"Arvida" by Samuel Archibald [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Heather Cleary, BTBA judge, writer, translator, and co-founder of the Buenos Aires Review. We will be running two of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Arvida by Samuel Archibald, translated from the French by Donald Winkler (Canada, Biblioasis)
In Samuel Archibald’s Arvida, carried attentively into English by Donald Winkler and shortlisted last year for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, one small town’s secrets become a universe that alternates between the tender and the terrifying, often blurring the line between the two.
Arvida is a collection of stories named after a town named after the American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis, who underwrote its construction around an aluminum smelting plant over the course of an astonishing 135 days back in 1927. As a child born to this far-flung outpost in Saguenay, Quebec, Archibald’s world was a tapestry of tales of madness, misfits, domesticated bears, and a Yeti-like cougar prowling the woods. The fact that Arvida was quickly absorbed by a neighboring town and exists, in a sense, solely as a memory only reinforces Archibald’s fascination with the mythic dimension of these private and shared histories. As he observed in an interview with the Canadian press, “growing up in a place that is so remote it’s on the edge or outside history, you never have any history except for the stories you told each other.”
There are two kinds of spaces in the narrative world of Arvida: the vast, unknowable ones of the Canadian wilderness, and the claustrophobic, unknowable ones of the home.
Archibald excels in the latter, filling domestic spaces with the minor chords (and occasional bloodcurdling screech) of gothic horror. Yet for all the attic rattlings and mythical predators that abound in this narrative world, there is nothing more frightening than the interactions among its inhabitants, or their behavior when left to indulge in isolation. As Bryan Demchinsky observed in the Montreal Gazette, “there’s a dark, hard presence in the stories, sometimes wry, sometimes muted, but always lurking” . . . most menacingly, perhaps, among armchairs and embroidered tablecloths.
Several stories are quite direct in asserting that genuine horror belongs to the domestic or interpersonal, rather than the supernatural, realm. “House Bound,” which appears toward the end of the book, is the account of a successful contractor who buys the house of his dreams and only later realizes the true cost of his investment. “Not many people will understand me,” he reflects, “but there’s something strange about taking over an ancestral domain . . . When a man buys a place like that, he buys the nest and protective shell of someone else, someone else’s wiring, and someone else’s ideas, and he has to decide how far he’s going to go to become that person, how much of that man he’s prepared to graft onto himself.” And yet, no matter how dark the history he adopts with the place turns out to be (and it does turn out to be quite dark), in the end it is emotional and physical violence of the most mundane and terrible sort that truly haunts the family’s new home.
“A Mirror in the Mirror” is also the tale of a haunted house, though the violence that undergirds this particular story is self-inflicted, and offers a glimpse into the often desperate position of women in this narrative universe, many of whom have little agency beyond the power to make themselves disappear. Likewise, in “Jigai,” probably the collection’s most brutal entry, a Japanese girl and her mysterious foreign governess enclose themselves in a world of erotic bodily mutilation, slicing off fingers and toes, eyelids and lips while leaving their tongues intact, because “because without [pleasure], pain is only pain.”
It is to Archibald’s credit that not all the stories of the collection are written in this mode: just as unity of place opens on to a vast range of narrative settings, the book’s gothic tropes are offset and enriched by the understated tensions and literary allusions of its other tales. The first, willfully charming, story offers insight into the mind of the narrator’s father through a chronicle of his petty thefts as a young boy—the very first in Arvida, and almost exclusively of pastries. “The comedy darkens,” he observes, as he considers his father in light of these stories, “something tragic makes its presence felt . . . the idea that the fulfillment of the desire never satisfies it, nor does it make it disappear, and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret. My father no longer lacks for anything,” the narrator continues, “but he misses the taste food had when there was not enough of it.”
Arvida does not employ the fancy stylistic footwork that characterizes some of the other nominees for the BTBA this year: grounded in oral history, the book is exceptional in its attention to the rhythms of storytelling and subtle regional and demographic modulations in vernacular. Its language is also quite restrained, and Donald Winkler rose admirably to the challenge of the narrow margin of error that this implies; the range both author and translator manage to achieve while remaining anchored to the collection’s unifying conceits is truly an achievement worthy of recognition.