15 June, 2005Issue 4.3FictionLiteratureNorth America

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A Simple Story

Leonard Epp

Miriam Toews
A Complicated Kindness
Faber and Faber, 2005
246 pages
ISBN 1582433216

A Complicated Kindness, the latest winner of a ¬£7000 Canadian literary award named after the Queen’s representative to that quaint constitutional monarchy, appears to tell a simple story. Nomi Nickel, the novel’s sixteen-year-old protagonist and first-person narrator, straightforwardly relates a particularly intense period of conflict in, rebellion against and sudden departure from her kind but conflicted family. Set in the fictional town of East Village in the Canadian province of Manitoba in the 1970s, the lives of the Nickels and most of the local population are dominated by the local (ostensibly Mennonite) church, in which many people participate but to which few seem to belong. The church is dominated by Nomi’s uncle, whom she calls Uncle Hands or the Mouth (of Darkness), who believes in imposing strict rules regulating the behaviour of the local population.

In many cases these rules merely reflect wider aspects of modern Canadian society, such as the puritan condemnation of drinking and smoking, or a provincial fear of foreign influence, especially from American cities like New York, to which Nomi wishes to escape but which she admittedly knows only through movies, books and rumours. Unlike modern Canadian society, however, which merely regulates the amount of foreign music people may listen to on the radio, the Mouth tells his congregation not to listen to rock & roll at all (though of course many do), and most importantly regularly implements the practice of excommunication in order to retain purity, punish transgressors, and strike fear into those who are tempted by the sins and attractions of modern society. In this peaceful town, the worst punishment the people can inflict on their fellows is refusing to talk to them – but it is particularly eff ective when it is directed at one member of a family, or at any member of a people who hardly appear to belong to the wider world at all.

Nomi tells us early on that her mother left the family suddenly and only six weeks after Tash, Nomi’s older sister, also ran off . Nomi’s primary partner in the household is her father, Ray, who wears a suit every day of his life regardless of occasion, who holds staring contests with table tops, and who needs to be woken occasionally in his sleep because he sometimes stops breathing. The teenage Tash in particular is embarrassed and annoyed by the rules of the town, stories of the oppression from which her people have escaped, the church’s self-righteous and naive intrusiveness, its deliberate apartness, and its foreignness. None of the townspeople are comfortable with English, being for the most part relatively recent immigrants and having an obscure and unwritten language as their mother tongue. They even maintain a museum village for American tourists, which represents the ‘old’, communal and simple pre-industrial way of life to which their people are formally committed, but Nomi makes it clear repeatedly that East Village itself is not real, that it is a ghost town, that its people do not belong in the world. Nomi’s friend Lydia best embodies this otherworldliness, this painful and humiliating discomfort with being embodied: she suff ers from an unidentifi able illness which makes all sensation unbearable. When Tash fi nally leaves, it is with a smile that signifies her freedom. Shortly thereafter, Tash’s mother Trudie is excommunicated and leaves, perhaps to commit suicide, perhaps to create a new life for herself, perhaps because she does not want to make Ray choose between her and the church. Nomi herself desires to leave for New York (and to an inverted, cosmopolitan and free East Village), but she knows that her image of that place is no more real than the model East Village that American tourists see, a simulacrum, an idealised representation of another and in some ways opposite way of life.

Left to their own devices, Nomi and her father attempt to cope with the world and each other, and their sweet mutual tolerance and interaction is almost unbearably touching. They try to diversify their lives and give some order to their days by eating meals in alphabetical order: one day they only eat things starting with the letter A, the next with B, and so on. Ray continues to need waking-up from his breathing breaks, while Nomi requires care when she comes home stoned, or when she has been dumped by her guitar-playing boyfriend Travis. Nomi herself is ultimately excommunicated for her increasingly provocative and erratic behaviour, but now it is her father who leaves, because he knows she would stay and care for him even if he were not allowed to acknowledge her existence. At this point the meaning and function of Nomi’s simple meta-fictional references to narrative devices and endings become clear, as we discover the proximate cause and the addressee of her narrative, and the story ends in medias res, as it were, with Nomi alone and yet hopeful.

Nomi’s voice is strong and confident, and she identifies Holden Caulfi eld as an infl uential character in her reading, though the infl uence of that famous adolescent would have been clear from the beginning to anyone familiar with Catcher in the Rye. Some of her best moments come in her conversations with the slightly pretentious Travis: when he says that going crazy must be like a gradual loss of peripheral vision, Nomi tells us ‘I knew he wanted me to say something almost as brilliant, but not quite’. At one point Travis naively articulates one of the novel’s many cliché escape fantasies:

Montreal’s cool. I’ll play for money in the metro and you can pose naked for art classes and stuff and we’ll fi nd a really cheap flat, eat bread and cheese. Did you say flat? I asked him. He nodded. Just for that I’m not going with you, I said.

And when Travis tries to articulate some deep thoughts, she replies:

Oh, I said, well, the human condition. That’s nice. Little Menno boy in a bubble suddenly becomes freaking Balzac or someone. Look at this, Travis, we’re in a fucking field in the middle of nowhere. There is no human condition here.

As this last passage demonstrates, Nomi’s concept of sophistication is borrowed and adolescent, based on the idea that cities are the centres of meaningful human interaction, that with sophisticated technology comes cultural and philosophical sophistication, and that the human condition is made meaningful by being elsewhere. But she is well aware of the derivative nature of her own fantasies, refl ecting that ‘[w]hen you’re a Mennonite you can’t even yearn properly for the world because the world turns that yearning into comedy’.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of Nomi’s great voice is her representation of rural boredom and frustration. She explains the signifi cance of spitting (‘Spitting is how people in this town both mourn and celebrate’), contemplates the town’s new crosswalk as a strange and unnecessary imposition of an outside order, gives an account of sniffing purple gas (which is distributed to farmers at a discount), and describes teenagers hanging out smoking and drinking at a place called Suicide Hill, scoring weed from the local dealer (called 1 e Comb) at his trailer, fl icking matches off into the darkness, or floating on an inner tube in a pool at ‘The Pits’ after pouring purple gas into the water to watch its rainbow swirls and lighting it to watch the flames.

Because of the straightforwardness of this strong and compelling voice, it is tempting to take the novel literally— as a straightforward story of a rebellious teenage girl and the disintegration of her dysfunctional family in a rural Canadian Mennonite community (though her family’s apparent abnormality is so charitably and delicately communicated that it merely reminds us that no family is normal, and that care is more important than conformity). But historically and factually speaking, Nomi is wrong about many things. She believes, for example, that the Mennonites arose as ‘followers’ of Menno Simons, who dictated to them the rules they have lived by for the past fi ve hundred years. She thinks that Mennonites seek out obscure places to live because they desire pain. Her sister Tash has contempt for stories of their people’s persecution (Toews, indeed, associates criticisms of Stalin, memories of religious and political oppression by institutionalised Protestant and Catholic churches and various European and East European governments, and appreciation of the Mennonites’ traditional oral language, with the book’s most negative character, The Mouth. For Nomi and especially for Tash, such things exist merely as self-righteous, inauthentic weapons for the repression and oppression of the younger generation). In other words, Nomi’s view of Mennonites is really no more complicated or realistic than the view the American tourists would have after seeing the model village.

This review is not the proper forum for a detailed account of the nature of the Mennonite religion and Mennonite history, but there are two particularly important points to make. First, Mennonites are pacifists, not merely ‘conscientious objectors’ as Nomi calls them. And they are not near-pacifists, like, say, the Dalai Lama, who believes that violence is justifi ed under certain circumstances: for Mennonites violence is justified under no circumstances whatsoever. And considering the fact that it is a fi ercely independent and democratic faith, pacifism is perhaps the single distinctive and unifying belief across the myriad manifestations of this religion which lacks a system or a hierarchy. Second, and most importantly for this novel, excommunication has always been an extremely rare practice, and certainly one which would not have been exercised to this extent at any time in Mennonite history, let alone in Canada in the twentieth century. This is not a problem for the novel in itself: it is after all a novel making no claim to accurately represent the Mennonite faith, and it is told from the perspective of a teenager with a funny, sardonic and ready-to-hand grasp of her local church. Unfortunately, however, given the obscurity of the faith itself, various reviewers have naively assumed that the novel does offer an accurate representation what it means to be Mennonite, which signifies a distinct people as much as it signifies a faith. If one is aware of the complications of what it means to be Mennonite, the novel in fact becomes much more difficult and meaningful on a metaphorical and social level (and Nomi herself indicates at various points in the novel that metaphor is a powerful and suspect force in the language of her town and her family). For example, the intolerance of many Mennonites for mainstream Western society does not match the intolerance of mainstream western society for Mennonites, where they are ridiculed when poor and suspect when rich, and where they are treated as outsiders because of their often strange-sounding names, their lack of a homeland, their unique way of dressing and speaking, and the manner in which they are mutually supportive and self-sustaining in distinct, often anti-industrial communes. At this level, the desire of the younger generation to move on to other places, the helplessness of the older generation who have rather made than found a home to which they are only attached because they did not make a life elsewhere, and the themes of ghostliness and discomfort, of simulations and simulacra, of national and historical alienation and of self-alienation, and of the loss of a mother tongue which is not really an original tongue, take on a much more complex and meaningful significance.

Unfortunately few reviewers seem to have completely understood the complexities of AComplicated Kindness, believing everything Nomi says like it’s gospel, and, like the American tourists who visit the modern village and believe they have seen what Mennonite life is ‘really’ like, such reviewers have taken Nomi’s representations and interpretations at face value. It is often a mistake to take weekend arts reviews seriously — they are designed for intellectual entertainment rather than analysis — and it is easy to dismiss patronising and typically ignorant examples such as Zoe Williams’ in the Guardian (24 July 2004), in which Mennonites appear as the issuers of ‘diktats’ based on a ‘horror of almost all aspects of modern life’, and indeed in which Winnipeg is described as the capital of the ‘state’ of Manitoba (Canada has provinces). And although it just as snide and misinformed, Barbara Taylor’s article in the London Review of Books (2 June 2005) nonetheless requires a brief response here because of her claim to insider knowledge.

Absurdly, Taylor refers to the faith as ‘Mennonism’ – perhaps next month the LRB will feature an article about Catholism or Anglicism – and associates Mennonites with ‘born-again Christians’. What is much worse, she calls the Mouth a ‘führer’ (which, considering the faith’s pacifism — something Taylor never mentions and perhaps does not even know about — and considering my own family’s encounters with German troops in the second World War, is particularly disturbing), and associates the town with the ‘gulag’ (which, considering the Mennonite experience under Stalin and my great-grandfather’s murder on the way to the gulag, is also particularly disturbing). Personally, I find it rather difficult to understand what is not ‘fundamentalist’ and cultish about any hierarchical institutionalised religion (Anglicanism or Catholicism, for example). But for Taylor, what is familiar is normal, and what is unfamiliar is suspicious: Mennonites are wrong to reject mobile phones, but it is right to reject Mennonites because of this rejection.

Finally, when Taylor says that she was partly raised by Mennonites in Saskatoon (a city which the Guardian would locate in the Canadian ‘state’ of Saskatchewan), what she means is that her urban self-styled ‘Marxist’ parents kept poor, rural Mennonite girls with unorthodox educations as servants. I’m sure those young Mennonite women found Taylor’s parents more risible than formidable (Taylor’s article is remarkable for its unwitting account of the family’s maltreatment of these girls): for decades authorities in the Soviet Union had actually been murdering Mennonites for refusing to relinquish their religious beliefs. And the self-righteous sniffing of urban ‘Marxists’ probably appeared absurd to girls whose people had rejected modern capitalist industrial society a few centuries ago.

But probably the lowest point in this fauxconfessional, simultaneously ill-informed and possibly disingenuous diatribe is Taylor’s association of a strictly pacifist faith with ‘holy war’ and ‘fundamentalism’, deliberately linking them to contemporary religious terrorism: ‘In an age of holy war, Toews’s protagonists have plenty of spiritual cousins’. That’s rather like calling a vegan the spiritual cousin of a seal clubber, and an insenstive invocation of the serious problem of contemporary religious terrorism. It is deeply unfortunate that a brilliant, complex and insightful novel such as A Complicated Kindness should inspire such a reductive misrepresentation of a misunderstood, marginal people who would rather die than kill.

Leonard Epp is a Canadian DPhil student in English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford.