Of the Arctic
(University of Washington)
For forty years, Norman Hallendy has been traveling through the Keewatin, Baffin Island, and Ellesmere Island regions of Canada, making contact with the Inuits who live and hunt there. It's a bleak part of the world --- consisting of little more than lichen, permafrost, icy waters, occasional driftwood, bone, and mountains of rocks and stone.
For centuries the inhabitants have been making stone constructions which are used as pointers to nearby sources of water or food, or, most often, as spiritual relics. They are called Inuksuit.
In this volume, there are some fifty color photographs of these piles. The scenery is drear --- mostly water and rock and stone. But these Inuksuits are not without a certain grim artistry, and in his narrative, Hallendy provides a rich counterpoint to our understanding of them. He provides thirteen drawings of shapes of the Inuksuit, such as "Piled," "Supporting," or "Stood on End." There are also seven typical arrangements: "Aligned," "Random," "Formal," Strategic," "Sequential," "Side by side, and "Solo."
Hallendy has spent years building trust with the elders of Baffin Island. In turn, they have told him much of the significance of these structures (although some are so ancient that their meaning has been lost). He points out that such stone arrangements have been found in other remote cultures --- the apashektas of the Andes, the stupas of Nepal, the dorazy chaloveka of Siberia.
He suggests that there is a central difference between these and those of Carnac in France or of Stonehenge. The cairns of the nonpolar world are "based on an egocentric view of reality, giving homage to death, victory, sacrifice, power, immortality." By contrast, those of the Inuits are based on "a survivalist view of reality."
It is a grammar based on necessity --- hunting to stay alive --- where objects are not only venerated for their spiritual significance but are essential as a life support.
Hallendy is a resourceful writer, and has steeped himself in the culture of the Inuit, and is, as well, a keen observer of the landscape. At times, his words can be haunting. This is about the coming of spring to Baffin, where tiny indentations in the rocks catch the melt:
Tiny pools of water begin to form, each bearing its own reflection of the sun. Studying them closely, I can discern traces of minute plant life lying in wait at the bottom of each Lilliputian pool. I carefully bend down, touch my lips the surface, and gently drink. The water of each pool, like a variety of delicate teas, tastes slightly different from the next. The first is somewhat woody, the second has an aroma of yellow grass, but the third one has the cool sweet taste of spring. The word for this moment is immaturpuq, when the earth receives its first water.
In the stillness of the moment, I am visited by the words given me long ago. "From time to time, the spirits seek us out because they are in need of human warmth for a little while. That is the time to listen very carefully to what they are saying because they are trying to tell us what we are really thinking."--- Penny SalterThe Transformations
Of Mr. Hadlíz
Jed Slast, Translator
(Twisted Spoon Press)The late Ladislav Novák was given to wadding up paper, spreading it out, and laying down color washes, utilizing the folds as guidelines. There are thirteen of them here, delicate color figures utilizing pages from an old calendar; they are as delicate as Japanese sumi.
But Novák was multitalented. The drawings are conjoined, loosely, with his fiction --- giving us thirteen very short stories, or better, vignettes: heavy on Surrealism.
The character known as Hadlíz is a bargeman, more or less, when he is not being Shiva, Wotan, a badger, "autumn decay," an expert seducer, a storm, and a diver in the river who "was amazed to find the crabs flitting sideways on the fine bottom sand." For example, "Mr. Hadlíz as a Plaything for those Condemned to Death:"
He cannot grant us clemency. The sentence is irrevocable. For us there is no clemency. Take note: of the persons in the lower right-hand corner, only their shadows remain, as it was with several victims of Hiroshima.
In the ultimate pages of the book, we find "In Lieu of an Epilogue, a Lengthy Conversation with Mr. Hadlíz." It is straight, e.g., linear writing: funny stories about people who get on a train with a suitcase and someone picks it up by mistake, so the man who was carrying his ancient (and expired) pet dog for burial in the hills finds he is left with, instead, a suitcase full of coffee which, at the time, during WWII, was worth far more than a dead dog.
This one is pretty slim, but it is finely wrought --- a small, delicate (if surrealistic) gem.--- J. J. Templeton, PhDAtonement
(Anansi)The composer Louis Badaume returns to a distant Canadian village where he worked years ago as instructor of music for the local school. It is wintertime, there is much snow, and the trip requires going by car (which slides into a ditch) and by dog-cart (driven by a snarling teen-age boy named Maurice) and ending up in the house of a family that scarcely remembers him.
His self-imposed mission is to apologize to one the girls, Julia, that he feels he unnecessarily hurt when she was but thirteen. He tells her that he whacked her with a manuscript because she purposely tried to confuse him with her twin Geneviève, and he asks that she forgive him. She tells him that she doesn't even remember it.
The trip is not only physically difficult, it is an emotional drain as well: Louis is shy and querulous and not used to being with others. He arrives the same day that another young girl, the daughter of "the verger," is found to have slipped into a crevice and died of exposure. The villagers are preoccupied with finding her body and delivering it to the local church.
Furthermore, Badaume is not only inchoate, the villagers (and the reader) find him quite strange, with strange things happening around him. We find that his apology may have been made to the wrong twin, Geneviève --- they may have, again, purposely mixed him up as they did so long ago.
He finds a manuscript of a "song for choir acapella" in Maurice's study, a scrap of music which, as he reads it, transports Badaume into ecstasy. But then we find that he may have composed it himself when he lived in the village.
As the book soldiers on, everything gets more and more screwy --- so that we (and the villagers) (and Louis) don't know or can't know what the true facts are. Why are Badaume's pants being held up by twine? Why does he steal a doll to give to Julia, who may be Geneviève, claiming that it belonged to his thirteen-year-old son who died of TB --- but who, we find, never existed? Where did he come up with his strange myth about porcupines, which, he understands, can be eaten raw:
He'd once been told that it was forbidden to trap porcupines, that they're reserved for poor wretches lost in the mountains, that their skin, apparently, could be peeled like that of a banana.
Like its former music teacher, it's a madhouse, inside and out, this village. It reminds us, not a little, of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's strange, popular play from the 50s, The Visit of the Old Lady --- called, in this country, The Visit. Reality and fancy get so muddled that the reader and the characters are never sure which is which, nor why. It thus becomes an interesting take on what just might be nothing more than fluff in people's heads --- fluff called "memories" or "the past" or "the truth."
§ § §
Soucy is adept at setting it all up, but compared to his later works --- Atonement is his first novel --- he has trouble bringing it off. This is Louis talking to the stationmaster of his reasons for returning after twenty years:
It will seem odd, I imagine, seeing those people again after so many years. Especially the twins. It's strange. We meet some little girls when they're at the age for nursery rhymes and they're the personification of poetry, on first-name terms with elves and butterflies, whatever you want, and are so appealing they take your breath away. You ask yourself with a kind of giddiness what kind of fairies they'll become when they grow up. And then ten years later you run into them and all they can think about is marrying the notary's son. It's a mystery to me.
With writing as good as this, it's a mystery to us, too, trying to figure out why Atonement works at the beginning but falls apart at the end. Last spring, we reviewed The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches Soucy's latest novel, and we gave it five stars. The set of the two books is much the same: strange people --- rendered bizarre in thought and habits by their isolation --- suddenly thrust in the midst of "normal" people. The scope of Matches was narrower, the characters more oddly endearing (and entertaining) --- the whole of it nicely fit.
Atonement on the other hand is a mystery filled with too many gimmicks (snow owls, broken dolls, crippled dogs, dead mice, porcupines) that don't quite work together. The novel thus becomes, for us Soucy fans, a flawed but interesting first try that will lead, somewhere down the (snowy) road, to a quite wondrous masterpiece.--- Lolita Lark