(CUP) Rudy Wiebe, Knopf Canada
“The beautiful thing about writing is, you never arrive at something that you’re trying to do,” says Rudy Wiebe. “You can never write a perfect book, you can never write a perfect story.”
Perfection, however, is what Wiebe’s ninth and most recent novel Sweeter Than All The World approaches. Sitting in an office above King Street in Toronto on a rainy October morning, Rudy Wiebe talks about history, Canada, and the writing life.
“Writing is the kind of art, the kind of work that is endlessly, imaginatively drawing you on into something else. You can never stop, and you never want to stop. It’s the most delightful thing on earth I think.”
Characteristically Wiebe, Sweeter Than All The World is an epic sweep through 500 years of world history. It opens in the mid 20th century where we first meet young Adam Wiebe on his father’s homestead in Waskahikan, Northern Alberta. By chapter three, however, we are in 16th century Netherlands, where we meet Trijntjen, the first of several historically authentic Wiebe ancestors who will tell us their stories.
In grisly detail, we learn about the religious persecution of the Mennonites, complete with tongue screws and burnings at the stake. Wiebe then goes on to share the harrows of descendents who survived starvation, rape and torture during the 400 years of war that ravaged Europe. We learn about the brilliant Wybe Adams van Harlingen, the man who invented the cable car and built and re-built the walls of Danzig in the 16th century. A man who for 30 years and through countless military attacks helped defend a city that wouldn’t have him as a citizen because of his religion.
These historical episodes come at intervals in the narrative of the 20th century Adam Wiebe, who, as his marriage and family falls apart, has become obsessed with his history. Voices from the distant past appear as if by magic, giving first-person accounts of events that shaped world history and that landed Adam in Canada in the 20th century. One cannot escape the effect of the past as a haunting informant to the present.
Also characteristic of Wiebe is the emphasis on the relationship between his characters and the land they inhabit. As in Wiebe’s earlier novels, The Temptations of Big Bear and A Discovery of Strangers (both winners of the Governor General’s Award for fiction), characters are inextricably linked to their geography.
“It’s very important, clearly, in this book, and the name ‘Adam’ gives you that,” says Wiebe. “The marvellous story of Genesis where man, humanity, comes out of the earth, so that if you are working with the earth you are in effect working with yourself — working with that out of which you came. It’s like the Dene say, if you eat caribou all your life, you’re basically a caribou — these are, for me, wonderfully evocative ways of understanding our own earthliness.”
While Wiebe readily admits some of Canada’s best known writers speak of urban landscapes, he is proud and happy to root himself in the earth, which he believes is every bit as universal as writing about cities.
“Even though my characters seem to live in cities, they’re always dreaming about worlds that aren’t surrounded like we are here by multi-storied buildings,” says Wiebe. “If you go to Paraguay, or Russia, or Canada, or the United States there are worlds where you can still see the relative unimportance of human beings in relation to the landscape or the land which is simply there — and you don’t affect it much. In cities we can think that we’ve really changed the world, and in a way we have of course, but out in the landscape you don’t, and that’s a very strong feeling for me. It’s an important thing in my imagination. That is where my roots are, that is what drives my imagination, that relationship to land.”
Moving through the landscapes of 16th century Netherlands, to 19th century Russia, to Paraguay, and to the Alberta prairies, Sweeter Than All The World is an enveloping montage of stunningly detailed scenes filled with captive moments of sadness, wisdom, and poetic beauty without the slightest rumour of a less than well-wrought sentence in all of its 434 pages.
And writing the way Wiebe does, telling the kinds of stories he tells, there’s little chance of his writing life slowing anytime soon.
“The world is as full of stories as it is full of people, more so because people have hundreds of stories each themselves. If you’re curious, if you do the kind of writing that I’ve done most of my life, of snooping around in other people’s lives, literal lives, not just making them up, then it’s like what John the Evangelist says: if we were going to tell all the stories of the things that Jesus did on earth, the world wouldn’t be big enough to hold the books we’d have to write. Now that’s a marvellous hyperbole,” he says laughing, “but it’s sort of like that.”