by Jean Bédard
VLB éditeur, 2014
“Listen, for I am old.”
Le chant de la terre innue (The song of the Innu land) opens with all the gravitas and appeal of a “Call me Ishmael” or the “So.” with which Seamus Heaney began his translation of Beowulf.
We move quickly from the resolute to the dreamy, though, a stream of consciousness in the type of novel in which at times not a lot happens, so much so that you wonder if it can accurately be called a novel at all. Unlike most stream of consciousness, however, the writing is very much in tune with the timelessness of nature. The style is not provoked by man’s response to modern life, but rather to the natural world. Here, characters are completely at one with the world around them. They “glide into the wind” and are “built of stone” as the words they use rise up splendidly off the page “like a single cloud of snow geese.”
It’s difficult to read, like James Joyce is difficult to read, or Cormac McCarthy is difficult to read, but it is literally worlds apart from the modernism and violence of Joyce and McCarthy. It’s dense. It requires patience, demands to be savoured. It shifts, like the changing landscape, like the gull that is transformed into a wolf, like the moving clouds that square up to each other “like muskoxen,” like the snowflakes that fall “big as robins.”
A chapter or two in, I decide it’s best just to let the writing wash over me. Like a painting. Something to be savoured and admired, reread, a few brush strokes passing by almost unremarked along the way, adding to the overall effect without always standing alone.
A mother bear has her life spared by a hunter and celebrates by flinging salmon at her young. Far-off storms rumble in the distance. Clouds become heavy as mountains. It rains for days and nights at a time. An igloo is a “den of ivory where time has fallen asleep,” time itself “nothing more than a glacial night, death as far as the eye can see.”
A book of images, then. A novel on time and space and nature. A novel of time and space and nature. Beautiful descriptions follow each other seamlessly, never feeling gaudy or overdone.
“The heat fell asleep, lay down slowly on their bodies like a gentle animal. It purred and moved around between the men and women sitting in the vastness, barely protected by a dome of snow that the fire turned red. Outside, the wind whistled between the teeth of the night. Dog muzzles smoked in the snow.”
There is no shortage of beautiful descriptions in a novel composed almost entirely of them. Because that is what this book is: one long, lingering, lovely description of a place, a time, a way of life. An ode to Nitassinan, the homeland of the Innu.
Review by Peter McCambridge