Review

Arvida

by Samuel Archibald

translated by Donald Winkler

Biblioasis, 2015

In writing about place, writing stories deeply grounded in both the earth and culture of a certain specific place in all its aspects, there may not be a more immediate way of signifying that goal than in naming­—itself an aspect of place. When Samuel Archibald named his collection Arvida, he made a declaration that all these stories are of that place, and they belong to each other. Arvida is a small town in rural Quebec and these stories recreate the space of that place: even when they’ve left it physically, they cannot snap their roots. The stories are similar the way people from the same small town are: even as they grow and become different, family resemblances remain. Arvida is pieces collected to make a whole, rather than disparate stories only physically bound together.

In writing the stories of Arvida, Archibald relied on the stories of Arvida. Many of these stories are transmissions of stories told to Archibald, passed on in some manner. Which these are, and how closely they hew to the original tale becomes irrelevant. In interviews, he tells of people who, knowing this, spot themselves in a story and want to correct something entirely fictitious. Intended or not, this confusion fits one of the central conceits of Arvida: these are stories of stories, what they do, what life becomes through them, and why they should be passed on. “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness” captures this: a story that contains, among other things, a history of Arvida and a hockey match between Arvidians and former players of the worshipped Montréal Canadiens.

Out of a small town, any story may become myth. A game of hockey becomes a legendary battle, recounted for generations. A personal story becomes a historical footnote, echoing through generations. In a small town, gossip turns into a tale worth telling. Archibald makes legend out of the minor. That he is so successful in this is what makes the too-plain “In the Midst of the Spiders” and the too-obscure “Paris in the Rain” fall out of synch with the rest of the collection.

In a basic sense, myth and legend are ways of talking about one thing while appearing to be about something else, whether to transmit faiths and lessons, or to entertain, or to speak what otherwise may not be spoken. The latter is what pulses most intensely through the lines and pages of Arvida. Thickening that blood is Archibald’s deployment of horror. In some stories—“Antigonish,” “Cryptozoology,” “A Mirror in the Mirror,” “Jigai,” and “House Bound”—this element is impossible to turn from, no matter how buffed towards realism they are. They are ghost, werewolf, monster, and haunted house stories, but the horror is dislocated, moved from its place. What categories strive to separate—the real and unreal—overlap and become each other. In “Cryptozoology,” Archibald writes: “They always talk that way, as if their dreams weren’t dreams at all, as if they each lived the night, then the day, like two lives, one inside the other, of which one, but never the same one, sometimes seems stranger than the other.” The horrors of people, of mundane life, move to genre, and there the reader is left to search for the reflection of the origin.

Archibald’s descriptions bridge the worlds, always incredibly physical—visceral and unsettling. It is not only the people, history, culture, and attitudes that create place: without land place becomes anonymous and Archibald does not forget or neglect this. Of winter fishing: “At the end of May, just after the lakes have crested, when you dip your hand in the icy water to rinse off the blood and silt, you’d think the lake was sinking its teeth into your flesh like a creature that’s more rapacious still.” I’ve dipped into winter lakes, and these words brought the sensation to my body before I parsed them. From understanding the words, the creepiness went back to the body. The blood, the hungry creature taking it off, looking for more, the threat of that­—it’s a vision that puts other creatures lurking in your mind. The land is given the potential to become something other. This land, Arvida, is something to be survived—growth is a violence. Through blueberry bushes Archibald removes hope, but not beauty, from the phoenix, writing: “Every four years, in autumn, they were burned. In spring the earth was fed with their ashes and they rose from their own graves.”

Even were the land abandoned, there’s no leaving the physical plane. It is the connective tissue between experience and articulation, moving mundane to the supernatural and the supernatural to mundane, tangible to phantom, phantom to tangible. A little girl, in her bed at home, terrified of actions she can’t name, her mental and emotional torment expressible only bodily, must leave her normal flesh: “her entrails would stop wrenching and tearing and twisting in her belly like the gears of an archaic machine.” Making experiences expressible is what Arvida does, even when uncertain of the reality behind them.

Arvida is about the things daily language cannot hold in its grasp, but it is also about what language could grasp if only the community would allow it. Community, whether it is family, friends, or a whole town, creates taboos, delineates parts of itself as obscene, to never speak of.

The stories change tone to suit character, plot, emotion, but they are consistently muffled or muted. There is open space for characters to rage or gnash teeth and rend garments, but that is left as quiet tension, a mild bitterness or melancholy. This is true even in the outrageous “Jigai.”

The other stories are about Quebecers, mostly in or from Arvida. “Jigai” is set in a remote Japanese town in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands. The hero, the monster, is a woman who came from Shiretoko: ‘“there where the world goes beyond itself,’ or ‘there where the world bursts its banks.’” She’s referred to as American, though since it’s from the villager’s perspective, she could easily be from Canada or even Arvida.

The woman and her disciples cut off toes, feet, and turn it into intimate sadomasochism: “you can amputate one foot with a hacksaw, but you have to keep the other otherwise engaged, you can lop off toes with a chisel, but you have to keep at least one stump to suck.” They dive so deep into the most physical horrors that you may want the story to be supernatural instead.

For all that “Jigai” seems an outlier, its deep connective tissue begins on the very first page, with the “things that happened to her that shouldn’t happen to a woman and especially not a child.” The most interesting stories in Arvida have women or children in focus. For the children, they could be called coming of age tales, but they come of age through confrontation with something awful, whether it be horrible legends from the past, sexual abuse, or learning what it is to hunt and kill. Like Jim in “Cryptozoology” they meet, then “[get] over the horror.” Adult men are the source and force of horror: “Men in the past invented spirits, vampires, and werewolves, so as to accuse them of crimes they committed themselves.”

This community of men wants to make new mythological monsters, and these become villagers with pitchforks. They want to erase the story of these women. But Arvida is a collection of recoveries. These stories, their becoming myth, the way they speak at a slant, unites them, and “Jigai” is the most buried.

By speaking of one thing on the surface—monstrous, strange things of legend—the wounded and vulnerable, or those with secret sins to confess, can speak a true story, one the community would not let be told otherwise.

“Jigai” is an entertaining horror story set in a village of Japan, but the subversion we’re asked to listen to is an outcry by women in Arvida. It’s not by chance that Hokkaido crosses the same parallel as Arvida, often cold and rural. The double reading carries Arvida, and only when Archibald isn’t playing this game do the stories fall out of place and fail to satisfy.

It’s when the author doesn’t have monsters who are something other than they appear that the stories could appear in any number of collections. It is the monsters who make Arvida. The monsters that should be feared are those who lurk in shadows, who have power in their lives, and these are mundane men, willing to harm, or at least be indifferent. The other monsters are those women and children, those with muffled voices, who tell their tale by throwing shades of genre or the uncanny over themselves, supported by Archibald, and their allies in life, be they family, friends, men or women. To these latter monsters goes our compassion, and Arvida’s singular addition to the literatures of genre.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Review by P.T. Smith
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Read a short story from Arvida
PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Read our interview about Arvida and the 2016 Best Translated Book Award