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Event 42.4Truth can be stranger than fiction, and fiction which dares to be strange often captures truths missed by more conventional narrative. In these two very different books, one a collection of linked stories, the other a novel, two Canadian writers draw on contrasting traditions to create fictions that stand outside the literary mainstream.
Sean Virgo is no stranger to experimentation. His lush 1987 novel Selakhi entranced and confounded reviewers in equal measure, and his stories and essays have continued to explore the limits of language in collision with nature, myth and mortality. Published by loyal, small B.C. press Thistledown, the linked collection Dibidalen eschews current trends toward minimalism and irony and instead takes as its theme nothing less than the persistence of narrative throughout human history, and the unceasing, transpersonal strangeness of consciousness itself.
The book begins with ‘Before Ago,’ a tale told in the pared-down phrases of a storyteller and laid out with as much white space as a free-verse poem. Its echoing, fairy tale-like narrative speaks of a boy who is sent off with a stranger to endure a series of challenges, only to discover that the source of the stranger’s songs is suffering itself: ‘The sun was coming up, and with the shadows came the cry of the Cat. It came from the boy’s own mouth.’
It is rare in this era of descriptive detail and tightly controlled literary voice to encounter in contemporary short fiction a language so unadorned and direct. Also rare is narrative which refuses to psychologize. Character is tangential here. In the stories that follow, Virgo traces a series of tales that elaborate on the trope of solitary seekers, whose curiosity and hunger carry them outside societal norms, tales that retain the generic, mysterious quality of myth or dream even as they grow more recognizable as contemporary fiction. Whether the seeker is a scapegoat, soldier, dreamer or priest, the journey brings them into contact with another world, which bristles with wisdom as well as danger. As they proceed, the stories also evolve from simple myth to more complex fairy tale, ghost story and ultimately postmodern, magic-realist narrative, each tale recasting what came before until a dizzying depth appears. This depth is not historical so much as temporal, and suggests the impossibility of understanding any given narrative, lost as its roots may be in a preliterate era, if not a preliterate segment of the human brain.
According to the Aymara people of the Andes, the future lies behind us, not ahead, and reading Dibidalen, I felt as if I were indeed reading backward, re-encountering with each story the resonance of what had come before. And by gesturing back to the roots of storytelling, Virgo’s fictions also point ahead to a place where story can once again re-engage with soul. In the words of a character in the collection’s penultimate story ‘The Likeness,’ ‘If we don’t work for the angels and the ancestors, there’s no point really.’
In keeping with this vernacular impulse, Virgo’s style is humble, easy and natural — ‘There was a man found eggs in a field. One, two and three, the colour of stones in a pool’ — and even as fable gives way to more developed story, his sentences retain a supple, oral quality, a spoken-ness that invites the reader to relax and simply listen, despite the increasing density of what is heard. As a reader I found it refreshing not to have to mentally congratulate Virgo on being clever (although the stories are steeped in intelligence) and to focus instead on the intensity of his images. In ‘Gramarye,’ an elderly, speechless woman stares into the enchanted mirror that reveals her child self, sipping the magical posset which will eventually kill her. The world beyond the mirror, through the doorway, or on the other side of the painter’s canvas is mysterious and terrible, these stories suggest, yet there will always be those who are driven to go there and bring back news of ourselves from the other side.
Not surprisingly, this news is sometimes difficult to summarize. ‘Dibidalen,’ the final story and the longest, is the most ambitious. Non-linear, as the dreaming mind is, and powerfully associative, it connects the tale of a hidden, ancient valley where diminutive, mouse-like people speak a forgotten tongue, with the lives of two travelers, one who settles down and one who still roams. Shifting, imagistic and inconclusive, it contains moments of more conventional narrative, moments that do not fully cohere. Yet my expectation that the story reach conventional closure is also at odds with Virgo’s apparent intent: to reveal the inadequacy of our current, shared notions of reality in a world so much stranger than character-based fiction allows. Will our stories survive us? The final image resonates: a mouse mother ecstatically nursing her children even as the scythe approaches through the grass. —Cathy Stonehouse
SubTerrain, vol 7, #65 (December 2013
To read Saskatchewan author Sean Virgo’s ten stories in Dibidalen is to follow the history of storytelling. The first four tales, “Before Ago,” “Eggs in a Field,” “The Shark Mother,” and “The Scapegoat,” follow oral storytelling traditions of minstrels, troubadours, folklorists — even preceding “Once upon a time.” More poetry than prose, and more story than fiction, (to use a distinction of Virgo’s) they speak out in rhythmic, symbolic language about unnamed characters, human and animal — “ a man,” “a woman,” “a boy,” “a stranger,” “a Cat,” “three brindled dogs,” and the fish with “its bright, stippled flank, its golden eye.” They exist in dreams, or dark places, or light, and where mystery and magic prevail.
While continuing the commitment to sound and story, the next three, “The Doorway,” “The Castaway,” and “Rendezvous,” become more complex, build upon and delve into the themes and subject matter of the earlier entries. Here, a woman, a fox and a couple are featured in “the Doorway,” among the conflicts of memories, dreams, open doorways and subtle meanings. In “The Castaway,” “a young priest in an old town fell into the sin of despair,” and must return to earth as penance. There, he meets a moon-faced “little stumpy man,” perhaps “only a simpleton” or perhaps “it may be the Devil,” and in any case from “Hereabouts, thereabouts ... It’s all the same you know.” And in “Rendezvous,” a man returns from the war, a “fight for a land that had scarcely known peace in a thousand years.” But the baggage he brings home is the memories of “a boy he had killed,” the spectre he becomes, and the ghostly message he delivers.
In “Gramarye” the witch says, “We read sentences and paragraphs, not words. And you’re seeing things as well as hearing them, aren’t you? And feeling too, and often remembering and imagining, all at the same time.” Which is pretty much what happens with the ten stories of Sean Virgo’s Dibidalen. Read them. You’ll see, hear, feel, remember, imagine and enjoy. — Wayne Cunningham
THE MALAHAT REVIEW, 183, Summer 2013
The poet and fiction writer Seán Virgo, an adoptive Canadian born to Anglo-Irish parents in Malta, has for years laboured over a body of work devoted to seemingly contrary ends. Resisting identification with any particular literary or cultural tradition (the exception, a 1983 collection Through the Eyes of a Cat: Irish Stories, proves the rule when its preface vows he will “write no more Irish stories”), Virgo nonetheless staunchly defends the local and tactile. The current volume, named for a valley in Norway, marks an impressive addition to this oeuvre. Mixing prose with terse recitative, Dibidalen aspires to a condition rare in today’s fiction—stony, bardic, yet also tenderly disconsolate.
The book divides readily into two major sections, the first of which, despite taking up a quarter of its length, contains seven of its ten stories. This difference in scale implies corresponding contrasts in technique and theme. In their extreme brevity, the stories of the first section (the shortest is less than four pages, in contrast to the volume’s longest, with fifty-nine) suggest an impulse toward radical paring-down: of plot, of character, of all merely external detail. With their unfamiliar, windswept settings, several could almost be mistaken for fantasy or science fiction, if Virgo did not avoid those genres’ distinctive luxuriance in the details of their imagined worlds. Landscape in these tales instead provides an empty stage for elemental dramas of youth attaining to knowledge, or age accepting irrevocable loss. When a farmer, in cosmic punishment for a trivial transgression, finds himself dispossessed of child, wife, and home, with no choice but to depart along the way “that leads by every man’s house,” we understand what we are being asked to imagine: a stripping away to a universal substratum.
The relative expansiveness of the three remaining stories reflects the way they make room for what the earlier stories exclude. “The Likeness,” for instance, acknowledges its settings in Toronto and Paris, while the title story partly takes place in Norway during the Second World War. More important is the new prevalence of dialogue. The first section focuses on characters isolated by language or generational gaps—sometimes making them seem like housemates who never see each other, because they work different shifts. When connection does take place, it requires an often wary surrender to something left unspoken. The second section, however, introduces relationships from the daylight, modern world. The first of these longer stories, “Gramarye,” feels out of place, its stilted speech unable to prevent its tale—of a young girl’s coming-of-age under the tutelage of a woman reputed to be a witch—from descending into triteness. “The Likeness” and the title story, “Dibidalen,” however, approach that root meaning of “stilted”—walking on stilts—which Yeats made a metaphor for “high talk.” For these stories do not truly abandon the ancient world of fable so much as they explore its uncertain survival into the present. The caged lynx of “The Likeness,” a Canadian updating of Rilke’s panther, is one representation of this tension; the same story’s depiction of an artist haunted by new embodiments of past lovers is another. Most intriguing is the title story, which imagines a secret language, called mussprak, or “mouse-speech,” spoken only by the women of an isolated Scandinavian valley, some few of whom in every generation are fated to remain small into adulthood, bearing curious mouse-like features. This sense of a fate that at once isolates those whom it singles out and joins them in a special community links this final story to the collection’s prevailing theme of rites of initiation.
Stylistically, the volume bears evidence throughout of an essentially poetic attention to the linguistic medium. This is true both of those stories laid out in verse and those in prose, which likewise make important use of repetition and incantatory rhythms. Avoiding, for the most part, any attempt at grounding its third-person vantage point within the world being depicted, the language instead seems to aim at a kind of authorlessness, welling up out of no-place, implacable as the landscape itself. Such monumental ease requires special vigilance, as it renders all the more distracting any word or phrase that calls too much attention to the hand of the maker. The best writing in the collection, that most severely cut to the bone, and hence senseless to excerpt, provides the internal standard for judging such missteps as “The firepit glowed and winked, and a chill of unease eddied through his breast.” The book’s emphasis on fate and cycles is another double edged sword; a source of the sublime, it shades into complacency when certain stories, like “The Shark Mother,” too readily crest the narrative hill before sinking down to their own foregone conclusions. What Virgo is doing here, in other words, requires a special balancing act, one almost impossible to achieve consistently. Yet the narrative pattern of the first story, in which an older teacher, walking through the wilderness, time and again outstrips his charge, forcing the boy to undergo various hardships to keep up, provides a suitable emblem for its successes. When the writer leads the way into the realm of challenge and risk, the reader will follow.
National Post, January 4, 2013
Virgo is unabashed about his formal experiments, here including everything from a story that recalls a Gilgamesh-style oral epic (“Before Ago”) to folk tales, fables and, in “The Likeness,” something that starts out resembling straightforward naturalism. Virgo is a much more sober writer than [Leon] Rooke — he is possessed of a seriousness that sometimes crosses over into ponderousness — but he also displays a strict fidelity to language and a willingness to challenge a reader’s expectations.
The 10 pieces in Dibidalen get longer and more modern as the collection progresses, passing through mock-epic to the fantasy of “The Shark Mother” — about a boy born by the water who clothes himself in the skin of a great fish and embarks on a voyage to swim the Seven Seas — to the allegorical stories “The Scapegoat” and “The Doorway.” The opening sentence of “The Castaway” is typical of Virgo’s approach in these stories: “When a young priest in an old town fell into the sin of despair, his penance was to go back into the world and seek out his faith.” The language is straightforward but tilts toward the universality of parable by refusing to become specific: neither the priest nor the town is given a proper name. Indeed, it is only in “Gramarye,” the eighth of 10 stories, that characters are first referred to by name rather than designation (“the boy,” “the priest,” “the man,” “his wife”).
These eight stories account for roughly the first half of Dibidalen. The variety of approaches is interesting, as is Virgo’s particular take on ancient and classical modes of storytelling. The retreat into convention that accompanies “The Likeness,” then, is somewhat disappointing, although on a sentence-by-sentence basis, this piece retains the strict adherence to craft and technique that marked the earlier entries.
If “The Likeness” involves a slackening of pace, the collection’s title story grinds it to a halt. The fractured narrative has something to do with a folk tale written in an obsolete Nordic dialect; a Lutheran pastor with a passion for philology and his nephew, an oberleutenant in the Nazi party; a loan officer at a bank who marries a tree surgeon; and an artist travelling in Europe with her musician boyfriend. Whether there is any coherent narrative strategy binding these disparate elements together is unclear — the story’s surface clutter elicits first confusion, then a kind of alienating frustration. Situated at the close of the collection, the title story is clearly meant as a summation of all that has gone before, and it is possible to identify tropes and tactics from earlier pieces that are recapitulated here. In practice, however, “The Dibidalen” does not seem to hang together.
That’s the thing about originality, though: given the lack of ready-made comparisons, it is often mistaken for incomprehensibility. Virgo is without question highly meticulous and intelligent, but even skilled sharpshooters are apt to miss the mark every now and then. It is equally possible, however, that Virgo’s story is critiquing me to the same extent I am critiquing it. — Steven W. Beattie
Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Saturday January 26, 2013
In the title story of Eastend resident Sean Virgo's latest collection of stories, Dibidalen, a Nazi officer and his interpreter are asking questions of a couple of elderly women from a remote region of occupied Norway.
The interpreter is eager to please the officer and impatient with his own countrywomen. On the one hand, he can't fathom the young man's interest in such arcane and non-military pursuits, but on the other, as the officer is gratified to note, "I believe he is secretly enchanted with their fairy tales."
There's a war on, the stakes are very high, people are being killed, and being an interpreter for an occupying army can't mean a long life expectancy. Nonetheless, as Virgo wants to make clear, both the interpreter and the officer take time to listen to folk tales. They're important.
And, as this story proceeds, we hear about secret passageways to other worlds and of people being transformed into mice and back into people, some of the hallmarks of such a tale. But Virgo doesn't stop there. There's someone outside the story reading the correspondence of the Nazi officer and his uncle, the document preserved in a modern library. And there's a photograph, and someone in the photo from Norway looks much like someone in the life of this Canadian in the library. And so it goes, one story giving way to another, back and forth across oceans, other stories, other transformations, as people change, physically and psychologically, over the years.
Virgo's collection contains 10 stories, the first of them very short - only a few pages - the later ones becoming 30 to 60 pages long, and all about transformations. Some transformations are obviously physical in nature, a boy turning into a shark, for instance, in The Shark Mother, and some are psychological or spiritual, with a man stealing some eggs, for example, and not being able to find his way home, in Eggs in a Field, or a woman dreaming of an open door and all that image implies, in The Doorway.
But readers looking for a moral or a lesson in these stories, as in certain folk and fairly tales meant to instruct on matters of greed or lack of wisdom, for instance, will be puzzled. These stories have a fantastical open-endedness to them, as in Dibidalen, where one story leads to another and another, with no neat resolution to the opening stories. It's as if we enter the labyrinths of Borges or the winter's night of Italo Calvino.
Now there's some insight. Just how often are we exactly who we are supposed to be, or are we always working at being someone else? The artist in The Likeness, long after his star has set, decides to burn all his sketchbooks and studies. When most of them are gone he realizes his insanity and reaches into the flames to draw one back. When he stumbles into his bathroom to deal with the burns he sees himself: "There was a devil in the bathroom mirror." Much later in the story, when he's become a different man, he says of himself: "He'd been playing the student; now he'd found a more interesting role or it had found him."
These are our lives. We move in and out of different parts we play, or, as in another part of The Likeness, a woman tells a story in which she says, "She crossed many borders, sometimes in secret, sometimes by telling a story." We tell stories to help us understand these borders we cross, these parts we play. Virgo, who's lived in many parts of the globe and picked up stories from all of them, shows us the power of story as it both transforms us and records our transformations. — Bill Robertson
ALl lit up blog, march 31 2015
Saskatchewan-based multi-genre writer Seán Virgo shows a similar predilection for meta-fiction in his collection Dibidalen (Thistledown Press). The subtitle of the book is "Ten Stories," but this is a deceptively small tally. One of the liberating elements of folk tradition is its multiplication of narrators. Whereas a realist story typically has one omniscient or first-person speaker controlling the narrative, a folktale can explode into a polyphonic riot of voices, each with its own tale to tell and it own manner of telling. A prose story might just break into verse or song, as happens in a few of Virgo's fables; one story might be interrupted by another; expectations of linear progress can be delightfully frustrated.
Dibidalen is a book full of framed narratives -- stories nested within and bouncing off of other stories -- but the book itself is the most fascinating frame of them all. A reader will blast through the first seven stories in under fifty pages, encountering for the most part fairly conventional fairy-tale themes, tropes, and motifs. These stories feature openings that reject the realist predilection for in media res immersions, in favour of once-upon-a-time gambits like "There was a man," "There was a boy," "There was a woman." Protagonists are typically left unnamed, which makes them more archetypes than characters. The settings involve non-specific locales (a village, a valley, a forest) and times which tend to have an olden feel; we encounter no cars or computers, no cell phones or microwaves. The first sign of modernity the reader comes across is a bus in "The Castaway," the book's sixth story. These stories are beautifully written, concise and compelling. While they don't feel derivative of well-known fairy tales, neither has Virgo done much in them to render his narratives modern.
As with so many stories in the folk tradition, metamorphosis plays a key role in some of Virgo's plots. A boy becomes a cat; a shark becomes a woman; time itself stretches and warps in a manner incommensurable with the classical unities that define realist storytelling. But the most significant transformation occurs within the chrysalis of the book itself. The last three stories are thirty-to-sixty pages long and are notably more contemporary as well as more self-consciously meta-fictional. In "Gramarye," reference is made to Andrew Lang's series of fairy books, and the book's title story is, in part, about anthropological recording of traditional oral tales in a remote Norwegian valley. Virgo's masterful book is, in essence, an account of the story of stories: their origins, their survival, their mutation through time and space.