Sitting Opposite My Brother

by David Bergen,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0888011725

The Better to See You

by Alfonso Urias Quijada,
ISBN: 092095359X

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Something In Common
by John Oughton

THESE two short-story collections are concerned with both the ties and thegaps between people. The differences between the two books lie both inexperience -- this is David Bergen`s first book, Alfonso QuijadaUrias`s 10th -- and in setting. Bergen, a Manitoban of Mennoniteancestry, shows us characters who live in the relative peace and comfort OfCanada, but doubt their ability to really connect with another; Quijada Urias`stour de force presents 16 differentvoices from El Salvador, all of them joined, however unwillingly, by a sharedcontext of violence and oppression. In Bergen`s Sitting Opposite My Brother, fairly ordinary, white, middle-classcharacters struggle with everyday challenges -- alcoholism, adaughter`s mental illness. Their victories and defeats are chronicled in astyle that blends occasional poetic or philosophical epiphanies, passing lusts,and careful recording of the particulars of their surroundings. Bergen himself is conscious of hisinterest in both the concrete and the spiritual, noting in a publicity releasethat "only the minute detail will save these characters." Thecharacters` dialogue also has a "doubled" effect; it consists ofstatements that are unremarkable in themselves, but seem slightly out ofcontext, as if the characters aren`t really listening to each other, or are caughtup in what "Star Trek" writers call "a space-timeanomaly." One typical example, from the story "The Bottom of theGlass" I ask, "Why is it that believerscan`t see irony? Is life that simple for them?" Vange isn`t payingattention. She says, "One woman, Mrs. Wiebe, well-intentioned I`msure, pulled me aside and whispered that she was sorry..." The title story amplifies suchdisconnections. Thomas, the narrator, and his brother Timothy, a fundamentalistmissionary back from Indonesia, are so different that they wonder what theyhave in common. Thomas learns more from Timothy`s baby son: "He stared atme intently, as if to say, `Yes, Thomas, pray,` and then he shit hisdiaper." These stories have a common tone -- a sense of lifeas painful and random, yet holding moments of tenderness and beauty. Bergen`ssensibility echoes those of other writers of his generation who share aMennonite Manitoba past, such as Di Brandt and Patrick Friesen. They areconscious of spirit and flesh, of faith and doubt. At his best, Bergen playsskilfully on many levels -- a character named Lot is left by hiswife, who tells an adulterous stranger, "Lick me all over, I`m made ofsalt." No Biblical figure, her bed partner is a French Canadian who wearscologne and gold chains and specializes in Leibniz. Although Bergen`s techniqueneeds refining -- some transitions are too abrupt --his work is worth following, both for the complexity and realism of hischaracters and for the pleasures of lines like "He was nothing to her, andnothing was what she was looking for." Quijada Urias lived in El Salvadorfor his first 41 years, and then moved to Nicaragua, Mexico, and finallyVancouver. In The Better to See You, translated by HughHazelton, he provides a composite portrait of his native country. The book`stitle suggests that all of his characters -- whether torturers,executioners, guerrillas, or ordinary citizens trying to Survive --know that they may be looking a "wolf` in the eye at any moment, Each ofthe short tales adopts a different point of view. Some are funny, mystical, orsurreal. But, despite the presence of stories such as "And ProudlyProclaim Ourselves Her Sons, about a giantess-whore who initiatescountless generations of men into sexuality, Quijada Urias`s writing does not fit into the Latin Americanmagic-realist camp. Many of the other tales arc prosaic, or naturalistic,until a final moment flips the action into another gear. A group of guys areplaying basketball, and enjoying it -- nothing much else seems tohappen until "four guys with machine guns" show up and slaughter theteams. "Downhill Night" focuses on the boozy companionship of twodeath-squad hitmen, Softy and Gorilla, who seem too drunk and ineffectualto succeed even at their sorry trade -- although they still manageto execute two boys. Quijada Urias`s largely low-key approach to thesedeaths and other violence is very efective; his skilful alternations of style and of voice keep the bodycount from overpowering the fact that these are also stories about individualswho are as important as the civil war that threatens them. Humour --admittedly somewhat grim -- animates stories about a formerly richand proud fatuity that decides to bury its matriarch in the garden to savemoney, a broke poet nicknamed Artur Rimbo who spends his last bill to impress aweeping woman pianist he befriends, and a group of stoned hedonists who gettaken seriously when they stumble into a demonstration. Hugh Hazelton has done EnglishCanadianreaders a service in introducing an "immigrant writer" whose skilland passion add dimension to a Culture Most of us know only through headlinesand news footage.

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