Literary journalism

Arvida in his soul

Published in the Montreal Gazette, November 6, 2015

 

A busy life has gotten busier for Samuel Archibald since his book Arvida (Biblioasis, 216 pp, $19.95) turned up on the Giller Prize long list a few weeks ago.

Archibald realized it when his seven-year-old daughter called him out for missing a couple homework dates with her. When he told her he was preparing for the launch of Arvida, she protested: “But that book came out years ago.”

“I said, yes, but now it’s coming out in English, and I have to work on promotion and a tour. She thought about it for two or three seconds, and said, ‘With you writing books in English, does this mean we have to move to Canada?’ I said, ‘there’s something I have to tell you, darling. You are in Canada.’ ”

Archibald, who has yet to see 40, is happily coping with the prospect of being better known in the anglo part of the country. Arvida has already been acclaimed in Quebec, where it was published, in French, in 2011. Now the rest of Canada is about to discover his original voice.

Arvida is the name of an aluminum-smelting town in the Saguenay where Archibald grew up. Since his childhood, it has become part of the larger city of Jonquière. His family is French-speaking with English roots on his father’s side.

Assimilated anglos were not so unusual in the frontier part of Quebec, Archibald said during an interview at a Rosemont café near where he now lives with his wife and their three kids. He is married to Geneviève Pettersen, a Saguenéen of Norwegian heritage, who is also a writer, the author of the bestseller La déesse des mouches à feu, soon to be published in English as The Goddess of Fireflies.

Archibald left Arvida after turning 18 to go to school in Montreal, and he has lived in Europe, but the town never left him. Indeed, it is the wellspring of his creativity.

The stories in Arvida include the misadventures of small-town ne’er-do-wells, a mythic hockey game played between Habs old-timers and a local team, and a tall tale about a cougar prowling the Saguenay woods. This might suggest a book steeped in nostalgia. It’s not. There’s a dark, hard presence in the stories, sometimes wry, sometimes muted, but always lurking like an animal in the undergrowth. Indeed, Archibald said, one story refers to an event he knew of growing up that was so unspeakable he could only tell it in the form of an allegory set on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, a place as far removed from Arvida as one can get. Horror-story images, vivid and disturbing, appear in several stories. They are reminiscent of the writing of Stephen King or of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Guillermo del Toro film. Archibald acknowledges his admiration of King, the type of author who would appeal to a boy growing up in the Saguenay – but he has turned King’s genre on its ear.

This is brilliantly illustrated in House Bound. As the title suggests, it alludes to King’s The Shining, but in Archibald’s formulation the supernatural exists only as a preoccupation in the imagination of some the characters. The real horror in the story derives from how a husband, wife and daughter in a failing marriage each in their own way emotionally brutalize one another.

The Giller jury or someone on it was keenly aware of the talent on display in Arvida, because in being considered, even for the long list, the book has had to overcome hurdles: it’s in translation and it’s a book of short stories, categories not often favoured for the prestigious prize.

Helping the cause is a first-rate rendering in English by Don Winkler, a Montreal filmmaker and writer who has three times won a Governor General’s Award for translation. “It was an incredible thing to work on, and I wanted to do it justice,” Winkler said.

Archibald returned the compliment: writer and translator did a joint reading of Arvida recently at the Atwater Library, each in their respective first language. At the end of the event, Archibald said he told Winkler, “I liked yours better – tonight, at least.”

It’s also notable that Arvida’s English publisher is a small and relatively new press, Biblioasis, based in that literary hotbed, Windsor, Ont. Remarkably, Bibilioasis has three books on this year’s Giller long list, suggesting that even as some of the dinosaurs of the Canadian publishing industry totter off there’s new life stirring in the bushes.

The Giller short list is to be announced Monday, Oct. 5. Meanwhile, for Archibald the hectic pace will continue. Besides helping raise the three little ones, he’s working on a crime-story novel set in the Saguenay. (Why leave Nordic mysteries to the Scandinavians, he chuckled.)

He’s on sabbatical from a day job teaching at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and that has created some time, but the beckoning English audience diverts him from the novel. There’s so still much to do with Arvida, he said. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”