A secretive farter

When Elias finally died, those who knew him agreed it was a shame that such a big man should wither up like he had. The undertaker remarked that he had put Elias in a coffin that was two sizes smaller than if he’d simply fallen off a roof. He seemed to regret that Elias was denied the spectacle of an over-large coffin. As it was, when mourners came to look at his coffin, Elias appeared diminished in an ordinary sort of way. The same as anyone who had died that sort of death.

 
Mennonites Don’t Dance
Darcie Friesen Hossack
201 pp
Thistledown Press, 2010
 
Mentioned in this review:
 
Mennonite Low German Dictionary/Mennonitisch Plattdeutsches Wörterbuch
Jack Thiessen
628 pp

Max Kade Institute, 2003

 

Sez here you ain’t so hot

This is a book of stories about Canadian Mennonites, so this reviewer should point out that she is a New York-born Jew, which is about as far from Canadian Mennonite as one can get culturally and still be part of the ex-European diaspora. This is true despite the parallel histories of persecution and murder, despite parallel notions of chosenness, despite the common residency around Odessa (back when that was the hotspot for the useful European pariah), and despite the linguistic cousinhood on opposite sides of German: Plautdietsch is the Mennonite mamaloshen. The two groups’ survival strategies give some sense of the distance between them: the Mennonites go by the tag “die Stille im Land”, and the very sensible idea is to keep one’s head down. Despite the presence of a Mennonite village fifteen miles south of me, I have not in two decades heard a peep out of them, though they regularly ship north chickens that make every other bird in the grocery case look sorry and abused. All I hear otherwise are myths of  Mennonite emissaries visiting the local hospital’s business office to do some hard bargaining, as they regard health insurance as a form of gambling. Or so it’s said.

Last year, with a car battery that needed recharging on a long drive, I resolved to visit this little town. After fifteen miles of farmland, the main road zipped me straight through town and delivered me into farms on the other side. Aware that I’d been had, I turned around and drove back through town, this time turning into side streets. I saw nary a soul, and the well-tended and exceedingly plain and modest houses, though facing front, may as well have had their backs to the street as I drove past. After seven or eight blocks of this I gave up, drove back to the main street, and did as implicitly told: I went away.

Jews, on the other hand…well, I will let the Mennos have the last word there. In Jack Thiessen’s excellent Plautdietsch dictionary, one finds this entry:

 

Jüde’school f. Judenschule; Jewish school. Daut jintj doa too, aus enne Jüde’school; Es ging dort zu wie in einer Judenschule (laut, unordentlich, viel Gerede; Things went on as in a Jewish school (noisy, unruly [and, in the untranslated German: with much talk, talk, talk]).

 

There are less kind entries on that page as well. With that caveat about my fitness as a reader in mind:

Darcie Friesen Hossack did not grow up in Mennonite society; instead she grew up in what a Menno friend once called its “long grim cultural shadow” as a keen observer. In fact she’s a keen enough observer that as I read these stories I began to wish she hadn’t felt compelled to swing the boom over to a therapeutic sensibility which argues with that culture. She starts each story by walking into a life that’s real, difficult, and ominous, and never tells it more straightforwardly than in the beginning of her story “Little Lamb”:

 

My brother may seem stupid. But really, Henry is just young. Not too young to know certain things, mind you. Like that we’re Mennonite. Which of course means we understand that farming and inventing new ways to be backwards is the only sure way into grace. For example, we’re the last farm within a hundred miles to go without a flush toilet, and that makes us a little closer to heaven than any of our neighbors.

 

That’s the easy stuff, says the young narrator, whose offhand Canadian manner makes light of the stringency and heavy social seas in such grace-seeking. The advanced education comes with living:

 

When we got the last winter catalogue, reminding us that it was now 1954 in the parts of the world that weren’t Mennonite country, Henry was bent on getting a sled. Pretty unoriginal of him, if you ask me, since each of us boys wanted one at one time or another. When it was me, I even offered to do extra chores. I got the chores, all right. But never saw a sled. Lesson learned.

 

Indeed. Soon after this tale’s told, Henry’s family begins his education in brutality. In nearly every story here, elders are grim and resourceful with what’s been given to the point of abuse. Intentionally they force the children to be brutal, and cripple the children’s openness, kindness, and private generosity.

As the cruelties in this book piled up I was reminded of John McGahern’s stories, with their embittered fathers who are, in the end, merely realists without grace. By the end of each story McGahern’s readers are forced to admit, however miserably, that the old bastards know something about the world and how people do. Neither the children’s optimism nor their universities can wish away old prejudices, the pettiness of power, the necessity and fixity of groups, or men’s evil, sexual and otherwise.

Only now and then does one see a hint in these stories of Hossack’s that there might be good reason for what her old mothers and fathers do: that they might be teaching their children to survive, and to survive as Mennonites, not strangers, even if – as is likely – the children will leave, or think about it. Skimping on the depth and textures of such realities has the unfortunate effect of turning Hossack’s book into a long, urging polemic against her cultural shadow, with a culture of weekly therapy enlisted as an ally. A mother-in-law is embittered because no one helped her through her own miscarriage; a father is a curled-up dead leaf of a man, the better to liberate oneself from. Pity overtakes the children’s stories, and this is a serious problem which leaves us with garish scenes of dead kittens, dead fetuses, dead brothers, dead grasshoppers, and the sort of emotional onesidedness that pertains in self-help books. One side is sensitive, the other unaccountably brutal. The resolution comes not in the children’s recognition that the parents’ cruelty is informed by some real world which, as it turns out, they share; it comes in the form of truces and psychological accountings.

The first story, in my opinion one of the best, turns in the direction of recognizing the dead hand: a suddenly deaf young husband, so determined to live in a new way and escape his parents’ house, finds he’s fated to become his cankered father. The story rescues him when his deafness turns out to have an  improbable and thuddingly symbolic cause, fixed by the doctor in a gruesome trice. Sunshine and the foreign wife’s unnecessarily new curtains win, but only because the writer put her thumb on the scale. In another story an old mother justifies, in silent monologue, her victimization of a young, open daughter-in-law, a liberated wife from that place of license, British Columbia. But the world that requires such a hard heart exists only in the woman’s mind, not in Hossack’s sensibility, and once again the therapeutic vision dominates.

I see that I am stuck on the protest against brutality in these stories, which can otherwise be so tender and womanish, with all their sisterly jam-making and laundry. Again, I turn to Thiessen’s dictionary, opening it at random, and on a single page I read:

 

Mitsch f. Variation of the name of Mary.

Mitsch, Pitsch, Päpamäl-
Diene Tjinja Fräte väl;
Jieda Dach fe’n Dola Broot-
Nemm de Tjiel en schloh se doot.
 
Mitch, Pitch, pepper mill
All you children eat their fill
Every day a dollar’s bread –
Take a bar and strike them dead.

missrijch adv. a small and poorly developed runty animal or child.

moarache w.v. to push ahead with very difficult work, to surge ahead with force, forge ahead. Old Sax., OHG: marg, maag or marah, marach; Pferd; durch Pferdearbeit ermüden; to tire as of horses’ work.

Moarast, Morauss m. sludge, mud mixed with manure

 

I turn the page.

 

Moazh m. arse, posterior. Nü Goodnacht, jie leewe Sorje, letj mie aum Moazh bett morje; Now goodnight my grief and sorrow, kiss my ass till it be morrow.

Mode’sack m. literally a maggot bag. This term is used by Mexican Mennonites to describe the mortal, earthly human body.

 

I cannot leave out:

 

Hoads’mejall f. a girl who gets involved with itinerant shepherds; a floozy.

tjrelle:w.v. to curl up with pain, to cringe. Goht tiedijch schlope, sest woah jie jünt zemorjess tjrelle aus de Räjenwarm; go to bed early, otherwise you will curl yourselves like rainworms when it’s getting-up time.

Glüdra: m. a secretive farter.

 

I can’t find the entry in which a woeful and besmirched man wonders if things will get better, and is answered with a laugh and a crack upside the head.

A language carries the things a particular people need to say, and is its dream-world; when necessary, people live there. While the Jews have a state, provisionally (our own thousand-year-old language abandoned to fundamentalists who must be deforming it to their own dreams), Mennonites must be content with farms and silent little towns in other people’s lands and this private, brutal, humorous language which abjures pride and is resigned to mundane and crushing disappointments, amidst which tenderness is the more moving and alarming for its surprise appearances and brevity.

So I come back to the question of Hossack’s preoccupation with rendering and protesting so flatly this harshness that’s deep in the language, inseparable from the culture, a thing with meaning. I can think of two possibilities, neither of which is necessarily involved.

One is that she’s been deeply struck by this thing in a culture she carries, and that because the things she’s observing are brutal, she stares and renders them brutally. In English it shocks: she gets a flat, repetitive indictment.  If so this is merely a problem of stance and translation, and not having yet found the thing in the brutality that interests her most and will take her into more profound storytelling.

The other possibility is that, like all of us who grew up with the sound but not the enveloping reality of an old culture, she’s also part of another world. Contemporary Anglo Canada is real; the social workers and their toxic-family paperbacks are real; her writing-program circles and their own influences are real. Perhaps Hossack comes to these eerie farmhouses tentatively, but as an advocate, reacting to them as a member of the Plautdietschless world in which she grew up. If so, I think she does herself out of a claim to knowledge and understanding – I suspect she understands that Menno world better than she allows herself to believe, and doesn’t need to be so tentative and constrained. I also think the advocacy will not do, because it keeps her from the literary job of giving full weight to the Menno world, and telling what must happen where that world and the English world meet.

I suspect the question of interest is not what happens when these worlds meet in the fictional characters here – the thick, clumsy Menno girl and the sharp young man who believes in disposability, for instance, in the story of a girl who almost escapes to Calgary — but what happens when they meet in Hossack herself, an assimilated Mennonite-on-one-side woman in modern starchy Canada. Not just assimilated but – I must say it, despite the harshness – deracinated, because I see no home for cultural Mennonites without faith, as there is for agnostic Jews, who participate in Jewish life without hypocrisy or comment: we engage in prayer and ritual and in serious debate about the direction and security of Jewish communities, and send our children to Hebrew school. Judaism, after all, favors behavior as a community over individual faith (a jarringly Christian notion), and saves its power for claiming generations. A secular Jew who’s turned to Buddhism is a deluded Jew who will most likely come back one day to a physical sanctuary, a room he understands, full of people who understand him, and say kaddish, which will teach him once again what he is. One shrugs. It happens all the time. But a Mennonite who leaves the church and a community centered on piety has nowhere to go and is left, as far as I can see, with a netherworld of blogs trading Menno recipes and nostalgia over folkways. This deracination – not just of the leaver, but of the leaver’s children, who inherit a pietistic culture without piety — strikes me as being enormously cruel in a way not at all unrelated to the knock on the head for the plaintive man. And I imagine that this cruelty, too, has its reasons.

This isn’t a new theme, but a theme needn’t be new. McGahern has already worked this field, writing about these painful, doomed efforts to go back to some older world that seems richer, darker, more authentic, but this doesn’t matter either. My critic’s wish for Hossack, who is a good and musical writer, is that she might gain some distance on the margin between Menno and Outside, shun psychology’s poor fables in favor of literary fiction’s complexities, take the old brutality on its own rich and poetic terms, and trust that she knows what she knows.

A version of this review is published at The Short Review.

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