Thursday, April 24, 2014

In Memoriam: Alistair MacLeod

           Canada has lost a national treasure. Alistair MacLeod, dead at age 77, April 20, 2014

            MacLeod left us poetry, two books of short stories and a novel. What he lacked in quantity he gave in quality. I recall my reading of the collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood and the impact it had. I grew up along the Atlantic coast of New England, not actually on the coast but several miles inland. Still, we spent a lot of time at the beach. I recall being astounded at the power of North Atlantic storms, pounding the coast and geysers of seawater deflected from boulders shooting over a hundred feet into the air. The water from the geysers when it hit the sand would make the ground shake beneath your feet and the vibrations in the air made your lungs resonate in sympathy, an indescribable sensation..

             Perhaps that early contact with the North Atlantic opened a door, established a link of sympathy between me and MacLeod's stories of Cape Breton..

            Whatever the reason, when I finished that slim volume of short stories I realized that MacLeod had succeeded in capturing the soul of the land and its people. I learned more from the 160 pages or so of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood than I would have from reading several ponderous tomes on the region's economic and social history. 

Alistair MacLeod: No Great Mischief, McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1999, 283 pages

             A strange, poetic, elegiac on roots and love.

             The McDonald clan migrated from Scotland and live on the same Cape Breton soil they first set foot upon, during the American Revolution. They have deep roots..

                Theirs is a tragic tale. An unknown fatality weighs on the land and its people. The Soil is scrabble poor, poverty forces the MacDonald men to the mines of Ontario and South Africa. Life is hard for the McDonalds and they're tough people. Yet somehow, though doomed - as we all are, they have survived with dignity. "No Great Mischief" is an elegy to common folk, whom MacLeod loves, facing adversity and fatality with dignity.

                 Grandma's mantra, "All of us are better when we're loved", cycles like the returning beam of a lighthouse through the concluding chapters and ends the book. Another popular family mantra, "Blood is thicker than water",  is ironically betrayed by a young man from the branch of the clan most enamoured of the phrase.

                  "No Great Mischief" is really a story about love. MacLeod tells us that, facing the void, facing adversity, facing pain, our sole real arm is love: love between spouses, in family, love of the land, love of life itself.

                   A sad, elegant poetry runs through the text, giving the feel and tone of epic or legend:

                   "On the east coast, the native peoples who move across the land, harvesting, are stilled also.. They are older than the borders and the boundaries between countries and they pay them little mind."

                   "Once we sang to the pilot whales on a summer day. Perhaps we lured the huge whale in beyond his safe depth. And he died, disemboweled by the sharp rocks he could not see. Later his body moved inland, but his great heart remained behind", echoing the migrations of the McDonalds inland, to Ontario's mines, driven by poverty, not desire. Their hearts too remain behind in Cape Breton.

                    But there is more than poetry in this tale. One could call it a "philosophical novel" in the sense that MacLeod invites us to a deeper reflection on life and real values but subtly, without posing a specific question; it is left to the reader to pose his own questions. Thus MacLeod ceaselessly points to quotidian tragedies, ironies and absurdities: the young man who graduates from dental school on the same day that his namesake cousin loses his head in a mining accident.

                    MacLeod's universe is not a happy one though it has room for joy, lots of wonder and, above all, it honors love which, ultimately, redeems this lost world.

                    Alistair MacLeod is a national treasure though I fear he risks being forgotten: he lacks the imposing oeuvre whose sheer volume demands attention. Worse, he has favored the short story, not in favor in academic circles.

                    Nevertheless, his work fits common definitions of "great literature" well enough: universal in scope while parochial in content. MacLeod's prose is idiosyncratic - difficult if not impossible to translate or paraphrase without losing much. At its best, his work has the punch, the bang for the buck, all great literature gives. I recall reading his slim volume of short stories, "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" and ended up knowing more about the maritime soul than if I had waded through several thick academic tomes on settlement history and economic activity. This is surely a measure of great art: much is said in little space and the heart is moved.

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