1 April 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

17 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Allison Charette on Seyhmus Dagtekin’s To the Spring, by Night, translated by Donald Winkler, and from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Allison is another of the students at the University of Rochester in our lovely MA in Literary Translation Studies program, and her review was also written as an assignment for Chad’s publishing class. Allison is also one of the faces behind the relatively new ELTNA, the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, and the translator of Evelyne Bloch-Dano’s The Last Love of George Sand. She’s also got a mean kickball kick and a baking genius husband.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.

This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.

For the rest, go here.

17 February 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

“I was small. And my village was small, I came to know that in time. But when I was small it was big for me, so big that when I had to cross it from one end to the other, I was afraid. . . . Fears are a bit like fog, as are memories. On the one hand, one dreads to go forward and plunge into a future without end, and on the other, one is afraid to retreat into the past and lose oneself in a plethora of events and tales.”

A nameless village exists on the side of a mountain, and life there is much different than what we know. There is no electricity, and only two of the villagers can read anything at all. The village and its fields can only be accessed through a small passage, just wide enough for a man and his donkey. Water is a precious commodity, wooed and nurtured and constructed into life-giving springs. Time seems frozen, with the same natural cycles repeating themselves endlessly, the same barren winter giving way to the same green spring.

This is the scene set by To the Spring, by Night, as it traces an unknown child’s scope of the unknown land and his experiences within it: a strange, almost magical childhood that is disappearing as technology progresses. Without any education or scientific advances to aid them (although men do go off for their military service, and planes sometimes fly overhead, indicating a somewhat present-day narrative), the villagers turn to an almost pagan-like worship of the world and creatures around them. Interestingly, only a select few villagers are considered “pious” and religious. Everyone else lives in fear of and respect for the sun, water, and wolves around them.

What we were told must have happened, and would happen again. It was not one of those jokes for which grownups, some grownups in particular, had the secret, jokes they tossed our way with malicious delight to fill us with uneasiness and fear. They were informing us of a truth, telling us about something we were going to witness in our lifetimes, one day. And if we had any doubt, all we had to do was ask the grownups in confidence . Knowing about such an event was better than being taken by surprise, they told us. We had to expect, we had to accept that we could be overtaken by night in the middle of the day. And we had to live with an uncertainty that made the sun a being that could stumble and disappear at any moment. It was like the sudden death they had told us about, and there was nothing we could try, nothing we could do about either of them. One more thing to mourn, one less certainty.

A solar eclipse is not the only thing that our narrator fears. An already difficult rustic existence is much scarier when seen through a child’s eyes. But even when describing the monsters, djinns, wolves, and snakes that may catch you out at midday or during the night, the text is all very pensive, reflecting on the stories that the “grownups” tell the narrator and the events from the narrator’s past that have become stories to him. The book reads almost like an extended poem, which makes sense, considering that this is Turkish, Kurdish, and French author Seyhmus Dagtekin’s only novel alongside his seven prize-winning poetry books. With Donald Winkler’s English translation, we are treated to a lyrical, almost atmospheric telling of the narrator’s memories and state of being during childhood. The rich, sweet images flow unhindered from one idea to the next, like a spring bubbling up from its source.

Some of the images are strange, though, which lends them even more appeal. The feminine sun is depicted lying in long wait for her moment of ecstasy with the bull of darkness—that’s the solar eclipse—along with a black snake slithering down a woman’s throat to feed on her entrails, as well as an antelope that comes back to life after being the designated meal for the wolf who was shepherding the flock. The narrator’s primitive understanding of the immediate surroundings and inner consciousness is expressed in quasi-stories, which give only an elusive understanding of what is known in the village. The tales are exotic, yet bear a familiar whiff of fables that exist in various forms all around the world.

But they never told us more, claiming that they didn’t want to upset us with the horror of such a vision. Besides, they only knew the beginning of this story. But why begin a story if you don’t know how it turns out? Do you ever know how things are going to turn out for you? they said—and yet there you are, a story, a story whose ending you will never know.

As a story, this book is a strange one. There are no clues to help reveal any identifying markers about either the narrator or the village until well into the last third of the book, when we finally learn that our narrator is male and the village is Kurdish (until then, it could have been anyone telling a story about anywhere with a relatively temperate climate). At first, that information wasn’t important—the focus was on the land and its mystical qualities that inspired reverence in all its inhabitants. But once the details come spilling out, they can’t be contained. We have to learn more, and so does everyone in the village. They get a schoolteacher for the first time, and literacy suddenly skyrockets. But the school becomes a catalyst for opening their world to a wider expanse of knowledge, and the memories are going to change. It seems that once our narrator learns his alphabet, the words he’s been using all along suddenly have no more meaning. Although the book was originally written in French, it’s interesting to ponder what type of language the narrator might have been speaking all along.

This is a gorgeously authored and translated experience from the talented pair of Dagtekin and Winkler, which is great to see from McGill-Queen’s University Press. The novel is enjoyable to read, although a very different read than the jacket copy would have you believe. The back cover implies a very present plot, so I was waiting for “something to happen” for a long time. Eventually, however, I managed to get over that and just enjoy the book for what it really is: a beautiful experience.

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