A Rarity among Anthologies of English-language Literature

Desde el norte_portadaDesde el norte. Narrativa canadiense contemporánea
Editor: Martha B. Bátiz Zuk
Publisher: UAM-Xochimilco, México, 2015
Review by Roberto García Bonilla

Canadian culture possesses a richness barely known in Mexico. Canada —like Mexico— is part of “North America”, although it is common practice to use this name to refer only to the United States of America. Indeed, it is even possible to hear it used this way by senior officials in Latin America, including certain heads of state.

Thus, as is well known, “America” —named in honour of the cosmographer and New World explorer Amerigo Vespucci— has been changed from a name for two continents to the demonym for a single country. And nobody questions it; not even the most obstinate leftists in different parts of the world.

The Monroe Doctrine
The declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, coined by the statesman whose surname it bears, seems to sum up the hegemonic (imperialist) expression and ambition of the foreign policy of the United States of America: “America for the Americans”, even if its original meaning was to warn the European powers against any attempt at intervention or colonization in their expansionist policies.

Of course, it emerged in a particular context, following the Napoleonic Wars and the so-called Holy Alliance between Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it is undeniable that its meaning was transformed from a principle of self-protection against the potential European enemy into a flagrant argument for the right of exploitation of a global power that has engaged in military intervention throughout the rest of the Americas in pursuit of its own whims and interests. One need only consider the incorporation into the United States of a huge swathe of Mexico following the two-year military intervention that began 1848.

The presence of the United States looms over the collective imaginary of its neighbours to both the north and the south. Canada has two official languages, English and French, the latter spoken mainly in the province of Quebec (the Latinos of the North), which has a population of over eight million, while the total population of the country is around 36 million.

Of course, Canadian literature has not become as widely known or influential as US literature, in part due to cultural colonialism, and to the advertising and image industries through which the nation of the great Faulkner transforms and re-creates everything. The best-known names in Canadian letters here in Mexico are (for some time now) Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) and (more recently) Alice Munro (b. 1931), who won the Nobel Prize in 2013. Of the rest, little is known outside of specialized academic circles.

Everyday realism
Desde el norte. Narrativa canadiense contemporánea (2015), brings together thirteen stories, in a rarity among the anthologies in English published in Mexico. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this publication is that it comes from an institutional Mexican publisher; there were two before it: one by the National Autonomous University of Mexico UNAM: Antología de cuentos canadienses contemporáneos (1996) and the other by the Mexico’s biggest publishing house, the FCE: ¿Dónde aquí? Panorama de las letras canadienses (2002).

This new compilation was put together by the Toronto-based writer Martha Bátiz Zuk, an academic at York University-Glendon College, who also translated four of the stories in the collection. A kind of everyday realism is a constant that identifies these narratives, some of which, strictly speaking, are not short stories according to the traditional definition of a narration characterized by its brevity, a self-contained anecdote with a climatic peak and, above all, an unexpected denouement. Although in every style of writing —professional, popular or artistic; ranging from amateur novices and wordsmiths by trade— the everyday anecdote predominates (to such a degree that readers may suspect that they are true stories, barely adorned with some invented, half-baked idea), few manage to culminate in truly complete works of a literary level; rather, they are lines that combine to give the reader a sensation of plausibility more than veracity, more befitting a diary, chronicle or news report.

It is, however, a truism that genres are becoming increasingly hybridized, that the purity of their features is no longer a sign of competent craftsmanship and much less of an artist’s skill.

A man and a woman
Desde el norte takes us, for example, into the innermost psyches of a man and woman whom ethnic fundamentalism have made enemies, meeting in an extreme situation on the border between dying and death, yet where desire and attraction make a surreptitious appearance, in Gilbert Reid’s “Pabellón 24”. And a stigmatic event in Latin American history, the coup d’état against Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in 1973, is transformed by Martin Boyd into an evocation swept up by the ill-fated melancholy of a young girl, taken far away from the dictatorship that her homeland has become.

Barry Callaghan’s “La jugada de piano” is a model of narrative synthesis: connotation is subjugated to denotation and from an insubstantial anecdote, after some contextual scene-setting, we leap to an ending that had no beginning, the only rules being the story and the convincing force of the writer, who leaves us with an open ending that leads to the expected imprisonment of a good-natured criminal with a gift as a pianist.

The whole anthology is permeated by the cultural richness of Canada, a point of convergence of cultures from all over the globe, a refuge and haven for individuals and communities who have fled hunger or political or religious persecution, or immigrants who saw the country as a promised land.

Diverse and contrasting conceptions of writing are present in this anthology, which also includes a work in which nothing happens at all, and in which Austin Clarke, in “¿Y?”, takes a solemn image of literature to create a text of his own.

“Cerrar la caja antes de encender” is the most expansive text in this anthology, both in terms of its length and its experimental ambition, as well as in the success of its poetic prose. Priscila Uppal gives us the monologue of a pyromaniac who over the course of thirty-nine segments —ranging from a single line to a whole page— describes her weakness for fire, the fervour that shines in her eyes and ignites her existence. The flames of passion mix with dreamlike delusions brightened by the fan that opens up when she slides the match against the brown striking surface and finds no closure, only an slow-paced ending with an impeccable rhythm in the translation by Adriana Jerkic, in which we find the ashless repose in which life, writing and literature are made palpable.

Roberto García Bonilla is a journalist and academic based in Mexico City.

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