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Untying the Knot

A new book untangles historical confusion and contemporary anxieties about marriage

Thou Art Anxious

Decisions, decisions

Keep in Touch

Why digital connections can’t sustain health, happiness or politics

Two Windows on the Arctic

Travels in Greenland and Nunavut.

Jerry White

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland

Gretel Ehrlich


377 pages, hardcover

Le Mal du Nord

Pierre Perrault

Vents d’Ouest

380 pages, softcover

Although it has long been presented as a kind of terra nullius, the Arctic is one of the birthplaces of what we now call transnationalism. Two recent books about that sprawling, unmanageable region bring together very different parts of outsiders’ experiences of the Arctic, but that transnational reality crops up every once in a while, and in surprising places. Pierre Perrault’s rightly celebrated travelogue Le Mal du Nord is alternately melancholy and awestruck, and it is a typically lucid, eloquent and rambling meditation on the meaning of landscape and navigation. A Québécois essayist, filmmaker and poet who has remained largely unknown outside his province, Perrault is recognized within Quebec for a body of work that explores the culture and history of his home and people. But what is striking about Le Mal du Nord is that Perrault only occasionally seems aware of how the Arctic illuminates some of the other problems that have preoccupied him throughout his career: cultural negotiation, language variance and the difficulty of emerging into a version of modernity that is not necessarily synonymous with assimilation. These kinds of concerns are present, however, in Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland. Like Le Mal du Nord, it is a first-person record of wanderings through the Arctic and, like Le Mal du Nord, it is preoccupied with a landscape for which words seem inadequate, more so than with most places.

Unlike Perrault, however, Ehrlich spent most of her time interacting with people who have made their lives in the region and, as a result, she records an experience that seems scarcely comparable to his. At first, I wanted to ascribe this incomparability to the difference in the regions visited; Ehrlich went to Greenland, whereas Perrault headed up the Saint Lawrence, around Labrador up to Nanisivik, in what is now Nunavut (he made the trip in 1991). But while I would not want to iron out the differences between these regions altogether, I do think that they are less important than the spirit that each writer brings to his or her project of exploration. For all his sense of wonder, Perrault writes as a veteran and is not as open to new experiences, or new contradictions, as he was in his earliest, most important films, such as Pour la suite du monde (1963) or Un pays sans bon sens! (1971). It is Ehrlich who has inherited that sense of optimism and gentle romanticism that drove Perrault in his younger days, and who also, like a younger Perrault, evinces sensitivity to métissage (a background of mixed aboriginal and European origins), a spirit that defines so much of life in the Arctic—and here the experience of Greenland is different from what we can see in the Canadian Arctic. Perrault became, in 1999, the first person to win the Governor General’s literary award posthumously (although Le Mal du Nord was actually published while he was alive). No doubt that award was well deserved, but it seems appropriate more for the enormous impact that Perrault’s oeuvre has had on Quebec culture over the last four decades. It is Ehrlich’s book that feels more dynamic, more contemporary.

Perrault’s journey from Quebec City to Nanisivik, which unfolded aboard the ice-breaker Pierre Radisson, was occasioned by a radio series he was commissioned to do by Radio Canada in 1991. The series was broadcast in 13 parts, and also formed the basis for his films Cornouailles (released in English as Icewarrior, 1996) and L’Oumigmag ou l’Objectif documentaire (1993), both produced by the National Film Board. These films do not—I say this as a passionate advocate of Perrault’s documentaries—represent his best work. They are as painterly as any of his films set on l’Île-aux-Coudres or in Abitibi, such as Les voitures d’eau (1968) and Un royaume vous attend (1975), but their main characters are musk oxen. Perrault’s work has always explored themes of cultural roots and the human connection to the land, the search for collective identity and questions of the origin of peoples. To see these films is to miss a central part of Perrault’s characteristic humanism: human beings. I understand that this work is all about our attempts and inability to understand the world around us, but they nonetheless miss the push and pull of human relations that give his films their true passion. As Perrault arrives in Nanisivik and Le Mal du Nord closes out, he explains his use of the term oumigmag, writing that “cet été, je resterai dans ce pays chaud qui alanguissent et je songerai à ce Nord énigmatique et à la belle bête laineuse que les Esquimaux nomment oumigmag mais que j’ai baptisée oumigmatique parce qu’elle m’intrigue et ne répond pas à mes questions [“I will spend this summer languishing in this hot country and think about the enigmatic North and the beautiful woolly beast the Eskimos call oumigmag, and that I have christened oumigmatique, because I find it intriguing and because it does not respond to my queries.”]. I understand Perrault’s admiration for the enigmatic nature of this hairy beast, but I am surprised that he conceives of it in terms of a lack of response. Indeed, he seems to use the term “bête laineuse” as a pun on his 1982 film La Bête lumineuse [The Luminous Beast]; the real subject of that film, though, was not the landscape or even the bête that his subjects are hunting, but the way that middle-class Québécois men interact with one another and, importantly, with their Métis guide. What now attracts Perrault’s fascination is silence, not the constant talking and back-and-forth that characterized his cinéma de la parole. I sense defeat, or at least resignation to a simpler version of the picturesque.

I also sense in Le Mal du Nord a withdrawal from cultural politics. He writes at one point that “il n’est pas indifférent que les Inuits aient imposé récemment leurs nominations: une baie Frobisher est devenue Iqaluit, un fort Chimo, Kuujjuaq. Il n’est pas indifférent qu’une rue Dorchester devienne un boulevard René-Lévesque” [“it is no small matter that the Inuit have recently imposed names of their own, thus Frobisher Bay became Iqaluit, Fort Chimo, Kuujjuaq. It is no small matter that Dorchester Street became René-Lévesque Boulevard.”]. For a moment I hear the radical, internationalist Perrault, alert to the kinship between Quebec’s self-determination and that of the Inuit. But a sense of detachment from the indigenous people of the Arctic accounts for more of this voyage than these blips of solidarity. Elsewhere he writes that “l’Indien n’arrive pas à m’expliquer parce que je n’arrive pas à le comprendre … Le langage n’est-il pas le début de la solidarité? Mais qui comprend le langage de l’autre?” [“the aboriginal cannot quite explain it to me because I cannot quite understand him … Language, is it not the beginning of solidarity? But who understands the language of the other?”]. It is a rhetorical question, and one that does not speak to much in the way of cross-cultural understanding.

It is passages like those that make me recall, with tremendous fondness, Gretel Ehrlich’s ambition to engage fully with the culture that she finds in Greenland. Contrast that last bit from Perrault with the following, from This Cold Heaven:

In the morning Birthe, Hans’s wife, laid out a Danish-style breakfast of rye bread, cheese, and ham. Buxom and wild-eyed, her laughter was infectious. Her long black hair floated over her shoulderswhenshewalked.Wesatdrinking coffee, stumbling through a mishmash of Greenlandic [a variant of Inuktitut] and English. I practiced the Inuktitun dialect and she corrected my pronunciation. In this tiny hotel I was the only guest.

Martinique’s Édouard Glissant has written famously that “le monde se créolise” [“the world is becoming Creole”]. Here, as far from Martinique as can possibly be imagined, is a striking example of that phenomenon. Indeed, a Faroe Islander’s family seems particularly to embody the spirit of multiculturalism that comes to be so central to Ehrlich’s experience of Greenland. “Olejorgen spoke to their daughter Pipaluk in Greenlandic, Ann used Faroese and Danish, and Pipaluk replied in a baffling mixture of the three languages,” Ehrlich recalls. A little later: “Ludwig, Olejorgen’s ten-year-old son from Denmark, looked Greenlandic, though when he arrived from Copenhagen three years earlier he had spoken only Danish. Smart and handsome, he was now fluent in Danish, Greenlandic, English, and Spanish, effortlessly picking up any language spoken in his presence. I asked him where he wanted to live when he grew up. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘California’.” Greenland is, after all, widely known for being a particularly interesting example of the colonial experience. Although the place is not without its ethnic tensions, intermarriage between the Danes and the Inuit has been widespread enough that the boundaries between the two groups have blurred. My Lonely Planet guide suggests that travellers avoid terms such as “Inuit” and “Dane” in favour of “Greenlander”; Ehrlich seems to have taken this little tip to heart. Elsewhere, admittedly, she recalls how: “‘Up North,’ Hans told me, ‘it is more traditional. The women often go out for long periods of time with the men and in the summer they still hunt in kayaks with harpoons. But down here, we have been colonized by the Danes too long. The old ways get mixed up with the new much faster in west Greenland’.” And yet “we have been colonized” seems to refer to an argument more complex than a “settler versus indigenes” binary, since this brief on colonialism and modernity is coming from a guy named Hans (who is married to a woman named Arnnannaguaq).

In apparent contradiction to her spirit of Arctic cosmopolitanism, Ehrlich is quite suspicious of the intrusion of technology into the high north. “Traditional hunting was key,” she writes, describing the practice of sharing meat in a community. “If dogs were traded in for snowmobiles, as they had been in Canada, dependencies shifted from oneself to paper money and the industries that produced machines and petroleum. ‘You can’t get a can of gas with a harpoon,’ Niels said.” I realize that this kind of talk could be easily dismissed as the romanticism available only to outsiders (Ehrlich is an American who lives in California and Wyoming). But too often internationalism and multilingualism are seen as inseparable from technological modernity; if we want to be good cosmopolitans, then tradition just has to give way. The Arctic as Ehrlich finds it, though, offers a sharp rebuke to this kind of simplicity: Greenland is an example of a culture that is open to outsiders, heterogeneous and intact.

Indeed, to be fair to Perrault, there are moments in Le Mal du Nord when he seems to be looking for a similarly complex version of traditional culture. We see this search partially in his semi-mystical take on navigation. While he writes eloquently on map-making as a form of écriture, he writes elsewhere that “il y a de la magie, de la presque sorcellerie, dans la navigation sans carte ni instrument. C’est un mémoire, une langue paternelle. Une oralité. Une mémoire” [“there is magic, almost witchcraft, in sailing with neither map nor instrument. It is a recollection, a paternal language. Orality. Memory.”]. This sounds very much like Ehrlich’s take on Inuit navigation: “The shape of each island, inlet, and fjord is engraved on their minds, they can draw them in the dirt or the snow, scratching a safe route through open water on the palms of other hunter’s hands, or outlining the coastline with fingers in the air. ‘This is an Inuit weather station,’ Jens said, pointing to his head. ‘And this, the map,’ holding his hand out.” And this search for intact culture, for tradition that it still in use, is most plain early in Le Mal du Nord, when Perrault writes that through this voyage up and then far beyond the Saint Lawrence, “je cherche un peu partout au Québec un Québec que j’aimais. Un Québec plus secret. Moins ostensible. Plus populaire” [“I search almost everywhere in Quebec for the Quebec I loved. A more secret Quebec. Less conspicuous. More popular.”] These are the elements of the Arctic culture that Ehrlich finds, and I do think that passages like this one in Perrault point to his genuine interest in the interplay of tradition and modernity. But passages like this one are not all that common in Le Mal du Nord; the implications of Perrault’s searching for a better, more vibrant Québec in a voyage to the Arctic seem to me sadly unexamined.

Of course, Le Mal du Nord is not only about cultural matters; perhaps the closest point of contact between Perrault and Ehrlich is the way that they both describe the landscape. Recounting the life of landscape painter René Richard by way of describing the title of the book, Perrault writes that:

Et dans le quiétude de Baie-Saint-Paul, il avait ce qu’il nomme Le mal du Nord. Et à vrai dire il le transmettait ce mal étrange. Et j’en souffre toujours. Et [ma femme] Yolande tout autant. Quand on regarde ses grands tableaux et plus encore peutêtre ses crayonnages, ses montagnes à peine esquissées, ses arbres torturés, ses chiens pitoyables, le silence évident, on envie d’y pénétrer. [And in peaceful Saint Paul Bay, there was what he calls Le mal du Nord (the sickness of the North). In fact, he transmitted that strange sickness. I still suffer from it. And (my wife) Yolande suffers just as much. When you look at his large paintings, and maybe more so at his sketches, his barely outlined mountains, his tortured trees, his pitiful dogs, the palpable silence, you want to enter them.]

Ehrlich has a similarly melancholy, disorienting vision of the landscape, writing at one point:

It begins and ends with ice. What looks like open water is ice cleared of snow, or else ice blink caused by the shadow of a cloud making frozen water look blue, or sky’s reflection of open water turning clouds dark. Sun shone down like a flashlight illuminating a path through pressure ice, a way that had been cleared. Up on the ice cap, the innerssuit (beach spirits) and the inorsuit (glacier spirits) cavorted, coming down to play with our minds. The glacier groaned, its castellated face splintered and calved out thousands of icebergs; the chunk of glacier ice we brought into the tent to melt for tea water exploded.

This sense of dread, of foreboding, shared by both Perrault and Ehrlich, is what keeps their books from completely careening off into the realm of the touristic. The territory they seek to evoke is dangerous, sometimes unpleasant and completely, unrelentingly foreign. Their descriptions that pay homage to the grandeur of the landscape tend to follow this up with explanations of how tough the landscape is on their senses or on their bodies. Both Perrault and Ehrlich seem to spend a fair bit of their journey if not exactly sick then certainly ill at ease, somehow unwell. This is distinct from a “isn’t the landscape powerful and scary” kind of romanticism; for both these authors, the Arctic is unfriendly.

They also both structure their narratives on excerpts from and descriptions of the writings of earlier explorers: for Perrault it is Jacques Cartier; for Ehrlich it is Knud Rasmussen (who explored Greenland in the early 20th century). Perrault has long internalized Cartier’s poetic vision of exploration, but it is Ehrlich who more closely imitates her mentor. She recalls that on her first flight to Greenland, she met her friends Ann and Olejorgen:

When they asked what a lone American was doing on the plane, I held up a thick volume by Knud Rasmussen, one of ten compendiums of ethnographic notes from one of his expeditions. Half Inuit, half Danish, Rasmussen had made a three-and-a-half year epic journey by dogsled in an effort to trace the Eskimos’ original migration route from Siberia and Greenland. On the way, he recorded their material and cultural history.

Perrault, on the other hand, invokes Cartier’s caution against moving too fast, writing that:

Nous avons en quelque sorte suivi le conseil de Cartier qui, passant dans les environs des îles de la Madeleine, nous donne la plus belle définition du voyage:

… et pour ce que voullions
abvoir plus emple congonoissance desdits parroiges
mismes les voiles bas et en travers … À vrai dire, voyager, c’est arrêter.

[We have in a certain way followed the advice of Cartier who, passing by the surroundings of the Madeleine Islands, gave us the most beautiful definition of the voyage:

…and those of us who wanted to have a better knowledge
of the said regions
set sails low and abeam…

In truth, to travel is to stop.]

I can certainly see how Ehrlich has been inspired by someone like Rasmussen, a Métis of sorts, passionately committed both to handling a brutal geography and a complex, shifting culture. But Perrault seems not to have followed the maxim of his sage very closely. The key to the problem comes, interestingly, as the Pierre Radisson approaches Greenland. At that point, Perrault laments that “le bateau n’est-il pas une sorte de prison qui nous chemine au large du désir? Haut lieu de frustrations?” [“is the ship not a kind of prison that leads us to the open sea of desire? The highest point of frustration?”]. Clearly that is exactly what the boat, moving slowly north without landing, has become. And it is a little sad to see one of this continent’s great visionaries stymied by the very means of transport that has meant so much to his artistic practice, the watercraft. In the final analysis, though, only Ehrlich has found the way out of this quandary: Arrêtez, arrêtez.

Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University.