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Authors: Howard Norman

In Fond Remembrance of Me

BOOK: In Fond Remembrance of Me
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for Jonathan Galassi
What good is intelligence if you cannot discover a useful melancholy?
—Ryunosuke Akutagawa
On November 8, 1977, in the Halifax train station a few minutes before boarding a train for Montreal, Helen Tanizaki handed me a letter from the afterlife. At least that is the impression she intended by its title,
In Fond Remembrance of Me
, written on the envelope. “Do not open until—” she had said. Helen had no need to complete the sentence; I knew how it ended. She had been diagnosed with fatal stomach cancer and was going home to spend her final months with her brother and sister-in-law in Kyoto, Japan.
This book is about my friend Helen Tanizaki, linguist, translator, diarist, prodigious writer of letters, who had lived and worked throughout the Canadian arctic as well as Greenland and Siberia. Mainly she translated oral literature—myths, poems, songs—and life histories in these places. I knew Helen in Churchill, Manitoba, in 1977 during September and October, the first week of November in Halifax, and in letters sent from Japan until her death in the summer of 1978. We had not known of each other's existence before meeting at the end of August 1977 at the Beluga Motel set along the Churchill River (George and John Hicks, Prop.). She stayed in Room 10, I was in Room 1, “bookends,” as Helen put it. I had arrived armed only with
a rudimentary training in ethnographic linguistics, some knowledge of the structure of the folktale gained in graduate studies at the Folklore Institute at Indiana University, and having had a very basic tutorial in the Inuit dialect spoken along the western coast of Hudson Bay. Quite soon I not only met Helen but learned that in a sense we were in Churchill for the same reason. We had both been employed—me by a museum, she by a publisher—to translate narratives told by a man named Mark Nuqac, an Inuit elder. I would of course be translating the stories into English, Helen would translate them into Japanese. It was quite the unforeseen synchronicity of lives, let alone linguistic endeavor; Mark Nuqac absolutely adored Helen and could scarcely tolerate my presence, and there is not a splinter of exaggeration in saying as much.
And it worked out rather well. In this regard, my time in Churchill certainly “tested my mettle.” Equally unforeseen were the rewards I found in Helen's difficult friendship, which I trust will be clear throughout these pages. I was twenty-eight, born in Toledo, Ohio, with a makeshift education and not very self-reflective, to put it bluntly; Helen, perhaps the most introspective person I've known, was thirty-nine, born in London and raised in Japan, a Ph.D. in linguistics. In most respects we were from opposite ends of the earth.
A few years ago while organizing an archive of manuscripts, travel diaries, photographs, letters, etc., to be deposited in Special Collections at Boston University, I rediscovered the loose-leaf notebook journals I kept during my stay in Churchill. I was surprised and pleased to find out
how dedicated I was to these journals, though I remember writing in them late at night, because in Churchill I hardly slept. That period of insomnia was due in large part to a general undercurrent of anxiety, much work at hand, a caffeine habit, and I suppose a general sense of agitation and befuddlement at how peculiar and frictional my working relationship with Mr. Nuqac was from the get-go. Anyway, the journals served as the basic for
In Fond Remembrance of Me.
Of course, I was not a stenographer of Helen's and my conversations; however, I was quite diligent in transcribing and chronicling each day's and evening's events, social incidents, conversations (largely with Helen and Mr. Nuqac), my own vexations and musings and occasional disquisitions on the translation process itself. In reading and rereading these journals, I felt it all again with vivid immediacy, let alone perhaps the most intense nostalgia I have ever experienced. Nostalgia for a formative period can become an intensifying element in one's life—it did for me, at least, as it pertains to the writing of this book. I knew during that autumn something interesting was happening in my life, but on reflection I can scarcely claim that at the time I had even a modest comprehension of just how much intellectual—and, yes, spiritual—life Helen had introduced me to. I admit that I became quite fixed in Helen's orbit—that is, I began to calibrate my ignorance in (and newfound intoxication with) certain philosophical, spiritual, and literary subjects against Helen's strong opinions and far deeper levels of engagement. That is partly what I mean by
formative
; I was getting educated. As for the metaphysics of being in someone's
orbit, I must add that, emotionally, we managed to remain at a fixed distance from each other. (At the time I did not think I was in
love
with Helen; looking back, I think that I was at least enamored of her.) This is more specifically to say that we did not have an erotic relationship, unless the one dream I gratefully had of kissing Helen is taken into account. (I dutifully entered it in my journal.) No dream is perhaps innocent. In that dream, however, we were neither standing upright nor lying down, but slanted entwined together at a 45-degree angle, and what's more were levitated a few feet aboveground, an impossible feat, of course, except if sponsored by a dream-based physics—or, for that matter, depicted in an Inuit drawing from, say, Eskimo Point along Hudson Bay, in which a dog, arctic fox, seal, polar bear, or human being may be likewise positioned in time and space as Helen and I were in my dream. When I reported this dream to Helen, her reply was, “Sounds exhausting.”
This book contains eleven narratives told by Mark Nuqac. I heard twenty-three, but only eleven of my translations survived Mark's, Helen's, and a few other Inuit elders' tough scrutiny and argument in order to reside in these pages. Believe me, I am grateful for that many. Mr. Nuqac called them “my Noah stories.” I write extensively about what it was like to hear these stories and attempt to transcribe and translate them in Mark's presence, and incorporating Helen's criticism, editing, and linguistic know-how. As for their common plots, I also delve into that throughout this memoir, or recollection, or collage of memories. Suffice it to say that each story recounts what, in Mr. Nuqac's thinking, was a historical incident of great import: Noah's
Ark has drifted into the arctic waters of Hudson Bay, this enormous wooden ship with its cargo of all manner of strange beast—many delectable, at least by the look of them—and has drawn, to say the least, the curiosity of Inuit villagers living along the coast. As each story unfolds, the presence of the ark along with Noah's intractable nature engenders an array of incidents (some fatal), dramatic and comic and otherwise, all highly memorable, some—as Helen put it—“as zany as I've ever heard in the arctic.” It is a collision of cultures—as if life were not unpredictable enough!
I have since read and heard different Inuit “flood myths,” which refer to the received story of Noah's Ark; that is, God gets angry at the prodigiously untoward behavior of human beings, drowns everyone but Noah's family and two of each kind of animal, and sails the ark off into wandering exile for forty days and forty nights. (Mark Nuqac once derided this punishment, as much as calling it mild; and no wonder, considering that in the stories he must've been raised on, when terrible social violations took place, a person might be exiled for life to the most severely barren of locales, killed, or possibly have to live inside a polar bear's anus.) In Mr. Nuqac's stories the Old Testament figure of Noah is complicated. Stranger in a strange land, eventually—often abruptly—he falls victim to his own haplessness and bewilderment at best, blind stubbornness at worst—all the while placing his family and animal passengers in great jeopardy. He becomes overwhelmed by winter. Throughout the Noah stories there are many anecdotes of Noah's becoming quite unhinged. “Well, wouldn't
you
,” Helen once said, “fall apart, if your ship got locked in ice, you got very claustrophobic, the cries of seagulls
were driving you nuts—not to mention, every so often, you see a giraffe or hippopotamus wander out across the ice and disappear. I imagine I'd become unhinged, too!”
Mr. Nuqac was remarkable; Helen was remarkable; and I had the good fortune of spending time with both. For many reasons—lack of knowing how to live in the present moment, too much emotional and other data coming in too swiftly, a kind of stuttering quality to my intellect, the basic conundrum of inexperience, or all of these in concert—I did not rise to the occasion of being in Helen's and Mark's compelling company. I assert this as a simple fact of life. I feel some shame in it and much regret, insofar as shame and regret are so often the twin bequeathings of memory. I only wish I might've been more poised.
How best to organize and, to some extent, reorder experience? This book has thematic and structural asymmetries; it is comprised, if you will, of overlapping panels of reality, certain words and phrases which came to have for me something of an iconic presence ricochet between chapters, in an enlivening way I hope. And of course Inuit folktales are woven throughout. On occasion—not often, but still—I collated together several conversations Helen and I had on the same subject (birds, mostly), and I purposely mitigated or left out certain exchanges (mostly about her illness) as a way of being vigilant toward sentimentality. Naturally, I wanted a sense of dailiness to preside. (“If only the rain and the flying cranes would enter themselves into my diary,” wrote Helen's most beloved writer, Ryunosuke Akutagawa.) The most dignified literary ambition here is to verisimilitude. To this end, the book's structure is symphonic in that certain emotional—even
obsessive—refrains are featured, whereas certain subjects are at intervals soloists: that of
melancholy, birds, language, Japanese writers, the typewriter as existential relic, the afterlife
—all of which were Helen's inspired and inspiring preoccupations.
When I was growing up there were no books in my various houses, no books to speak of, except a set of encyclopedias, though I first encountered the arctic—saw my first photographs of Inuit people, polar bears, almost incomprehensible vast reaches of snow and ice—in
Life
and
The Saturday Evening Post
and
Look
, magazines that occasionally had features on so-called exotic and certainly far-flung places and cultures, as well as books found on the shelves of the bookmobile I worked in at age fourteen. Eleven years later I found myself in the actual arctic; three years after that I met Helen Tanizaki in Churchill.
I do recall that my family subscribed to
Reader's Digest
. Each issue contained a generic piece called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” The idea was to profile and generally extol the virtues of a person who by sheer force of personality or by fate or happenstance exerted indispensable influence on and deeply enriched the writer's life. I don't in the least hesitate to call Helen far and away my most unforgettable character. She had quite a life, Helen did; she was an ardent spirit inside a lucid intelligence, a woman who drew great clarity and affirmation from personal tragedy and who toward the end of her life reinvented herself as “a bird of the sea and cliffs,” that is, subscribed to her very own idea of reincarnation. I am thoroughly convinced from her final letters that Helen completely trusted that possiblity. And who's
to say?—perhaps she did become a seabird. My most unforgettable character. Memory is more a seance than anything, replete with the desire to resurrect original presences and attendant emotions. After boarding the train for Montreal, Helen said, “Don't forget me.” And I have tried not to.
BOOK: In Fond Remembrance of Me
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