Arvida – Samuel Archibald (translated by Donald Winkler) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Arvida is a small settlement of 12,000 people (2010) in Quebec, that is part of the City of Saguenay. Founded as an industrial city by the aluminium giant Alcoa in 1927, this is a settlement with dark secrets, ghosts, ritual body mutilations. For writer Samuel Archibald, Arvida “was a place of refuge wherealmost everything could be wiped away and forgotten Arvida was a town for second chances, undue hopes and also games.”
“Arvida has never been a town at the crux of history, but rather a place resolutely outside it.”, “a kind of working class mythology”, Arvida is like a photo, “a very beautiful photo from after the war, which was, like all beautiful photos, an empty picture, with practically nothing in it and everything outside it.”
Just like the town itself, our collection of stories live outside of the norm, they live on the fringes, and although a collection of short stories they form a cohesive whole, the dark corners of an industrial town, the secrets in families…
Samuel Archibald’s debut collection “Arvida” won the 2012 Prix Cuop de cœur Renaud-Bray in it’s original French language, and the English translation was shortlisted for the 20165 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of the few writers writing in French to have made the shortlist with only four French language works since the prize began in 1994. Note: Not being an expert in French Language Canadian literature these figures may be slightly incorrect, I have included Pascale Quiviger for “The Perfect Circle”, Gaétan Coucy for “The Immaculate Conception” in 2006 and Daniel Poliquin “A Secret Between Us” in 2007.
The collection opens with the story of our narrator’s father, and all of his memories being associated with food, despite the fact that our narrator’s mother was an amazing cook, and his father loved food, he would sit and watch others eat their dinner, not partaking himself. A explained in the opening story, “My father and Proust, Arvida I”:
When I think about it now, the comedy darkens. The ore I age, the more something tragic makes its presence felt, the sense of a bitter nostalgia at the core of all things: the idea of wanting to do something magnanimous for people who ask for nothing and are in need of nothing; the idea of a sacrifice reduced to a risible and secret simulacrum; the idea that the object of desire has nothing to do with desire itself; the idea that fulfilment 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.
Our collection includes stories of hunting and large mythical cats, people with the profession of making others redundant, mixed with nature, the idea that it is larger than mankind itself. A tale of a botched illegal immigration from Canada into Detroit with a Costa Rican girl, a story that involved goons, cocaine, alcohol and not a lot of planning or money – it is the story of América.
Antigonish is a story of ceaseless travel and the pursuit of nowhere, somewhere:
America’s a bad idea that’s come a long way. I’ve always thought that, but it doesn’t paint a very good picture.
I should have said: America’s a bad idea that has gone every which way. An idea that’s spawned endless roads leading nowhere, roads paved in asphalt or pounded into the earth or laid out with gravel and sand, and you can cruise them for hours to find pretty much zilch at the other end, a pile of wood, metal, bricks, and an old guy on his feet in the middle of the road, asking:
“Will you goddam well tell me what the hell you’re doing around here?”
America is full of lost roads and places that really don’t want anyone to get there. It took fools to make these roads and fools to live at the end of them, and there’s no end of fools, but me, I’m another kind of fool, one of those who tries to reinvent history, pushing on to the very last road, and the very last god-forsaken destination.
I’m sure they’ve made a much more welcoming road not, with scenic walks and lookouts and all that stuff, but in those days, driving the Cabot Trail at night in the middle of a storm was a crazy idea. The guy at the Cape North gas bar had been polite enough not to say anything. He’d only said, “Drive fifteen, twenty miles an hour, no more, and God willing, you’ll get to the other end.”
With hints of the two Davids; Cronenberg, Lynch but with a distinctive small town voice that allows the tales to dribble unknown into your consciousness, this is a haunting collection, one that will slowly infiltrate your memory, just like living in a settlement on the fringes, these tales float on the fringes of your mind.
The story “A mirror in the mirror” tells the moving and haunting tale of a woman living in her deceased parent’s home, her husband away in Montreal, she lingers in the home and surrounds, not seeking an outside connection through to the tale “Jigai” the story of a woman who “came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in her pockets” and practices ritual body mutilation on the women of the surrounding areas, all with their permission of course.
Later in the collection there becomes a shift to the very personal “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness, Arvida II” a further account of the writer’s upbringing, family, his memories of Arvida; “there was nothing more Arvidian that to forget Arvida itself.” Which clearly our writer has not done! The continuing meta-fiction ends the collection with “Madeleines, Arvida III” a wonderfully personal story of how Archibald became a writer, how to tell stories (or not tellstories) and a circular reference to the beginning of the collection, and the opening lines.

The publisher Biblioasis says they are “committed to the idea that translations must come from the margins of linguistics cultures as well as from the power centres” and this is a collection for the margins, a brilliant travel into small town Canada. A work that will linger with me for quite sometime and one that I believe will be among the discussions when the Best Translated Book Award judges sit down to formulate their longlist.

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