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Friday, November 01, 2013

Alice Munro: Amundsen

Across the tracks was the electric train, empty, waiting.
illustration for Amundsen
(Paul Rogers for The New Yorker)
no copyright infringement intended

(click here for the Romanian version)

(You can read the story here)

A station open only when the train from Toronto arrives, then locked. A local train, empty, that will carry at some indefinite time a bunch of people to the sawmill and the TB sanatorium. It's  Amundsen, a small town far away in Northern Ontario where the story told by Vivien unfolds (the name of the town, the same as the name of the story, is of course misleading, maybe on purpose). Vivien has just arrived, to work as a teacher for the kids at the sanatorium. Another woman sitting at the end of the bench, holding a string bag full of parcels of raw meat... Raw meat for the sanatorium's kitchen, as that is a raw day.

The story is told in a raw tone, too. Vivien is met at the sanatorium with attitudes ranging from indifference to hostility. Two personages appear suddenly in the picture, playing ambiguously. A girl of exuberant joy hiding maybe some stories from a past difficult to reveal. The surgeon at the sanatorium, almost always potentially aggressive, sometimes open and constructive, difficult to be deciphered anyway, whose behavior towards Vivien is all in all despicable.

And all this is presented very dryly. It's Vivien who's telling the story, ten years after it took place, and her detached tone is perplexing. When reading a story you expect getting a sense of it. Here the sense is not immediate. Amundsen is a very modern piece of literature: there is a meta-story behind what we are reading, and the sense can be found exactly in the detached way Vivien is telling what happened to her ten years earlier. She tells everything just matter-of-factly, because it is the only way she could advance toward getting the sense of it: Amundsen is not as much a chronicle of ten years earlier, as it is the road to understand what happened then and why it happened that way. Amundsen is not a story without sense: it is a search for the sense of a story. Millennium Mambo of Hou-Hsiao Hsien comes to mind: the same detachment the heroine (Vicky) has along the movie.

The car is parked in front of a hardware store.
alternate illustration for Amundsen
(Paul Rogers for The New Yorker)
no copyright infringement intended

This search for getting the sense of the events is unfolding on multiple plans, and it's up to any of us to decide what plan of search to follow: somehow the author is inviting us to collaborate in directing the story.

Is it about the contact with an unknown universe? And what kind of universe? The world in a remote place somewhere in the North, rejecting any newcomer? A world with women for whom whatever happened in places they didn’t know had to be discounted: it got in their way and under their skin? Or the universe of the men living there, self-sufficient in their beer parlors and hardware stores? Here is a paragraph from the story:

The coffee shop didn’t have a ladies’ room, so you had to go next door to the hotel, then past the entrance to the beer parlor, always dark and noisy and giving out a smell of beer and whiskey, a blast of cigarette and cigar smoke fit to knock you down. But the loggers, the men from the sawmill, would never yelp at you the way the soldiers and the airmen in Toronto did. They were deep in a world of men, bawling out their own stories, not here to look for women. Possibly more eager, in fact, to get away from that company now or forever.

Or is it just the opposite? Vivien's fascination for uncharted places? Be them remote zones in the North, where deep forests and quiet lakes call in mind Russian novels and invite to try the experience? Or just this manly universe, unknown and dangerous? Is this story a rite of passage?

Well, all these possibilities are put on the table. It's up to the reader to make the choice and follow the trace. The story is just the raw material offered us to process. And told as it is, with such cool elegance! Like the illustrations of Paul Rogers.

Or is it a love story, understood as such by Vivien only ten years later? The final sentence in the text: Nothing changes, apparently, about love.

(Alice Munro)



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