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An Overwhelming Stillness.
by Wayne Grady

SINCE Elizabethan times, when the "gold ore" brought back to England by Martin Frobisher as "tokens of possession" turned out to be nothing brut iron pyrite, the Arctic has been considered by people of European descent more as an impediment to the Orient than as a place in itself ? a passage, valued more for what it is not than for what it is. "One might deduce from my considerations," writes Rudy Wiebe in this remarkably beautiful book, that all human beings, certainly all whites, made their entry into the arctic. landscape by means of water and that for most of the last four hundred years of arctic encounter the whites have not wanted land there. .' . . They want nothing except liquid water so they can get past the land because they do, not want to stop in the arctic at, 411: they merely want it to be a convenient passage to another place altogether.

The Arctic, however, as Wiebe is quick to add, "has never cooperated" in this conception. Passage it might be; convenient it has never been. "Inconvenient at best and deadly at worst," writes Wiebe, and indeed, the most memorable encounters with the Arctic in the years since Frobisher have been with the Arctic at its worst. Mere recountings of arctic exploration ? such as Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail ? are full of tales of starvation and death, of ships caught in ice for years on end or ground to bits in minutes, of madness and despair. Until the last few decades, the Arctic remained largely unchanged by human activity ? a few cairns, a lot of gasoline drums. To some extent, the Arctic even hides the evidence of its penetration. Watching from the bridge of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker in Larsen Sound last year, I. caught sight of a rare thing in the Arctic: a long, thin piece of wood, like a pole or a mast, protruding from a huge, multi?year icefloe. The sight gripped my imagination: dozens of ships have been lost up here, I thought; this could be part of one of Sir John Franklin's ships, the Erebus or the Terror, last recorded held fast by ice at the northern end of Victoria Strait in 1845 and never recovered. Wiebe perfectly understands that sense of awe and reverence, the feeling that the implacable, intractable Arctic may be tossing up .one, of its secrets:, "They could be anywhere in the Arctic Ocean," he speculates about Franklin's ships, "for the ice flows hundreds of kilometres a year; long separated now, perhaps at intervals the ice opens and one or the other is revealed for a moment or a year, a mast stump or bowsprit reaching like a hand, briefly, up into the light somewhere off the coast of Ellesmere or Axel Heiberg islands."

Playing Dead (the title comes from an Inuit derivation legend explaining the origin of water, but recurs throughout the book as a fluid motif) is a continuation of Wiebe's fascination with the North that appeared briefly in his second novel, First and Vital Candle (1966), then in the short stories "Oolulik" and "Me Naming of Albert Johnson," both of which were included in Where Is the Voice Coming From? (1974), and figures most prominently in his novel about Albert Johnson, The Mad Trapper (1980,). The ghost, of Albert Johnson shows up frequently in Playing Dead; the book is largely an account of two trips Wiebe made to the Arctic, in 1983 and 1987, on reading tours to promote and, in some ways, to extend, his fiction. On both trips he spoke with Native people who took part in' the hunt for Johnson (in their nineties now, most of them) and had tales told to him that he had written from his imagination half a decade before. He also writes about earlier interlopers, such as Frobisher, and Fridtj of Nansen,. and the myriad doomed Englishmen despatched by an Imperial government lacking an Empire to find out what happened to one of the more reckless of their fellow officers, Sir John Franklin.

Although Franklin's is the classic example, most European adventures in the Arctic, concludes Wiebe, end in fiascos of one kind or another, either of conception or of delivery: encountering nordicity (Wiebe's word, and a good one) has proven to be an experience beyond the intellectual grasp of Europe. Paintings of Franklin meeting a group of Eskimos show him and his officers wearing exactly the same thin Royal Navy uniform worn by Captain Bligh on Tahiti; when Franklin's surviving men finally abandon their icebound ships after two years of disease and despair, do they take with them as much food as they can carry? They do not ? first they pack their heavy mess kits, fine china and sterling silverware, since no British officer would be caught dead eating from a tin. Berton's twice?told tales of the Arctic abound in similar examples of inappropriate responses to the environment: Wiebe shows that only those Europeans who mimicked the Inuit managed to get out with their lives.

In 1911, Roald Amundsen, who had trained under Nansen, reached and returned from the South Pole in relative comfort using dogteams. At the same time, Robert Falcon Scott and his entire English expedition starved and froze to death because they tried to use horses.

Wiebe traces this argument through Inuit language and oral literature: he uses the historical evidence to get more deeply into the differentriess of the Arctic. This is revealed, for example, in the Inuit perception of space, which is essentially two?dimensional ? linear whereas the British always moved in terms of coordinates ? areally. Movement is linear; stillness (being caught in ice) is areal. Life is movement; death is .overwhelming stillness."

There is much poetry in this book: So we flew east over the widely scattered, still deserted summer fish camps and hunting camps in the snow at the caribou crossings, along the frozen river, further east until the Richardson Mountains appeared, abruptly, like enormous unglaciated pyramids folded irregularly into each other like a random scattering of scrawled, conical shapes and all so deadly white with their creeks outlined by black spruce and there is more than a little politics:

I need wisdom. Wisdom to understand why Canadians have so little comprehension of our own nordicity, that we are a northern nation and that, until we grasp imaginatively and realize imaginatively in word, song, image and consciousness that North is both the true nature of our world and also our graspable destiny we will always go whoring after the mocking palm trees and beaches of the Caribbean and Florida and Hawaii.

But poetry and polemic belong together in this meditation on the clash of cultures; Wiebe celebrates the oral literature of the Inuit, and since the three chapters of Playing Dead were first delivered as a series of lectures at the University of Toronto in 1987, they am a kind of oral literature themselves. In them, Wiebe pays tribute to Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, a highly imaginative submersion in the oral literature of Australia's aboriginal peoples; Playing Dead, however, seems to me to have more in common with Chatwin's In Ptitagonia. For the Arctic is our Patagonia ? mythic, remote, a country of the mind more often read about than seen. Wiebe's intelligent and passionate encounter with its myths and its people brings that blurry landscape ? and Canada itself ? into much sharper focus.

Last year, Canadian Airlines agents were handing out free paperback copies of Barry Lopez's Aretic Dreams with every ticket to the Northwest Territories. This year, they should be handing out Playing Dead.


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