Secrets, Lies, Worlds Unknown, and the Writer’s Plight

The Orange Grove is an excellent translation of the Québécois novelist and playwright Larry Tremblay’s fifth novel L’orangeraie (2013), which obtained several awards before it was adapted for the stage and performed in April 2016. Reminiscent in its three-part structure and in its lyrical style of both the fable and theatrical tragedy, The Orange Grove reads like a poem. All three parts bear the names of boys whose identity and struggles raise profound questions and much ideological reflection. Part I “Amed” places twin boys, age nine, in an unidentified war-torn country in the Near or Middle East; Part II “Aziz” locates the surviving twin, now twenty years old, in the “Latin quarter” of a distant land of snow where he refuses to play “Sony” (Part III), a seven-year-old boy in a play written by Mikhaël, a theatre teacher.

In succinct, poignant sentences, The Orange Grove tells not only the story of brotherly love and complicity between Aziz and Amed, but most importantly it tells the story of misguided martyrdom and the manipulation of family honour and religious faith by a fanatical combatant intent on inciting hatred and revenge against the “dogs” who purportedly launched the bombs killing the boys’ grandparents. The boys’ father is made to choose which of his twin boys will wear the belt of explosives to vindicate their grandparents’ brutal death, the destruction of homes, the confiscation of lands, and gain for himself a martyr’s place in heaven. The Orange Grove raises numerous questions while describing the cruelty and absurdity of all wars. Which of his sons will Zaled choose to sacrifice? How does his wife, Tamara, react to the possibility of losing both sons? Do the boys obey their father and respect his choices? And how does the sacrifice of one twin impact the other? Suspense and reversals abound in this craftily constructed auto-representational novel.

Part III (“Sony”), however, raises new questions—these concerning the writer’s art and the portrayal of wars and horrors never experienced by the writer himself: “You don’t know what you are talking about,” yells the surviving twin to Mikhaël who, in doubting his own intentions, tries to encourage his student to tell his painful story himself. Samuel Archibald’s Arvida also cleverly tackles questions about the art of writing worlds unknown and the blurring of lines between fact and fiction. Fourteen entertaining and compelling short stories involving ghosts, monsters, a haunted house, mysterious disappearances and enigmatic returns, hockey games with the Rocket himself, botched attempts at human smuggling and attempted murder, cult-like self mutilations, and stories of suicide are threaded together primarily through colourful portrayals of “an Arvida [Archibald’s home town] that wasn’t entirely fictional.” Like Marcel Proust and his madeleine-induced experience of involuntary memory, Archibald brings to life the past, worlds inhabited, dreamed, or simply imagined by various male and female narrators. “Honestly,” admits the narrator of the three “ARVIDA” stories evoking Proust, “after a while you can’t tell a real story from an invented one anymore, but I know that’s all the literature I’ll ever get out of a McNugget. And that’s where I always end up. McNuggets aren’t madeleines, forgetting trumps memory, and you can’t write all your life about how hard it is to tell a story.” Thus in all three “ARVIDA” stories, the narrator begins with the sentence “My grandmother, mother of my father, often said: ‘There are no thieves in Arvida’” but recounts a tale of stolen pastries by his father as a child before relating grand stories of larceny, gambling, heavy drinking, and decadence.

The “BLOOD SISTERS” (I, II, and III) stories recount in the third person unconfirmed incidents or dreams involving the sexual abuse of female children by adult men. In “In the Fields of the Lord BLOOD SISTERS I,” one of the shortest stories of the collection, a woman’s memories of the little girl she had been at her grandmother’s funeral and of her discovery on that day of her grandmother’s estranged twin sister are revived. But she “dares not to think of Jim,” her grandmother’s cousin who killed himself months before the funeral. She clearly recalls that the three of them would play cards at the kitchen table but can only wonder: had he not killed himself, would he have taken the little girl she used to be to the blueberry fields where “[he] would have kissed her on the mouth, saying that she was the only one for him,” and would he “have blushed and said that it wasn’t good for her to ask him to touch her the same way you touch a woman or that he touched other girls”?

“The Animal BLOOD SISTERS II” recounts, also in the third person, the story of two sisters aged fourteen and twelve whose father takes them on many adventures (in a boat and in a small plane) to explore the world around them but fails to provide valuable life lessons: “it’s tempting for a father never to teach [his girls] anything and to hope nothing will ever happen to them and to try to protect them from the world instead of showing them how to live in it.” One of his daughters then accepts a horse ride in the fields of the Lord with the handsome Monsieur Robertson.

In the story “Paris in the Rain BLOOD SISTERS III” a woman at a funeral parlour tells the corpse before her that she, a “damaged little girl,” is happy he is dead and that she has come to understand that “God is love”: “He loved us, strange bed mates, you the burly man and me the child, he loved your hands on me and your sweaty underclothes, he loved my cold feet and my icy nose.”

Although writers frequently question their art and their abilities to tell stories that “are untellable, or suffer from being told, or self-destruct in the very act of being formulated”, it is clear that both the writers and translators of The Orange Grove and Arvida have produced texts which reveal most eloquently their unquestionable talent in the presentation of the complexities of the human spirit, of the worlds we inhabit, and of those that inhabit us.

This review “Secrets, Lies, Worlds Unknown, and the Writer’s Plight” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 228-229.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.