Story anthology reveals facets of Canadian life

February 10, 1991|By Sherie Posesorski

FROM INK LAKE:

CANADIAN STORIES.

Selected by Michael Ondaatje.

Viking.

714 pages. $25.95. Some of the short stories by the 50 Canadian authors in "FroInk Lake" are favorites I grew up with, like Stephen Leacock's "L'envoi: the Train to Mariposa" and Morley Callaghan's "Ancient Lineage." Others are ones that I have grown to love, like Margaret Atwood's "The Man from Mars," Alice Munro's "Miles City, Montana."

What is an unanticipated delight of this collection is that although most of the authors are well-known, editor Michael Ondaatje has made a concerted effort, as he states in the introduction, to seek out less familiar work by familiar authors and introduce up-and-coming authors to a new audience. That he does with finesse, making this anthology one of the most comprehensive yet eclectic anthologies of Canadian short stories available.

In the introduction, Mr. Ondaatje (an award-winning poet, playwright and novelist) declares that he "chose stories that in some way mapped the geographical, emotional and literary range of the country from fable to chronicle to intimate moment." Two themes emerge in story after story: They are concerned with how "the past invades us," as Mr. Ondaatje puts it, and with addressing one of the central questions of Canadian identity as posed by eminent critic Northrop Frye: "Where is here?"

Those themes literally are railroad tracks in Stephen Leacock's "L'envoi: the Train to Mariposa." Mr. Leacock, author of 30 books of humor, was born in Orillia, a small Ontario town -- the beloved and satirized "Mariposa" of his fiction. In this melancholy comic fable, the avuncular narrator (similar to Thorton Wilder's stage manager in "Our Town") gently mocks the nostalgia of those who have moved to the big city and vow to return to their hometowns.

The nostalgia for the past takes a dangerous and seductive twist in "Ancient Lineage." Mr. Callaghan is considered to have taken Canadian literature into the 20th century with his spare, clean modernist style. Here, he takes Henry James-style confrontation and renders it with his characteristic taut, precise prose. A young historian interviews a woman and unmarried daughter who claim to be descended from William the Conqueror, but is horrified by the sexual satisfaction he hears in the daughter's voice when she talks about her lineage as if it were her lover.

Ms. Atwood's novels are divided between those that are blackly comic and those that are bleakly serious. "The Man from Mars" begins comically and ends in a somber key. Christine, "a beefy heavyweight, a plodder" university student, is relentlessly and ardently pursued by a scrawny, short Vietnamese student. At first Christine is irritated, then grows annoyed (but secretly flattered) with his pursuit. Suddenly other men, who formerly treated her as an asexual chum, are looking at her with interest. Eventually the Vietnamese goes too far, and her parents have him arrested and is deported.

Ms. Munro's short stories have been widely praised for their technique expertise and for having the scope and the completeness of a novel. That is evident in the splendid story "Miles City, Montana." As a child, the narrator witnessed the collective distress and outrage of her Ontario hometown when a schoolmate of hers was found drowned. The townspeople assign blame to his loving but neglectful father.

The narrator, her husband and their two young daughters drive from Vancouver across the northern States to Ontario, to show ** their own parents what responsible parents they have become. Yet the narrator knows that in some indefinable way that is all a sham. The blanket of mock maturity they have pulled over their mess of a marriage is yanked off for good when the younger daughter nearly drowns in a motel and is saved only by good fortune.

Along with such famous authors as Mordecai Richler, Timothy Findley and Mavis Gallant are those that soon may be just as renowned -- Rohinton Mistry, Joy Kogawa, Sandra Birdsell, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Dionne Brand.

Set in a Parsi community in Bombay, Mr. Mistry's "Condolence Visit" forcibly transmits the oppressiveness of "condolence visits" to a widow. Rather than feeling consoled by the public rituals of mourning that she must follow, the widow feels violated by her visitors, by their prying questions about her husband's final days and death, and their cordially insincere condolences.

In "Obason," Joy Kogawa portrays a Japanese-Canadian family gathering whose memories of internment by the Canadian government during World War II, and the deaths of relatives in Nagasaki, have permanently scarred their lives.

The answer to "Where is here?" is to be found right here, in the pages of "From Ink Lake."

Ms. Posesorski is a writer living in Toronto.

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