Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China centres upon the problem of belief—the sustaining relationship of the self to something beyond itself. As a Christian, Wiebe perceives this problem primarily in terms of the relationship to the divine, and his task is to convince the contemporary, secular reader that this relationship must be taken seriously. (p. 79)
Questions about plot, structure and point of view embodied in Wiebe's narrative strategy serve as mediations for the spiritual themes probed by the fiction. Wiebe's characters, exiled in the wilderness, search for the Promised Land that will transform existential chaos into meaningful form. The novel itself, multiple and fragmented, highlights the absence of such integrative vision and engages the reader in his own struggle in a narrative wilderness. Working through dissonance and disjunction, Wiebe subjects the reader to a process of relentless disorientation. The senses are assaulted by disconnected images—a cow's bulging eye, a coruscating chandelier, a leg oozing black pus—and the mind struggles to assimilate the sharply differing settings—a sand-assaulted well in the desert of Paraguay, a silent snow-covered street in Moscow, a crowded lice-infested basement in China. As the novel's disparate voices succeed one another, point of view switches abruptly. Dramatic shifts in narrative distance and mode typically accompany these alterations of perspective, so reinforcing the general sense of unpredictable and unstable narrative process.
Blue Mountains opens, for example, with the calm reminiscence of the aged Frieda Friesen narrating events from her childhood and adolescence on the prairie. Her secure faith, her sense of a self sustained by the divine, emerges immediately: "What I tell I remember only through God's grace." Frieda sees and accepts her life as a whole, convinced that "it all comes from God, strength and sickness, want and plenty."… This belief determines her narrative stance, accounting for the detached perspective, the even tone and the curiously impersonal language that modulates only rarely into the language of specific personal response. (pp. 79-80)
The next chapter plunges us into a radically different narrative mode: "The cell had one opening: the door. Three half steps long, nearly two wide, thirteen rows of sweating stone floor to ceiling."… As setting switches from the expanse of prairie to the confinement of a dark cell, narrative focus narrows suddenly and moves to a concentrated, internal perspective. The reader is now in Russia, in 1929, in prison, in the mind of young Jakob Friesen. Where Frieda's mode of narration allowed the reader to remain outside the experiences being recorded, the narrative now pulls the reader into the fiction. Calm recollection of the past gives way to a tormented experience that is present tense in impact; the language of minimal response is exchanged for a language soaked through with the perception of a particular psyche. Psychological realism, probing deeply into a consciousness, supplants the autobiographical method of the relation of events. Vertical movement displaces horizontal, and the narrative slows down. Frieda's chapter covered twenty years; Jakob's chapter—five times longer—covers only a few weeks. As the prose becomes denser, Wiebe stretches language in an attempt to express the simultaneity of experience, to capture the diverse pressures converging on the vulnerable Jakob whose once "solid sure" world has collapsed, leaving him to confront dark, fearful forces deep within.
Such jolting shifts are typical of narrative process in Blue Mountains. Frieda's story is the only recurrent strain and constitutes the only approach to conventional continuity and form. But Wiebe undercuts the reassurance this engenders by breaking up her story, introducing it not only in portions but at irregular intervals. Moreover, he avoids providing it with a firm sense of closure—a further installment is always possible. Frieda's narration ends well before Wiebe's narrative, and her story—the only one rendered in direct first person—takes its place among the other personal and partial perspectives that make up the bulk of the novel. This polyvocal technique, while reflecting the multiplicity and subjectivity of modern reality, functions primarily to focus the problem of point of view itself, to raise questions about the possibility of an authentic, integrative vision.
Like point of view, structure also becomes reflexive. The basic narrative unit is the test of self, a unit complicated and extended with each experiential formulation as Wiebe experiments with a range of possible self-definitions, from young Jakob Friesen's self-destructive self-assertion to David Epp's futile yet constitutive self-sacrifice. Built out of these units, the novel resembles a kaleidoscope in which the same central elements recombine continually into new configurations. These individual configurations compose a discontinuous sequence that counteracts the sense of significant linear progression inherent in the narrative act. In effect, Wiebe generates a structure that is a question about structure. Temporal sequence can neither reveal the significant relationship between episodes nor body forth the form capable of containing them. By deliberately disrupting conventional teleological expectations, Wiebe questions traditional linear structures that not only render the temporal intrinsically significant but make it the bearer of atemporal values. Consequently, his antilinearity places in doubt the time structures the human mind erects, particularly that of history, and works to undercut the sense of time as history—the traditional time of the novel as a genre. (pp. 80-1)
As the novel's central image of journeying stresses process not completion, activity not action, so the cumulation of the basic narrative units in Blue Mountains signifies the novel's search for form,...
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I thought of War and Peace when I read … Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People, which too, on a very different scale, is about war and defeat in a vast country. Rudy Wiebe, whose ancestors lived many generations in Russia, has always struck me as being similar in many ways to Tolstoy, not in any way the equivalent in stature or in sheer artistry, but on his own smaller scale irradiated with the same kind of rather primitive religious concerns, and just as prone as the great Leo Nicholaevich to subordinate his innate sense of form to a compelling didactic motive. (p. 98)
The scorched-wood people are, of course, the bois brulés, as the Métis were originally called. In his novel Wiebe is not concerned, except for a few reminiscent references to the pre-1869 past that are necessary for background, with the entire span of Métis history. He has written a tale about the two rebellions, of 1869–70 and 1885, in which the Métis unsuccessfully defied the centralizing power that entered Canada with Confederation and is the enemy of all Canadians who believe in personal freedom. (pp. 98-9)
Unfortunately Rudy Wiebe has been unable in The Scorched-Wood People to separate the purpose of historical fiction, which is to give us a plausible image and feeling of the past, from that of the historical moralist, which is to apportion blame, signal merit and formulate lessons. He feels too deeply about his...
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