Introduction

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Wiebe, Rudy 1934–

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Wiebe is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, and critic whose didactic works probe the spiritual issues of Christian faith. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)

Ina Ferris

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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, translating into narrative terms the existential problems explored in the fiction. The narrative questions in effect constitute a metatheme—a secular version of the novel's main theme that engages the reader directly and turns his experience into a confrontation of the central concerns of the fiction. Faced with the rapidly shifting perspectives, the reader experiences—as a result of technique itself—a secular analogue to the spiritual search for a centre dramatized in the novel's action. Such technique is not a simple mimesis of the uncertain modern world, nor is Wiebe writing a self-conscious novel. Rather, he engenders a genuine displacement, a translation, that creates a secondary level of the narrative at once thematically resonant and rhetorically functional. This level turns the reader's consciousness into the ultimate concern of the fiction by involving it in the process of sense-making. And Wiebe ensures that the reader will experience its full complexity by creating a dense and compelling fictional world that pulls in the reader, forcing participation even as it obstructs the formation of ready interpretation and decertainizes response.

The novel is a powerful imagination of different minds. Wiebe's concrete method establishes the existential focus and combines with his antilinearity to generate the maximum impact of each experience as experience. Released from significant sequence, each episode is cut off from past and future and becomes an intense present intensely rendered. With no central plot to place the episode in an overall scheme, each assumes equal weight and comes uniquely and fully into focus. Wiebe probes in depth, thoroughly imagining the specific human medium of each experience. His vivid, flexible prose economically creates the interior world of the characters, and the detailed evocation of conflicting internal forces jostling with the pressures of external event, of the formative past fusing with the problematic present, brings the mind under exploration to a full, concrete realization. (p. 82)

The density and interiority of these experiences inhibit generalization, make judgment difficult. Yet even as Wiebe keeps generalization and judgment off-balance, he insists on their necessity. The dominant concrete focus of the novel exists in tension with a pull toward abstraction; through the latter Wiebe generalizes his narrative exploration and brings to bear upon the existential moment his moral themes and transcendent realm of meaning. The same anti-linearity, for example, that isolates the episodes and encourages the emergence of the moment in all its concreteness works also to generate a level of abstraction that implies the insufficiency of the purely existential approach. Antilinearity, as noted earlier, implicitly denies the significance of temporal sequence and so of history. But when combined with the pervasive Biblical typology of the novel, it does more than this: it redefines history as figural—a reenactment of Scripture. Through Biblical allusion Wiebe weaves in a possible perspective, reminds the reader that an interpretive act is required. But the emphasis here, as in all of Wiebe's narrative strategies, is on exploration, and he persists in unsettling and complicating response. In drawing on Biblical typology, he does not merely translate ancient structures and images into contemporary idiom but rather transforms the inherited paradigm so that the relationship of the fictional version to the model becomes a question not a statement. (pp. 82-3)

The complex effect of Blue Mountains depends on its sustaining this tension between the concrete and abstract levels of the fiction. Here two narrative impulses—authenticity and perspective—confront one another, reflecting in secular terms the conflicts between mundane experience and religious idealism experienced by characters within the fiction. In David Epp's chapter, for instance, circumstantial realism plays off against the possibility of a deductive structure informed by an ideal: the louse and the Last Supper exist on different levels of perception. Wiebe's doubleness of vision does not preclude choice but reveals its full difficulty, as in his comic presentation of Sam Reimer, the failed visionary. Although Wiebe's comedy here shades into satire exposing the hollowness of contemporary society, he mitigates against this clear and simplifying direction of decision through the central Quixotic concept that allows a more complex confrontation of real and ideal…. Through such interplay Wiebe offers possibilities for interpretation, suggests levels of significance without defining a particular significance. This exploratory, open technique signals the deep awareness of the difficult conditions of belief for the modern mind that makes Blue Mountains so impressive an imagination of this problem.

But Wiebe cannot, finally, affirm his existential mode with its potentially subversive, experimental technique. The final chapter, "On the Way," presents a striking reversal of method and perception as Wiebe brings his novel to a resolution, pointing explicitly to the way. Despite the suggestions of process and journeying in its title, "On the Way" is dominated by a technique that stabilizes and encloses the fiction: the kaleidoscope is not only stilled but fixed into an exemplary pattern. Exploration gives way to assertion; Wiebe pulls structure toward closure and moves point of view toward definition. Insistently constructed as a conclusion absorbing the entire novel, the final chapter summons characters from earlier chapters (or recalling earlier chapters) and moves them at one time toward one place. The reader is similarly drawn in and directed, for the setting and historical moment (Canada, 1967) allow no retreat from the fictional experience. The whole narrative converges on a single point—John Reimer, carrying his cross across Canada, enveloped in Christ images and granted an authority and integrative power withheld from the rest of the narrative. The ambiguities of structural relationships in earlier portions are now replaced by the clarity of a centripetal structure defining Reimer as the locus of significance. Point of view, withdrawing from its characteristic subjectivity, adopts and external perspective and reinforces the implications of structure by making Reimer the focus and authenticating his testimony. Wiebe's individuating, internal method of characterization is replaced by a generalizing, external approach that turns character into type. Reimer himself is a symbol functioning on the abstract level of idea and ideal that now takes over as narrative dominant.

Through this decisive shift in method Wiebe signifies the inability of his existential mode to resolve the questions he raises. Itself incoherent, it cannot grant coherence; based on a commitment to the individual and the concrete, it can not penetrate experience to reveal its essence. Undercutting his own earlier narrative strategies, Wiebe now redefines reality as essence, not experience, and deliberately thins existential context to concentrate on its underlying forms. (pp. 83-4)

Rather than generating a perception of essence, the final chapter conveys a sense of attenuation, verges on cliché and common place that obscure the significance of Wiebe's effort. The crux of the problem is John Reimer who bears the burden of the synthesis Wiebe attempts. To support this weight Reimer must be a compelling presence. But he remains an unrealized intention, a willed figure who is unable to animate the imagination. Reimer functions as theoretical conception rather than symbolic force integrating the experience of the narrative. He emerges as a rational, imposed and self-conscious symbol, relying heavily—and inappropriately—on statement. This reliance on discursive forms dissipates the emotional power essential to support his role and points to the basic weakness underlying his creation. (p. 84)

His thinness becomes especially clear when he comes in contact with old Jakob Friesen, betrayer of his son, survivor of prison camps and a man who believes he believes nothing. Old Jakob brings with him the most powerful episodes of the novel and his words, evoking experiences that the reader has shared, resonate as John Reimer's fail to do. When Friesen counters Reimer's statement of faith with his own doubt ("It helped her exactly nothing,") his assertion is charged with the memory of the dramatic episodes it conjures up; it brings vividly to mind their anguish, bewilderment, courage and despair. John Reimer, cut off from the fictional power upon which Jakob Friesen draws, speaks a pale language by comparison. His statement remains statement. And his purely symbolic action appears, in the context of the difficulties of experience and action we have previously encountered, as facile and inadequate. Reimer himself must give this action force, but he cannot do so. Undercut by an inappropriate rationalism, set off from the experiential context that must support his structural role, Reimer lacks the concentrated suggestiveness necessary to turn him into a compelling symbol capable of absorbing and illuminating the problems raised by the exploration of the preceding chapters.

The failure of this final chapter is as significant as the effort it represents. Wiebe's attempt to expand the possibilities of the novel by pushing it beyond its traditional roots reveals how deeply his own artistic gifts draw upon those roots. Religious idealism may support the conscious aesthetic structuring the final chapter, but the authentic voice of the chapter belongs to a fugitive from another mode—to old Jakob Friesen. Despite the depth of his own religious convictions, Wiebe's imagination is essentially secular and novelistic, animated less by the transcendent Christian vision than by the powerful pull of, in his own words, "the world that is now … where everybody else it's hurting is living." (p. 85)

Ina Ferris, "Religious Vision and Fictional Form: Rudy Wiebe's 'The Blue Mountains of China'," in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Study of Literature and Ideas (copyright © 1978 by The University of Manitoba Press; acknowledgement of previous publication is herewith made) Vol. XI, No. 3 (Spring, 1978), pp. 79-85.

George Woodcock

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

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 subject to detach himself in the Flaubertian manner, yet at the same time he seeks to give some plausible fictional rendering of his feelings. He tries to do so through the device of a committed narrator who comments on the events as they occur, in fairly regular chronological sequence. But this very device, used to achieve a degree of verisimilitude, turns out to be the least convincing feature of The Scorched-Wood People. The narrator is a Métis oral poet, and we are led to identify him with Pierre Falcon, the most famous of the Métis bards, who was present at the skirmish of Seven Oaks in 1816, when he composed his famous song which became something of an anthem of the Métis "nation." (p. 99)

But it very soon becomes evident that Wiebe is little concerned with the history of the Métis, which he deals with very cavalierly, and much more with the iniquity of their fate. However, the real heart of the book, which creates its curiously frenetic atmosphere and provides an unstructured continuity far more compelling than the narration line, is the personality of Louis Riel, whose role as a religious visionary clearly fascinates Wiebe.

The publicity relating to The Scorched-Wood People presents it as an epic of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, but little justice is really done to Dumont, either in terms of historical accuracy or in terms of a sympathetic portrayal of the man…. Only [Dumont's] courage emerges in The Scorched-Wood People; the intelligence and the grandeur are somehow lost. (pp. 99-100)

Yet at the same time Rudy Wiebe, the chronicler of Mennonite religious agonies, has convincingly projected the spiritually tortured and divided Riel, and as a study of Riel as visionary hovering on the edge of insanity The Scorched-Wood People is often profound and always understanding. But the failure to portray convincingly a whole man like Dumont mars the book from beginning to end, and The Scorched-Wood People is a disappointing book for those whose expectations are at the level of The Blue Mountains of China. (p. 100)

George Woodcock, "Riel & Dumont," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1978, pp. 98-100.

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