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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

significant writers: rudy wiebe

Most readers familiar with Canadian literature will be aware of Rudy Wiebe. To readers outside of Canada, he is not as well known as Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). He does not live the life of the author-celebrity so even Canadians are not often aware of what he's writing or what he's up to.

There is a bit of experimental writing in Wiebe's most ambitious novels and some unique uses of stream of consciousness (sometimes like Faulkner's writing in The Sound and The Fury though Wiebe doesn't quite push the envelope so much). I can only describe the rhythms of his prose as jagged. I don't say these things to put you off. Wiebe's writing is extremely rewarding and satisfying for those willing to turn on their minds. Any of his books are a meal. But his novels are not dumbed down read-while-you-wait-for-the-plane thrillers.

I first read The Blue Mountains of China. I think what struck me the most was Wiebe's wonderful use of simile and metaphor. As brilliant as those of Nikos Kazantzakis. Highly original and full of colour and life. They make his books poetry in motion. This characteristic of his writing I found held true when I read The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People.

Wiebe's asymmetrical rhythms and his rugged surge of words and seizure of your imagination and intellect make him unique, in my opinion, among world writers. Impressions left are indelible. I am not affected much by writers who have no metaphor or simile to speak of, and there are more of those around than I'm comfortable with. In my lifetime, and from very early on, poetry has easily affected me as much as story, so for someone to write a piece, however well put together, and not work at the lyric of their art - I can only say it leaves me stone cold dead.

A few people make a great deal of Wiebe's Mennonite background. It comes up in Peace Shall Destroy Many and in The Blue Mountains of China as part of their storylines but Wiebe does not proselytize, in fact that appears to be the farthest thing from his mind. What he is is a good writer who leans towards historical fiction and who can make his stories crackle with intellectual and emotional force. It is, I think, impressionistic writing, making you feel intensely because of the way he paints his sentences and paragraphs. He pulls you into not only the characters and the plot but into the sunlight and the shape of the leaves and the shape of the wind and the long arching contour of the land.

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