February 2, 2014
Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk
While I loved Keavy Martin’s review of the Inuit novel Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, and translated from French to English by Peter Frost in this new edition by University of Manitoba Press), a review which placed the novel in its context but also took it beyond the context—this is not “merely” a novel written by somebody who’d never read one, but a work of literature onto itself, something to be understood or even just experienced rather than contextualized—, I do think she overstated the challenge this book poses for the inexperienced reader. All set for a challenge was I, but instead I found myself enjoying myself, not so lost in an unfamiliar environment. The novel comes with a glossary of terms, but I could deduce most words by how they were used. The novel’s foreword by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure set the story up well for me, and in terms of the novel’s episodic nature? Well, obviously this was just an Inuit version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (I am only being half facetious here), so I knew what I was getting into.
Sanaaq is a young widow with a little daughter living as part of a semi-nomadic community in Northern Quebec. The novel’s 48 episodes show the rhythms of their daily life and its seasons, with all the usual drama implied–marriage, love, familial strife, hardship and loss, tragedy, and happiness. Oh, and tea. These characters are as preoccupied with tea, its having and its making, as characters in any English noel I’ve ever read, so I actually felt quite at home. For the reader unfamiliar with Inuit culture and traditions, the stories contained in this novel are rife with interesting details–about the hunting and storage of food, for example, or how the women in the book are always sewing and repairing their boots, and the logistics of Igloo-building. It’s not a portrayal of an Arctic idyll—life can be difficult and dangerous; I found it interesting to see how the dogs were regarded as pests, forever getting into food supplies and causing trouble, having items thrown at them. At one point in the story, Sanaaq is a victim of spousal violence, injured so badly by her husband that she must be flown to the south for medical treatment, and this is treated in the text with unflinching detail of the emotional complexity of the matter. But there is humour here too, and genuine human connections.
As we move through the novel’s 48 episodes, changes in Inuit life become apparent through contact with the qallunaat (non-Inuit people), which begins first with the sound of an airplane overhead, and then becomes more regular and embedded in ordinary experiences—Sanaaq’s husband is taken away to the south for work, her daughter becomes a Catholic convert, old people begin receiving social security payments.
The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise.
Sanaaq can and should be discussed beyond the story of how it was written, but the story is still pretty fascinating—Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was asked by a missionary to write down phrases of the Inuktitut language so that he could develop his vocabulary, and what she delivered him instead was his long work of fiction, which she completed over many years. As Martin writes, “Mitiarjuk’s work has long been celebrated in Inuit communities, and… she received major honours before her death in 2007—she was awarded an honorary doctorate from McGill and was named a Member of the Order of Canada.” And now finally her work has been made available to be read by English readers, for pleasure just as much as enlightenment.