A few days ago I shortlisted the short story collection “A Useless Man” by Sait Faik Abasiyanik (translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe) in my top twelve reads of 2015 and I’m not stopping there with my short story celebration.
A recent purchase and read was “Atavisms” by Raymond Bock (translated by Pablo Strauss), a collection of thirteen short stories from the French Canadian. When reviewing my reading for the year to come up with my favourites there is always going to be a leaning towards more recent reads and being extremely conscious of this bias I could well harshly mark the works down if I’ve only recently read them. However, I can assure you this collection is an absolute revelation, a work that explores what it means to be French Canadian, what is it to be in the minority, what has happened to our culture, our history? All of these themes and questions are explored through this wonderful collection, that dabbles in numerous genres, from letter writing, to sci-fi, to monologue, it shows a confident writer who has a firm grip on his subject matter.
Are books a free interpretation of reality, or a faithful transcription of our fiction?
A recent list of “15 translated books that are essential to Canada” published by cbcbooks.ca led to a twitter discussion and a recommendation from a fellow translated literature fan to pick up “Atavisms” by Raymond Bock. And I must say it is one of the best recommendations made this year.
Atavism (noun) from the Latin ‘atav’ a remote ancestor, ‘avus’ grandfather, forefather. Meaning the ‘reversion to an earlier type; throwback.’ Or ‘the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.
I did need to look up the title of this work in a dictionary, and there are quite a few other words scattered throughout this short story collection that I needed to reference check. I’ve become more learned as the pages turned!!!
This is a collection of thirteen (the back cover tells us “an unlucky number”) short stories or ‘histories’. Beginning with a story called “Wolverine” you know you are in for a sketched ride through French Canadian history, with the detail of events scant but the impact of them all too real.
After reading a couple of works it becomes quite apparent that the themes of travelling distances, political activism, minority rebellion and action as well as wide open spaces are a thread throughout. A sketching of the evolution of the French Canadian landscape in front of our reading eyes.
The physicists have it all wrong. With all their instruments and equations they posit that matter is made of empty space, and empty space is infinitely small. How, then, can the prairies be at once so huge and so empty?
Each opening paragraph transports you into the time and place of the tale, the language differs, the tone allows you to quickly switch in space and time, to draw into another era:
A fort built by three-season men affords scant protection from the fourth. Mere cloth and pegs would do as much to keep out the wind and frost, the sickness and snow. Between the stones the wind whistles and flecks of mortar pile up along the walls, at the feet of the dead. The living who still have the strength able from one straw mattress to the next wrapped in three-season blankets, counting teeth as they fall out, praying to the Almighty, even the Calvinists, to bring forth a steel caravel to break the ice on the Great River. Brothers and Men that shall after us be, if you saw what’s left of Frotté, La Brosse, an Pierrot, you’d know. There’s nothing here for us.
Our stories cover a raft of genres, with “The Worm telling us about the laws of nature taking back what is due, our writer owns the land title but nature owns the planet. “Racoon” is in the style of James Kelman, a down and out drunk and his partner are raising a alcohol foetal syndrome affected child. “The Bridge” is the story of a Canadian history teacher who suffers depression. “A Canadian Story” is a letter containing research, and other letters, showing the torture of prisoners to elicit information about travellers who are then sent to their execution.
In fact, francophones had long since been relegated to minority status and gotten used to their new identity as “French Quebecers.” It had all gone pretty smoothly, despite scattered protests undermined by small numbers and general indifference. Why rise up when you had everything you needed – bread, butter, a country at peace? As long as the prime ministers and a few bosses spoke French there wasn’t much to demand.
“Black Star” is set in the future with a revolution of the French Canadians forthcoming, the story dripping with irony and the French connection to the arts. There are other tales of the “science fiction” genre, with time travelling, there are historical accounts. A collection that is a real hotch-potch of genres and styles. But every single inclusion the voice rings true, the tale linking the current Canadian malaise to the past, and predictions of the future.
This is a wonderful collection of stories, all extremely different in voice, style and composition, but each building to a crescendo of the voice of a minority group who is losing their place in the world. Personally one of the highlights of the reading year for me, and a work I am pretty sure will be discussed at length when the 2016 Best Translated Book Award nominations come around.
I purposely haven’t given a lot of detail of each of the stories as this is a book each reader needs to savour themselves. Although only running to 134 pages it is a work to dwell upon, it is not a book that you read cover to cover in one sitting, although I was tempted as I found it that engrossing, however the common themes and messages are best left to linger and filter through in their own manner.