The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

the  OrendaWe had magic before the crows came.

Joseph Boyden begins The Orenda with an allusion to the lost world of Huronia that is suggestive of a certain insight proposed in John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence: the world was not always what it has since become. Huronia, the land of the Wendat nation, has since vanished, along with their magic ties to orenda, the life force the suffuses all things, living and dead. Whether The Orenda is a historical fantasy is debatable–there are magic tricks, dream prophesies, and prayers and libations of all kinds, though none or very few unexplainable by science. However, The Orenda is certainly a historical novel, and therefore invested in showing us a forgotten world and time.

Before the arrival of the crows–the Jesuit missionaries who first called First Nations magic unclean–the Wendat had a power that the Christian European world could not comprehend. This is what the Jesuit priest Père Christophe discovers while living away from the security of the settlement of Kebec, behind a Wendat palisade deep in the woods. This ‘primitive’ village is the primal setting of the Canadian consciousness, at least according to Margaret Atwood in her 1970s book Survival, and thus promises to be a gripping Canadian epic.

The first heart-stopping sequence sets the tone for the rest of the novel with the brutal slaughter of the family of a young girl. Snow Falls witnesses her father sing his death song as his skull is bashed in by a club and he falls, arms outstretched and blood pooling around his head. The man who committed the murder is Fox, brother of Bird, who is a respected war chief of the local Wendat village. Bird is at war with the Haudenosaunee, who soon pursue him to avenge Snow Fall’s capture.  As the war party trudges away through the snow, Christophe carries Snow Falls to safety and tries to win her trust.  Despite her rebellion, he sees her father, splayed in the same shape as he fell when he died, in the silver crucifix around the Jesuit’s neck. It is implied that she believes her father’s orenda has come to rest in the crucifix. This belief in the orenda is what defines her people as different from Christophe’s.

‘Orenda’ is the closest word the Wendat have for ‘soul,’ though it also implies ‘power’ and is a mystical force that unites not only humans, but all things–trees, animals, stones. You could also say the orenda is like ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, which borrows ideas from world religion,  or Polynesian ‘mana.’ The difference between Christian soul and Huron orenda proves to be a vast gap that must be bridged if Christophe is to save the ‘savage’ Wendat from what he sees as the demons of Satan.

Though we see Bird and his brother Fox engaged in committing horrific violence within the first few chapters, we later see them at home in their longhouses with their families. We grow to see these characters as heroes defending their traditional way of life. Though in one sense, Christophe–or Christophe Crow, as the Wendat call him–is the antagonist of this novel, the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for him and admiration for his intelligence and bravery. Snow Falls naturally draws our sympathy as we see her grow from a scared Haudenosaunee orphan into a grown Wendat woman who may one day become a seer.

The Orenda is a novel composed of various heroes who come together as antagonists to each other, because of their cultural differences. Even the enemy who we rarely see, the Haudenosaunee, Bird describes as being not so different from the Wendat. But if every character has a good orenda, then what happens to ruin the magic that the Wendat once had?

The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?
The Huron were forced to trade with the Iron People for what were once luxuries that became necessities. Was this another cause in the fall of Huronia?

Joseph Boyden poses the question of who’s responsible with a beautifully structured tragedy. Is it Bird’s adoption of Snow Falls that begins the war that will see the end of his world? Is it the disease the Jesuits bring with them? Is it Christophe Crow’s clumsiness? Or was it just a few bad harvests? Boyden sows the seeds of the end in the beginning, as the Wendat sow the seeds of the three sisters–squash, corn, and beans–each spring to be harvested–or burned–in the fall.

At times The Orenda causes you to remember the present social troubles of First Nations by glimpsing the birth of the patterns of destruction that have assailed them ever since. You see alcohol, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, and the way of regarding First Nations as “savage” that eventually results in the formation of Residential Schools. All that bloody and painful history has its origins in the fatal story that involves Bird, Snow Falls, and Christophe Crow.

Even before I began to read The Orenda, I expected it to be a defining epic of Canadian history, an absolute must-read. I also expected it be similar to the movie Blackrobe. Indeed, several scenes in The Orenda appear to have been either inspired by Blackrobe, or the source material it has in common with it: The Jesuit Relations. But The Orenda goes deeper in describing the ripples the Jesuits caused in Canadian history. The past and future are present, says Aataentsic the Sky Woman.

I saw Blackrobe once in high school at the same time as I studied–too briefly, perhaps–the civilization of First Nations before and during  European contact. I remember learning about all the anthropological points between distinguishing the Algonquins and Iroquois, the genocidal wars the Iroquois won with Dutch muskets, and then New France’s reaction, or rather inaction, regarding the wars. Our schools spend too little time teaching about First Nations history. But The Orenda can satisfy your curiosity about any blank spots in your mental timeline. I personally find the old-school map included in the hardcover edition and the references to Huronia and Kebec (instead of Quebec) work wonderfully at alienating Quebecois readers who are familiar with their country/province so that they can be carried into the perspective of those who lived during that time.

The Orenda is part of Joseph Boyden’s saga of the Bird family, and the first prequel. Certainly the first to go back so early in the history of the family. I have read Through Black Spruce before, a tale of a comatose bushplane pilot (named Bird) who remembers how he dealt with a gang of drug dealers in Northern Ontario while his daughter speaks to him while he recovers in hospital from a crash, recalling her own journey to find her sister. It has the same stark, affecting style as The Orenda and it explores some of the social issues in First Nations communities–issues that we now know go back to the seventeenth century. Three Day Road is another in the saga, a book I may pick up in the future.

The Orenda won Canada Reads in 2014, was a Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist, and made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Orenda‘s orenda is strong. Read it.

Boyden
Joseph Boyden, author of The Orenda

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Photo Credits:

http://grou17.wix.com/fur#!__master-page-3

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.

A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.

As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.

Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.

cockroachThough I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.

Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.

I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:

“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).

The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:

“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).

Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.

At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.

Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?

Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.

drain

Montreal, view from Mount Royal.
Montreal, view from Mount Royal.

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Photo Credits:

Cockroach: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokybrown_cockroach

Montreal: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Montreal_Skyline_winter_panorama_Jan_2006.jpg

Drain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kitchen_sink_drain.jpg

Rawi Hage and What his Work Means to Me

Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads
Samantha Bee (left) defended Cockroach by Rawi Hage (right) on Canada Reads.

I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.

Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.

In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage
Cockroach by Rawi Hage

To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.

Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”

I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.

Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.

Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.

I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.

Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.

One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.

Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.

His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!

If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.

What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?

Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.

Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.

Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.

deniro
Robert DeNiro: an inspiration for Rawi Hage?

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Photo Credits:

Canada Reads: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2013/12/samantha-bee-and-rawi-hage-talk-canada-reads.html

DeNiro: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver