We’re extras in our own stories: Atavisms by Raymond Bock

I am often at odds with the literature from my own country, in fact I’m increasingly at odds with my own country itself. When I heard about Atavisms, a newly released translation of Maxime Raymond Bock’s award winning collection of short stories it caught my attention immediately. I was keen to have a look at Canada through the lens of a contemporary Québécois writer. I don’t know what I expected, but I was hooked from the opening pages.

atavismsNot content with niceties, Bock catapults his reader into this collection with “Wolverine”, a story about a disaffected nationalist nursing his resentment long after the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec – a separatist paramilitary organization) has fallen into decline in the years following the institution of the War Measures Act in October of 1970 in response to the hostilities that had risen to a crisis point. When he happens to encounter a former Liberal cabinet minister, aged and intoxicated, he enlists a couple of friends on an adventure of revenge that turns brutally violent. It is shocking even if you come to this tale from a distance, but as a Canadian who will never separate the October Crisis from his 10 year-old imagination, I met it with intoxicated horror. Suddenly I was thrown back to my prairie schoolyard where my friends and I re-enacted events we were in no way equipped to understand – but with kidnapped officials and bodies in trunks it was infinitely more exciting, and terrifying, than anything on TV.

The horror continues to unfold in the second story, “The Other World”, but this time the reader is thrown back hundreds of years, to the early Quebec settlers and the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack by of a band of Iroquois on a couple of traders and their Huron guides. As the lone survivor lies under a thicket of pine branches hoping to remain hidden as the attackers relieve their victims of goods and scalps, he muses that, no matter what happens, he has no regrets.

From there we move, in “Dauphin, Manitoba”, to look outside the borders of Quebec, with a man’s monologue directed at a girlfriend he left behind in a prairie town. They had moved out there together. While she found herself captivated by her work, he failed to get a foothold or feel at ease in the vast empty landscape and retreated to the familiar blanketing comfort of a Montreal winter.

“You could pace back and forth a hundred years without coming close to the boredom I felt on those prairies, once sifted by antediluvian oceans, sculpted by retreating glaciers, surveyed by rambling nomads – friendly spirits, even better warriors – plowed to-and-fro by combines kicking up the dust of buffalo skeletons. You could say I caught you off guard when I left you alone to follow your path; you could say it was a nice trip, the time of your life. Lies. We’re both free now. You can study law, become a pastry chef, take up curling, or stay out there and keep up the good work; I’ll stay here and the snow will keep coming down.”

I once made a move like that in the opposite direction, albeit no further than Ottawa; but in the end made my way back west, never really at home at either end of the equation. As the narrator frames his missive to his girlfriend in terms of the generic novels he is making his way through, he does not sound any more committed to his move as something intrinsically right than as an acknowledgement of where he does not belong.

As the stories in Atavisms unfold, stretching back and forward in time, common themes, from history to politics to parental anxiety, reoccur, reflecting off one another. It can be argued that these thirteen stories are interconnected although they do not explicitly share any repeating characters and range from historical to surrealist to speculative fiction. Some of the contemporary stories are deeply universal and could almost be set anywhere, like “The Bridge” in which a depressed history teacher muses about his fate should he give in to his suicidal whims; or “Room 103”, a son’s one sided conversation with his dying father:

“It’s the end, Antoine, there’s nothing left to be done. You’re so light you don’t even make a dent in the mattress. It’s just you all alone with your obsolete quarter-million dollar machines, your network of tubing, your probes and dreams.”

Like a fragmented block of glass, each story in Atavisms offers a view of the Québécois experience through a different prism until the final tale, “The Still Traveler”, pulls all the threads together into a time and place in a precolonial reality dating back to the legends of the earliest residents and visitors to the Americas. After all, atavism refers to the tendency to revert to an ancestral type and that, more than anything is the underpinning theme of this collection: fathers and sons, family histories, political legacies, the identities that contain and define us.

Outside of Quebec, a sense of identity is diluted. I was struck by the depth of the colonial commentary that runs through a number of these tales and how the early days of New France are revisited with a harsh measure of reality. This is a conversational point sadly under played in Canada as a whole. As a new level of racism and xenophobia directed at new Canadians grows across this country, we would do well to remember how recently white Europeans made their way onto these shores.

Newly released by Dalkey Archive Press under their Canadian Literature Series, Pablo Strauss’ translation very effectively maintains the distinctive flavour of Bock’s richly varied stories. Supplemental endnotes fill in some essential language and historical references to enhance the reading experience.

I would strongly recommend Atavisms to anyone interested in knowing more about the Quebec experience, whether inside or outside Canada. Not only because the perspective is not as widely known or understood as it should be, but because this is simply a collection of very good stories. Period.

Looking to distant horizons: A few reflections on reading from afar

It is not entirely clear in my memory, but by this time last year, the stress of trying to hold myself together in the face of mounting pressures in what had become a deeply dysfunctional workplace, was taking a serious toll on my emotional and mental health. I have not been able to return to regular work since last June. I have struggled to gather the energy to attend to many of the regular household tasks that seem to pile up week after week. My cameras, once my faithful companions, have hardly been touched. The unbearable sameness of my city fails to inspire and seems to be closing in on me despite a remarkably mild winter. But one activity has remained undiminished and if anything has flourished with the extra time I have these days. I am talking about reading.

A fraction of my shelves, some read, most not (yet).
A fraction of my shelves, some read, most not (yet).

Most of the books I read take me elsewhere. As I turn my blog focus more and more toward literary themes, it is clear that I have a few idiosyncrasies. I have a definite interest in South African literature. This owes its genesis in part to my own experiences knowing a number of South Africans over the years, from watching the momentous changes that have taken place in the country during my adult years, and in the understanding that the new South Africa faces challenges that create a context for important discussions that we need to continue to keep open. Discussions we can all learn from in our increasingly global reality. The same holds true for another area with which I have an increasing literary interest – central and Eastern Europe. The political turmoil of the past century has provided ample inspiration for a wide range of exciting  literature, which, thanks to an increasing number of industrious small publishers, is catching the attention of English speaking audiences. Slowly but surely.

Of course, at the core of all great literature, classic and contemporary, is the essential quality of the human experience. We are born, we grow old, we fall in love, we lose those we love, we battle darkness, we face fear, we hope, we reach for those moments of joy. And the more I open myself to the stories of others from around the world, the less alone I feel.

But then there is this nagging guilt. As a Canadian, why don’t I read more Canadian writers? Well I do, but so many leave me unsatisfied and rarely reach my blog. And those I am especially fond of have tended to come from elsewhere; that is, they are Canadian with a hyphen and frequently write from that transitional perspective. I don’t think it was always that way. Maybe I have just been land bound too long. Maybe I crave the exotic just a little after all.

Well until I can travel, I will keep my bags packed, my options open and and a healthy pile of books standing by from near and far.

Reading and anxiety: Proceed with caution

“Then the anxiety set in. If someone told me I had to be depressed for the next month, I would say that as long as I knew it was temporary, I could do it. But if someone told me I had to have acute anxiety for the next month, I would kill myself, because every second of it is intolerably awful. It is the constant feeling of being terrified and not knowing what you’re afraid of. [Anxiety] resembles the sensation you have if you slip or trip, that experience you have when the ground is rushing up at you before you land. That feeling lasts about a second and-a-half. The anxiety phase of my first depression lasted six months. It was incredibly paralyzing.”            – Andrew Solomon

The above passage from a PBS interview with Andrew Solomon, the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression and Far From the Tree, describes the reality of living with anxiety better than any I have heard. I had a bad stretch earlier this year but once it passed I let the memory of this crippling sensation fade. Until now. Anxiety has returned.

Sometimes it helps to get out but that is not an option today. The temperature outside has climbed from the -34C wind chills that settled in late last week to a comparably balmy -7C. But my car sits on the street with a flat tire that cannot be replaced until Friday and a chest cold has left me feeling too ill to walk to the nearby shopping centre to pick up a few necessary items. With my daughter’s 22nd birthday on Wednesday and Christmas on the horizon with no indication that I will even have enough income to pay my bills at the end of the month I can expect to feel a little down. But the anxiety that has coiled its way around my heart is much more devastating.

The worst aspect of anxiety is that it seems to ignite the fears, the loneliness and the paranoia that are already entertaining me during this prolonged mixed hypomanic state. It seems to be impossible to distract myself in any truly functional way – even reading is only a temporary respite.

HungryI have recently emerged from a book, both glorious and heartbreaking, that I would strongly recommend but should come with a warning for the mood sensitive. This book is sad. The book in question is The Hungry Ghosts by Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. This richly sensuous novel begins in Sri Lanka and explores a young man’s complicated and difficult relationship with his grandmother, follows him as he immigrates to Canada with his mother and sister where he struggles to find himself in the gay community of 1980s Toronto. A return to visit his grandmother is marked by a tragedy that will seal his fate, binding him in his own bitterness and pain, to ultimately threaten everything he builds and holds dear in Canada. Buddhist mythology is woven throughout this tale of family, wealth, warfare, race and love. The resulting huge tapestry of life pulls at the very threads of the human heart. But, be warned, this book is sad. Bravely so, something I find missing in much of the Canadian literature I ready today.

The other night I braved the brutal cold, probably the last thing my emerging seasonal illness needed, to attend a reading by the author, the final event of his week-long residency with the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Program. As positive and rewarding as this opportunity was it served to remind me that my own accomplishments seem to have been stalled by the cards fate (or karma?) has dealt.  I awoke the next morning feeling saddened, empty and anxious.

Adrift in mid-life.

Further reflections on the void left by suicide: deeper appreciation for Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists. She has drawn heavily on her Mennonite heritage filtered through the ability to explore the messiness of ordinary life with a wonderful sense of humour. Recently I reviewed her Giller nominated All My Puny Sorrows, a novel which is deeply inspired her sister’s suicide. The novel itself, while wicked funny in places, left me wanting more of a connection to Elf, the deeply depressed character. Her “healthy” sister, the narrator, never really seemed to understand but rather struggled with her own reactions – the practical and the reckless.

Tonight I had the good fortune to attend a panel called “Darkness Visible” in which Miriam participated. The theme explored by the three somewhat diverse novelists was focused on looking at whether dark themes, personal or political, can be fully examined in literature. The consensus I suppose was that despite the challenges and limitations, the ambition is valid and important.

swing lowBecause I already own a digital copy of All My Puny Sorrows I purchased a copy of Swing Low: A Life for this event. Written in memory of her father, a well loved teacher and pillar of the community who took his own life about a decade before his daughter followed suit, this slim volume deals more explicitly with manic depression and suicide. I only recently became aware of it. Given my own recovery process I am thinking this is more the story I was looking for with All My Puny Sorrows. Coincidentally, an audience member at the event had grown up in the same Manitoba community as Toews. Her father had been his teacher and he began to cry as he shared his shock when he had learned how much pain and sadness the family was going through. Miriam had to dry her eyes as well.

That is the true impact of suicide and it spreads beyond families.

When I had the pleasure to speak to Miriam after the event I confessed my experience with All My Puny Sorrows, explaining that I was reading it in the aftermath of my own breakdown and, sadly, in the light of Robin William’s suicide. I told her I suspect that the book I was hoping for probably lies in part in this earlier, more serious volume. But then we both admitted that unless we are ourselves are burdened with the desperate desire to let go of this life, we can only ever observe from the outside. We also shared our mutual fears for our children inheriting the same genetic disorder.

I am deeply impressed with Miriam Toews’ desire to speak about mental illness and with her wide appeal in this country, hopefully her message will reach an audience that needs to hear it. I am looking forward to finding out how she explores the bipolar disorder in her family through her father’s story, unaware at the time of course, that the same event would strike her family again.

She told the audience that if writing her most recent book taught her one thing it is to hold tight to the joy in life.

A worthy goal for us all.

When even a sibling’s love is not enough – All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

The title and binding imagery that fuses the latest novel from Canadian author Miriam Toews comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to his friend, the poet Charles Lamb. Both men had their own struggles with mental illness but Lamb’s beloved sister Mary had an especially prolonged and devastating battle. Coleridge commiserates with his friend’s tireless care for his sister, reflecting that he, Coleridge had had a dear sister upon whom he “pour’d forth all his puny sorrows”. Elfreida (Elf) the suicidally depressed character at the centre of this novel drew her signature theme from this line , but it is her sister Yolandi (Yoli) who brings her to life and devotes herself to trying to keep her alive as she narrates this funny, heartbreaking tale. As such, All My Puny Sorrows is well named.

all my puny sorrowsColeridge was the first poet who caught my adolescent attention, much to the shock of my high school English teacher. However I confess it was the rugged adventure of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” that sparked my enthusiasm. The Romantic poets, so many of whom seem to have suffered from mental illnesses seemed kindred spirits ( although this would have been long before my own diagnosis). They loved passionately, often tragically, and became addicted to opiates. For the teenager falling well short of cool, the appeal is not hard to imagine.

SamuelTaylorColeridgeFor Elf and her sister growing up in the confines of a small Mennonite town, the arts were an acceptable outlet. Elfreida channels her energy into the piano eventually taking to concert stages around the world and winning the love of a man so patient he’s surely destined for sainthood. Yolandi opts for a less glamorous route, including a couple of failed marriages, children, meaningless affairs and a career pumping out rodeo themed YA novels.

I was attracted to this book when I heard Toews on the radio explaining that this novel began from a deeply personal space. Her father, a respected teacher despite a lifelong battle with depression, took his own life in 1998. Almost 12 years to the day later, her only sister followed suit in the same very way and location. Having already memorialized her father in non-fiction, Toews felt that fiction would free her up to address this very real and difficult subject more openly. But that is also where it falls apart for this reader.

She is able to make some very astute observations about the failings of the mental health system and sadly demonstrates that, in the end, there is no way that anyone or any system can ever do more than delay the efforts of someone truly committed to stepping off this mortal coil. However I never felt that Elf was more than a tragic figure in a hospital bed. Yoli’s childhood memories and the accounts of her sister’s glorious career rang hollow. The real strength of this book for me lies in the the indomitable spirit of the characters who survive against all the odds and resist the despair that mounts around them.

And maybe that is the point. It is not for us – friends, family, observers or readers to judge. In a few weeks I will be able to see Miriam Toews take part in a panel exploring the ability – or limitations – in being able to make sense of the darkness in life through literature. I will be interested to hear what she has to say.