In The Second Coming of Yeeat Shpanst, Armin Wiebe returns to Gutenthal, the fictional town of previous novels, a community that comes with its own extensive family tree, phrase book, and "Beetfield Chorus". This "Gutenthal Galaxy" is comprised of some of the more colourful creations to have bounded across Canadian pages in a while.
It is within this framework that a story of Canada unfolds. This is the Canada of the free trade deal, of dubious politicians and speeches that have an odd if only slightly skewed ring to them:
"A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have."
"It's not the size of your caucus, it's how you use it."
"I make deals therefore I am."
Politics run through the novel and Wiebe's "take" on our collective situation is both humorous and telling. From Yeeat Shpanst himself, who apparently went to Ottawa as a politician and "disappeared", to the "Seasoner Commission" (read: Spicer), travelling the country in a fashion that, while absurd, brings back memories, Wiebe points fingers, makes declarations, and tells fables.
And this is the hinge holding the book together, the act of writing and telling stories. Oata Siemens, a farm woman, sits with her Farmer's Union notebooks and her flat carpenter's pencil, listening to the buzzing of hypothetical mosquitoes. She writes because she needs to write:
"She felt like her whole body was pushing itself into her thumb and forefinger pinching the carpenter's pencil...."
What is Oata's story and what is external narration blur, as does reality, and the reader takes the magical leaps along with the characters. Two highly charged images, that of the tornado and that of the Salvage Yard, exemplify the wild ride. The tornado sucks up bits and pieces of Canada, lengths of railroad track, people, jobs, our cultural identity, and our icons. The Salvage Yard, toward the end of the book, is a place where the lost items may be found: "Wow! I found the C from the CBC!" The humorous touch is always there, but so is the observation.
It is the Word that is being celebrated here, from Yeeat Shpanst's Black Book, to the messages in bottles that are sent across the country, to Oata ripping up her Farmer's Union notebook and starting again. Writing is sustenance for Oata's mother: "...writing in my diary helped me get through the day." And it is more:
"Who would believe me that words on a page of paper can be so real? Real enough to stand up from the paper and stop a hand with a knife in it."
And when Oata's mother realizes that her daughter truly understands her, she confesses: "Ach meyall, sometimes we are all on the same page."
Whether readers will share this sentiment will depend on their penchant for holding tongue in cheek for long periods of time. It is a playful book, and serious. And it should be required reading for a legion of our elected representatives.
Rita Donovan is co-editor of Arc magazine.