Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Wiebe and Bail: re making the story

George Bowering

I sometimes think that the great subtext of Canadian and Australian literatures is the escape from colonial status in our histories; or vice versa. Thus the unusual preoccupation with national identity, and thus the recent turn of our fictions against history. For two hundred years the serious writer has been expected to turn a rebellious face to authority, anyway. The writer in a postcolonial culture, it seems to me, is an obvious agent of deconstruction.

In western Canada, and in Australia, which is just about all Western, the most interesting fiction writers have noticed that even the popular cultural myths, those folkloric signs that would seem to assure us of the singularity of our environments, are negatives of the British European self-regard. There on the pitiless outback or the bald-headed prairie the admirable yokels laughingly perform deeds of stoical legend that no caparisoned (and envious) Limie or Pommie could even dream of. Our lived epics were the stuff for Boys' Own Annuals in damp Sussex parlours. We were allowed to create our dryland otherness.

Thus it has become necessary for us grandsons of the pioneers to call into doubt our icons. To declare our selves we have to interrogate our Australiana and Canadiana. No decent intelligent Aussie I know sings Waltzing Matilda without savage inebriety; all sensible Canadians hope for an awkward unhorsing at the RCMP's musical ride. In new South Wales, Jean Bedford puts a subversive female centre into the saga of Ned Kelly. On the prairies, Robert Kroetsch refutes the garrison mentality regarding nature, encouraging his characters to fornicate merrily in the eye of a desert whirlwind.

Here I want to look at two short stories that reach with their erasers back to the late nineteenth century, and that write in the newly cleared space with post-historical irony. These stories are Rudy Wiebe's "Where is the Voice Coming From?", title story of his first collection of short fictions, and Murray Bail's "The Drover's Wife," which became the title story of his first collection when it was retitled for republication ten years after it first came out. Wiebe's story, with the interrogative title, questions the authorized record of Almighty Voice's final stand against the Federal authorities on May 30, 1897. Bail's story seems to repudiate the very title of Russell Drysdale's famous painting, while mocking the almost official national adoption of the Henry Lawson story (1892) from which that title was taken.

The two approaches, the two kinds of irony, are quite different. Murray Bail's view is always comic, usually parodic. Rudy Wiebe, readers often point out, has never cracked a joke; nevertheless it is not possible, I would suggest, that one could engage in literary deconstruction without at least the trace (let us say) of a smile. Not Vonnegut's smile. Not even Beckett's smile. But maybe the smile hidden behind those defiantly expressionless faces we see in the photographs of famous Indian leaders losing the rebellions at the end of the nineteenth century in the Canadian west.

Wiebe's story is told in the first person, but that "I" does not, for good reason, appear until the last two pages of a nine-page story. In this way the reader is reminded that he might have been asking of the story the question posed in its title. Wiebe's handling of the narrative strategy is sophisticated in its irony, but it has a problem beyond its fruitful problematizing: we will see that the narrator naively rejects myth in favour of the scientific approach, and that at the end of the story he represents our national incapacity to understand the spirit of the Native voice; yet the story begins with a literary adept's proposition that the story must be "made" rather than retold. Further, it quotes Teilhard de Chardin to the effect that our alienation is due to the fact that we act "as though we are spectators, not elements, in what goes on."

The narrator, who at first is rather an arguer than a story-teller, describes the sites and relics he has seen in his pursuit of the actual events of 1897. He is impatient with contradiction he has found in the written accounts, the source materials of history. He suggests that as "the story ended long ago," things should have become more clear than they are in the present.

The first sentence of Wiebe's story is: "The problem is to make the story." Problematizing what seems to be received is, of course, the first step in deconstruction, to make difference. Making a story, not recounting one, is the problem, not the solution to it. A problem, in a discourse of enquiry, is a proposition. Wiebe's narrator is a critic of the official history, and the text he is examining is made up of museumized weapons, bone fragments, printed proclamations, etc. He finds out that the glass-encased or well-painted exhibits do not add up, that objective distance does not calculate a "solution." In an essay called "Where to Begin," Roland Barthes said of the critic's activity: "It is not a matter of obtaining an 'explanation' of the text, a 'positive result' (a final signified which would be the work's truth or its determination), but quite the contrary - that it is a matter of entering, by analysis (or what resembles an analysis), into the play of the signifier, into the writing: in a word, to accomplish, by his labour, the text's plural."

Wiebe's narrator, even though he has quoted de Chardin, seems to want to avoid the plural (though it is the plural, the contradictory descriptions of Almighty Voice, that will lead him to the personal encounter with the Voice at the end). He complains of the difficulty of "precision" (etym.: cut short). He tries to discredit the oral tradition and anything of the mythical. He refers to myth as "non-factual accretions." Yet all the while we hear, or hope we are hearing, a sarcasm in this "objective" account. We are pretty sure that we do when we first hear a reference to something "national." He will compare the disrepair of Almighty Voice's museumized rifle with preservation of the Mounties' gun carriage. The kind of sarcasm found in some of Hugh Hood's stories: "the brilliant burnish of its brass breeching testifies with what meticulous care charmen and women have used nationally-advertised cleaners and restorers."

So one becomes persuaded that the irony is a studied one, that the laconic voice and the talk of testimony and evidence are attributes not of privileged author but of Socratic narrator. He is trying to trick his audience into asking the title question, to help make the story, to problematize the museums. At the beginning of the story he also quotes Arnold Toynbee, our type of a historian: "For all we know, Reality is the undifferentiated unity of the mystical experience." Then he says that "that need not here be considered." We know that this report could have been revised, of course, so we go on considering.

Mystical means silent, the unspoken. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers "mystery" as the first synonym of "problem." Just as a light may be seen only if surrounded by something darker, the only place a voice can come from is out of silence. The writer's first job will be to produce that silence. Wiebe's writer begins his survey of history with an increasingly tiring litany of names, then follows it with A Proclamation that insists "Hear Ye," and is so long that it has to be cut off. Then, writes the writer: "Such hearing cannot be enough. The first item to be seen is the piece of white bone," a mute piece of Almighty Voice's skull . . . maybe. The narrator-witness offers as exact as possible a description of the bone fragment, as if in this way one can begin to make the story; as if he hopes to be Ezekiel watching the connections, seeing breath bring life to assembled bones rather than being converted to speech. He is attached to the word "evidence," which means the things seen. If he has any remaining attachment to the idea of history, he models his procedure on that of Thucydides, who was not satisfied with the reports he read and heard, but went to the battlefields to see for himself. To see, since time before the Greek, is to know, not to garner knowledge from other writing, but from the spirit of places and things themselves.

He ranges over the ground of Saskatchewan, preferring the land to the map, and brings it finally to the North West Mounted Police Museum in Regina, that old pile of bones. Inside that "small rectangular box of these logs" there is the silence out of which one might expect authentic voice to come. But not yet: as soon as Wiebe's writer mentions the silence, these authoritarian and contradictory words intrude on the stillness of the text:

Hey Injun you'll get hung for stealing that steer

Hey Injun for killing that government cow you'll get

three weeks on the woodpile Hey Injun

As history goes it is not an almighty voice, only the mean voice of half-comprehensible authority. Still, it speaks more openly the white attitude toward the Plains Cree than did all the printed proclamations. The oral tradition insinuates its authenticity.

In the museum there are many photographs, writing made with light. All are mere babble of black and white for Wiebe's writer, all but the last, a photograph of Almighty Voice himself. It brings about the "ultimate problem in making the story." It differs from the two "official" written descriptions of the criminal-martyr, which vary from one another. But it differs most in that it bypasses history and cuts quickly (precisely) into the narrator's present: "It is a face like an axe." In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes said of criticism: "its preferred material is this culture, which is everything in us except our present."

Now Wiebe for the first time uses the first person pronoun, and moves from report to narration, in the present tense, invoking de Chardin. Because of the devastating effect of that image of a face caught in a present, "I am no longer spectator of what has happened or what may happen: I am become element in what is happening at this very moment." The events of Almighty Voice's end become a middle, as the encoded past is made present, and photograph gives way to presence. The narrator is part of the living diorama of the assault on the few holed-up Indians surrounded by thirty-five soldiers, thirteen armed civilians, and fifty-six policemen . . . We then see that the scene becomes focus for a widening surround of a continent filling with white immigrants. There are guns and rifles pointing at the middle, human figures waiting in expectation this sunny Sunday morning - all in a brightened silence.

Then there is the rise of an "incredible" voice, the high strong call of Almighty Voice's death chant, which rises above the answering noise of the gun explosions. The surrounding guns are making the noise of authority. The voice is above authority now; it is the voice of the Great Spirit. Both sounds are beyond meaning. To the defeated Indians the white authority "threatened incomprehensible law." To the narrator, now, of Wiebe's story, the beautiful spirit voice is a "wordless cry" because, as he says in his final ironic sentence, "I do not, of course, understand the Cree myself." The deconstruction of authoritarian history, of the attempt, even, to find one's way along its contradictory traces, is surely to be made possible and likely by an hallucination of the loudest possible detonation out of silence of the oral tradition, even if perceived as the latter's death (though the present tense suggests that the spirit's cry makes the notion of such a death a delusion). The highest reach of the oral tradition might be called an almighty voice; it is above meaning, or at least understanding. In the Tractatus (at 4.121) Wittgenstein said: "that in language which expresses itself is not something that we can express by means of language." So Rudy Wiebe situates the event of his story carefully in place and time, the evidential argument of history, and then leaves a question mark at the end of his thereby unclosed title.

Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text, wrote: "The avant-garde is never anything but the progressive, emancipated form of past culture." Murray Bail's "The Drover's Wife" tries to free the Australian imagination from the colonialized attempts at freedom in Russell Drysdale's 1945 painting (1945 being the year in which England's erstwhile dominions regarded their military independence as the sign of their cultural independence) and Henry Lawson's 1892 story.

Lawson did not have an artefact as a subtext. He wrote, with dialect and local colour, to represent the typical, the Australian outback ethos. "Her husband is an Australian," he sums up, "and so is she." The story is about the woman's loneliness and her prodigious battles against the ferocious agents of nature. It is in that way similar to many Canadian prairie fictions, though somewhat more extreme in its portrayal of hardships. However, there is nearly mystical relationship between harried mother and harsh land: "As a girl-wife she hated it, but now she would feel strange away from it."

This bush - it may be ugly, but it is ours. Such an attitude is likely to see a piece of early literature or art become a shibboleth, a cultural artefact, a national rather than aesthetic treasure. This is especially true when the subject is treated successively, like Argentina's legend of the gaucho brigand hero Martin Fierro. Drysdale's painting does not illustrate a scene from Lawson's story, but it contains its elements, the flat land, the skeletal trees, the distance of the husband, and a woman just set down, a woman as tall as the picture of her world. She has a delicate head that can dream of what Lawson called "the 'womanly' or sentimental side of nature," but monumental legs and feet that will subdue while resembling the earth beneath her.

She is a monument. When art or writing becomes popular or otherwise institutionalized it becomes authoritative. Murray Bail's short story wants to topple the monument, the one in the Australian heart. His irony will mock the authoritative version of artistic-historical national identity, as Brian Edwards has pointed out in his article, "Alberta and the Bush: the Deconstruction of National Identity in Postmodernist Canadian and Australian Fiction" (Line 6, Fall, 1985). Of Bail's subversion, Edwards says: "Problematizing the field, the uncreating process promotes discourse and initiates new ideas about that which it deconstructs."

The narrator of Bail's story, like the narrator of Wiebe's, is led into deconstruction in his looking at a public picture. But Bail's narrator is presented as a naive and insensitive dullard in Adelaide, who does not even recognize Drysdale's painting as icon, only viewing it as evidence concerning his wife's disappearance into the bush with a drover. His story, two thousand words long, is worth two pictures, one of them ours. Finding the bush a nuisance rather than a symbol of the Australian ethos, he cannot even imagine that art is anything more than reference to objects. (With this lack of difference, of course, he represents a postcolonial citizen who does not have to think in terms of negatives of the British.) Throughout we hear him trying to win sympathy for the wronged individual. Even his proffered diffidence is a stratagem fashioned to that end. He is interested only in the personal, unable even to imagine history or cultural identification. His description of the painted Hazel personalizes the peculiar form of the woman, so that the delicate head on the indelicate body is purely referential rather than a statement about discord between mental aspiration and environmental fate.

Symbolic and heroic survival in Lawsons' story is diminished, too. His story is centred on the wife's suspenseful war against a lethal snake. When the wife in Bail's story dispenses with a snake and chucks it into the incinerator, the narrator passes it off as a minor and slightly disgusting episode that makes her less attractive in his eyes.

But of course it would be to attend to the narrator's view rather than to Bail's, were we to care at all about the abandoned marriage. What matters is not the narrator's relationship with Hazel, but rather his relationship with "The Drover's Wife." His argument is simply put: that's not the drover's wife - that's my wife. He has never read Lawson's story.

Wiebe's narrator bends over a museum case, trying to focus through the glass on a triangle of bone. Bail's narrator takes magnifying glass to Drysdale's painting and naively stumbles, for us, upon the fact that on close examination, art is not representation but record of creation. Of the "drover" he says: "Magnified, he is nothing but brush strokes. A real mystery man." Unable to pursue that point, he imagines Hazel posing for the painter, totally denying art as cultural statement. If he does not even know that the painting is famous, he cannot bow to its authority. Surely Hazel was justified in leaving this dullard and answering the call of the Australian wild. But is it then dull to have no sense of culture, to be a literalist and a personalist?

Bail's attitude toward his narrator's naivete is as much plural as is Wiebe's in regard to his narrator's naivete. Hazel's husband is no dupe of Australiana, but he is no hero of deconstruction, either, because he is so fecklessly egotistical. There is a nice confusion of attitudes (ours) in this paragraph.

To return to the picture. Drysdale has left out the flies. No doubt he didn't want Hazel waving her hand, or them crawling over her face. Nevertheless, this is a serious omission. It is altering the truth for the sake of a pretty picture, of "composition." I've been up around there - and there are hundreds of flies. Not necessarily germ carriers, "bush flies" I think these are called; and they drive you mad. Hazel of course accepted everything without a song and dance. She didn't mind the heat, or the flies.

Henry Lawson, too, left out the flies. Outback survivors can be seen as legends, as agents of the national character, in a struggle against floods, snakes, fires and loneliness. Harassed by flies, they might not be seen as much different from mute cows flicking their tails in the heat. Replacing nature's monsters with flies is the kind of deconstruction that Derrida calls "a positively displacing, transgressive, deconstruction" (Positions, U. of Chicago, 1981, 66). The not-unreasonable comments on flies, placed next to the narrator's seemingly philistine remarks about painting, suggest that while we might not want to ally ourselves with such a dullard, we might be glad that he is around to make one question the value of conclusions made about national identity in air-conditioned coastal offices.

Hazel, having disappeared into the bush, "as if she were part of it," might well be lost. But look at the poor narrator at the end of the story, at what his chance introduction to the painting has done to him: "it is Hazel and the rotten landscape that dominate everything." We see that national culture is not just an expression of an ethos. It is the creator of one. It can problematize a previously unconscious individualism. It can start to dominate an inchoately unsatisfied personality.

The hope of a writer such as Murray Bail, or Rudy Wiebe, is that in an interrogation of earlier attempts to give us a particular national history, we will learn to be more perceptive than their narrators, that we will understand the voice we hear, that we will learn our power to make history rather than accept it; not to "alter truth for the sake of a pretty picture," but to understand that "the problem is to make the story."


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