Géant, had made it. Big.

As a Québec informant recently told me, Céline is now enshrouded in a protective cloak of reverence. Her music, her bestseller singles, her past, her lifestyle and her relationship with the man who ‘made’ her, in every sense of the word, no longer really matter. Any attempt to characterize her or her sons as ‘quétaine’ is met with stern glares of disapproval or worse, of censure. She has acceded to a higher realm, that of immortality before the fact.

So much for prologue. If I venture to discuss Québec pop culture, it is because of personal experience, albeit at a safe distance.

The year is 1997. Prominent Québec author Georges-Hébert Germain publishes his official biography, entitled simply Céline, with the accent aigu. Some weeks—or months—prior to his book’s publication, my colleague David Homel and I meet M. Germain at l’Express, a popular restaurant on la Rue St-Denis, in Montréal. The conversation, which takes place amidst midday meal clatter and conversational buzz, focuses on one simple proposition: would Mr. Homel and I undertake, on short notice, to translate his book into English?

Though I do not recall whether we asked for more time to consider M. Germain’s proposal, the fact is that we rapidly accepted. For like the original text itself, our translation would be financed not by the eventual publisher, but by René Angelil, Céline’s Svengali-like protector and career mastermind. And that, in turn, meant that we would be making serious amounts of money, totally unrelated to the meagre per-word rate disbursed by the Canada Council to which our joint career as Canada’s premier same-sex translating duo had accustomed us.

(Naturally, we both had other jobs.)

M. Angelil, of Syrian origin and well established on the Québec pop music scene, possessed a keen nose for talent and finely-honed promotional skills: he had fostered Ginette Reno’s rise to popularity. La Reno is, to put it mildly, corpulent and effusive and enjoyed a wide and committed following as a woman who overcame adversity and overweight by force of emotion, heart-breaking sincerity and, of course, a powerful voice.

He it was whom Céline Dion’s maman sought out when she understood—early on—that her fourteenth and last daughter had more than an average singing abilities. What was bound to happen happened. Celine surrendered her virginity to M. Angelil at age 16 and married him twice, once in Montréal’s Notre Dame Basilica, and then, at Cesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, in a kitsch remake of Verdi’s Aida, complete with elephants. And in the meanwhile, went on to a wildly successful international career, and a years’ long ‘residence’ at the aforementioned Vegas pleasure dome.

Those are the raw facts, of which Mr. Homel and I were distantly aware. As our work progressed, we ourselves came up to speed. Quickly we ascertained that Céline possessed very little substance, aside from her agile and forceful vocal skills. Having entrusted her career to René Angelil, she left the care of her life to him as well, and he proved a caring and constant gardener.

But that was thin gruel for a book-length biography. What was there to say about a lady whose entire being consists of singing other people’s words? No, we concluded, Céline was not really about the Vegas diva, but about the Québec pop music industry, its sides-men, arrangers, guitarists and drummers, its technicians and set designers. About her French connection, her struggle with the Québecois accent. And about her ability to hit high “C” (the sort of thing trained opera singers do as a matter of course that Germain describes, using golf terminology, as an ‘eagle.’)

On and on Mr. Homel and I waded, up to our necks, through Germain’s viscous prose. By then we’d refined our craft, something we’d been questioned about before. Now that all that is behind me, I can reveal that our secret was simple. Mutual trust. Simple, you’ll say; but it worked.

We had no time for finesse or highfalutin literary disputation. The publisher awaited, linotype operators’ fingers at the ready, printers and binders poised to spring into action. (I exaggerate for effect; that primitive technology had long expired.)

The book came out and in the ROC, the silence was all but deafening. Whereas Céline had done very well in French, enthusiasm for Celine the English language book seemed oddly absent. No one even noticed that we had written ourselves into our translation: M. Angelil calls his translators from Jupiter Island, Florida, the couple’s warm weather home, to give them last minute instructions.

We, meanwhile, took the money and ran. I had early on promised my wife that we would blow the whole wad on a trip to Iran. Some time had passed since my previous visit; it was time to return in a non-professional capacity, to visit old friends and to see some sights: architectural masterpieces, notably the city of Isfahan, which, say Iranians, is half the world (I believe them).

A particularity of Iran since the 1979 Islamic Republic has been the reversal of public and private spheres. Where before the overthrow of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, people drank publically and prayed in secret, now the reverse was often true. Western pop music, much appreciated ‘before’, was now forbidden and thus more appreciated. The morality police would pull your car over and check your audio cassettes (those were the pre-digital days) for the salacious and the infectious.

For example, the Lambada theme that harked back to the early 1990s and took the country by storm. Perhaps because the original Brazilian Portuguese lyrics seemed to resemble the Farsi question: chera rishteré (“why does he shave?”). That, in turn, was a source of mirth in a country where sanctimoniousness (and authority) could be correlated with the length of one’s beard.

But after the epic shipwreck film Titanic hit the screens (not in Iran however), its world blockbuster love theme, My Heart Will Go On sung by Celine, shot to the top of the informal charts, and there it perched when we arrived in Tehran from Istanbul one winter day in 1999. In our luggage, along with clothing, we surreptitiously transported her latest CD, featuring that song precisely. It was a gift for our closest and oldest friend, a man who’d worked as a journalist before being appointed to a UN post in Iran, whose wedding I’d attended and whom we hosted years before in Montréal.

Soon after our arrival, he drove us out of town and up into the Alborz mountains that tower over Tehran, where affluent Iranians spend winter weekends on the ski slopes. Higher and higher we drove, until we came to a magnificent overlook: all around us lay snowy peaks; the day was perfect, sunny, bright and cold.

We got out to look around. No sooner had we stepped free of our friend’s car than we heard, from the only other vehicle parked there, those inimitable strains.

Oh no, we groaned. It was My Heart Will Go On.

All around us, the snow-clad peaks of the Alborz range metamorphosed into the frigid waves of the North Atlantic. Leonardo DiCaprio slipped from his makeshift raft as behind us, the Titanic disappeared once more, with a great sucking sound, into the deeps.

Céline had gotten there before us and with her mighty pipes was consoling Tehran far below.

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