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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Atavisms – Raymond Bock (translated by Pablo Strauss)

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.
Unlike the fairy-tale, fable style of French-Canadian Jacques Poulin (three I have reviewed here previously), Raymond Bock is a writer who I will definitely be exploring further as more works become available in English.
Source – personal copy.

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