BOOKS Bru­tal­ity of Far North brought closer to home

Au­thor cap­tures re­al­ity of Inuit life in Sanaaq

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MONIQUE PO­LAK

This time of year, many of us city folks grum­ble about hav­ing to bun­dle our chil­dren into snow­suits and shovel out our cars.

Imag­ine, then, it’s the early 1900s and win­ter in Nu­navik — a re­gion the av­er­age qal­lu­naat (the Inuit word for non-na­tive per­son) knows lit­tle about, though it com­prises the north­ern third of the prov­ince of Que­bec.

The Inuit de­scribed in Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk’s novel Sanaaq have big­ger con­cerns than bundling up their chil­dren and shov­el­ling out cars. They must hunt for food, stoke their fires through­out the night, ward off po­lar bears and make sure, if there’s a melt, their igloos don’t col­lapse on top of them. No wonder the Inuit in this story don’t ask each other how old they are. In­stead they ask, “How many win­ters have you been through?”

Sanaaq is an un­usual novel by an un­likely au­thor. It con­sists of 48 short chap­ters, the di­a­logue is flat and there is a lot of rep­e­ti­tion. Yet this sim­ply told tale cap­tures the stark and some­times bru­tal re­al­ity of life in the Far North.

Ap­pointed to the Or­der of Canada in 2004 for her work pre­serv­ing Inuit cul­ture, Nap­paaluk, who died in 2007, never went to school. Her book, writ­ten over a span of more than 20 years, was be­gun in the early 1950s when a Catholic mis­sion­ary sta­tioned in Kan­gir­su­juaq, the com­mu­nity where Nap­paaluk lived, gave her a lined note­book and asked her to write sen­tences in syl­lab­ics to help him learn Inuk­ti­tut.

Nap­paaluk be­came bored with writ­ing sen­tences and be­gan creat­ing a se­ries of linked sto­ries peo­pled by fic­tional char­ac­ters. As Bernard Sal­adin d’Anglure, the an­thro­pol­o­gist who en­cour­aged Nap­paaluk to com­plete this project and who trans­lated it from Inuk­ti­tut to French, ex­plains in the fore­word to this long-awaited English trans­la­tion, “Mi­tiar­juk rein­vented the novel, even though she had never read one.”

There are many par­al­lels be­tween the main char­ac­ter, Sanaaq, and her cre­ator. Both are strong and out­spo­ken; wid­owed young, they re­marry. When, early in the novel, Sanaaq is courted by an older man, she re­jects him, say­ing, “You don’t even have your front teeth.”

Though lit­tle men­tion is made of such en­demic prob­lems as in­cest and con­ju­gal vi­o­lence in the first two-thirds of this novel, Sanaaq tells her suitor, “You also won’t be my hus­band be­cause I’m afraid my daugh­ter will be abused.”

Read­ers will learn a great deal about life in the Far North. Sanaaq pro­vides de­tailed de­scrip­tions of ev­ery­thing from skin­ning a seal to build­ing an igloo.

When tragedy strikes, help is not al­ways near. One char­ac­ter, Ji­imi­aluk, loses an eye when he is splashed by boil­ing wa­ter. His el­derly father wor­ries, “Who will pro­vide for us now that our only provider has lost an eye?” Sanaaq’s hus­band, Qalingu, is dev­as­tated when his hunt­ing com­pan­ion falls into the sea, “swept un­der the ice by a strong cur­rent.”

The Inuit have a very dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with an­i­mals than city folks do. They make use of ev­ery inch of the an­i­mals they kill. Sanaaq chews on seal sinew to make thread for her daugh­ter’s mit­tens. Dogs are not pets; they are work an­i­mals. When a pack of dogs de­vours the fam­ily’s sup­ply of food, Sanaaq’s younger sis­ter Ar­na­tu­in­naq clubs the dogs with a stick. But dur­ing a whi­te­out, it is the dogs who lead Qalingu to safety.

In this world, sur­vival de­pends on com­mu­nity. When the hunt­ing is good, ev­ery­one benefits. As soon as Sanaaq learns her hus­band has killed a po­lar bear, she says, “We’re go­ing to have plenty Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk Univer­sity of Man­i­toba Press of bear meat! We’ve got to let our camp mates know. I’ll go my­self and tell them.”

It is only in the fi­nal chap­ters of this book that Nap­paaluk writes openly about subjects like con­ju­gal vi­o­lence. The first hint comes when Sanaaq’s son falls into ice wa­ter and Sanaaq fears Qalingu’s re­ac­tion: “I feel like run­ning far away, for fear of hav­ing to face his anger.” Two chap­ters later, Qa- lingu beats his wife “with his fists while heap­ing in­sults on her,” and in the fol­low­ing chap­ter, Sanaaq needs “an op­er­a­tion … to mend her bones.”

Nap­paaluk gives us only the vaguest sense that the qal­lu­naat have not al­ways done right by the Inuit. When Ar­na­tu­in­naq is im­preg­nated by a qal­lu­naat fur trader who is trans­ferred to an­other com­mu­nity shortly af­ter the birth of his child, Nap­paaluk writes, “The Inuit re­al­ized for the first time that some un­pleas­ant things were be­ing done to them.”

Sto­ry­telling is as much a part of Inuit cul­ture as hunt­ing. When they are to­gether, Sanaaq and her neigh­bours not only share their meat, fish and berries, they also share their sto­ries and those of their fore­fa­thers.

In his fore­word, Sal­adin d’Anglure ex­plains he is work­ing on bring­ing us more of Nap­paaluk’s sto­ries. Read­ers can look for­ward to these tales and to those by con­tem­po­rary Inuit sto­ry­tellers who will carry on the work she be­gan.

HAS MADE SIX TRIPS TO MOST RE­CENT NOVEL FOR YOUNG ADULTS

Bernard Sal­adin d’Anglure

Mi­tiar­juk Nap­paaluk, who never went to school, wrote Sanaaq over a pe­riod of more than 20 years.

Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel

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