Raised in Niverville, in a devoutly Mennonite household, the son of a Mennonite pastor, David Bergen still calls Manitoba home. In his fiction, he raises fundamental questions about religious belief and prevailing doubt in the modern world. Honoured and celebrated with many awards, he is one of Canada’s foremost writers.
Bergen published his first novel, A Year of Lesser, in 1996. Occurring in the four seasons of one year, it watches the machinations of an apparently unspiritual man, an alcoholic and a philanderer, as he copes with the death of his wife and the pregnancy of his lover in the town of Lesser (a thinly disguised Niverville). Eighteen years later, with his eighth novel, Leaving Tomorrow, Bergen published a classic Bildungsroman, without his usual autobiographical connections. Brought up in the fictional town of Tomorrow, Alberta, the first-person narrator, a sensitive individual who lives in the realm of words and writing, reveals his dreams as well as his failures. Bergen’s most recent novel, Stranger, chronicles a young Guatemalan woman’s affair with a married physician and her subsequent pregnancy; the wealthy doctor’s wife steals the newborn girl and returns to the United States. As it follows the mother’s relentless quest to locate her daughter, the novel sees her rising to heroic heights amid the shocking divisions between the rich and the impoverished.
Wherever his settings may be, Bergen captures characters in trying situations, where they reveal their strengths and their weaknesses. Reflecting his Mennonite upbringing, he often studies wayward people who deal with personal loss and their individual routes to possible redemption. His novels show people’s desires and motivations on their path to a reasonable existence and — if possible — personal salvation.
Bookending his nine novels are two collections of short fiction, where he explores these same themes. Sitting Opposite My Brother, from 1993, examines authentic individuals dealing intimately with familial dislocations and heartaches. Now with Here the Dark, Bergen offers seven short stories and a titular novella. The book is a literary tour de force — jumping from Winnipeg to the Caribbean to Vietnam — that further explores notions of family, religion, and the written word.
The first six stories of Here the Dark, all of them previously published elsewhere, are character-centred, often revealing more about those characters than the characters suspect about themselves. In “April in Snow Lake,” the opening story, the nineteen-year-old male narrator, devoutly religious, is spending his summer trying to become a writer. “She thought that my religious background, my faith in God, how I saw the world, would be a detriment to my writing,” he tells us in the opening pages. On Sundays, his one day off, he organizes a day camp for youth: “I had asked Jesus into my heart. Everyone needs to do that, I said.” As the story jumps between past and present, we find out that the narrator eventually marries a girlfriend who had spent a year abroad. “We are still together and she continues to read early drafts of my stories, offering advice, confirming at some point that I have moved beyond sentimentality into clarity.” Likewise, the story moves from the sentimentality of his nineteen-year-old self to the later clarity of his married state.
In “Saved,” a lieutenant is questioning a fifteen-year-old Vietnamese boy about the murder of a nineteen-year-old American girl, who had tried to save the lad: “Her face tightened and her voice lowered and she asked him if he knew Jesus.” The boy declared, “Jesus, I am a sinner but I want you to take away my sin and I want you to make me whole. I want to be loved. I want to be good. Please, Jesus.” Then he murdered her. What good does the American’s proselytizing accomplish?
There are also stories about human relationships that have a similar leaning toward and away from religion. “Never Too Late” features a complicated closeness between a rancher and a disabled woman. He scolds her in a moment of intimacy: “I’m a Christian as well.” In “Leo Fell,” an estranged husband cavorts with a waitress. “It’s like you reached down your hand and guided Leo my way,” she prays before making love. “Amazing. I want to say thanks for sex, too, for the joy of horniness, for how I feel right now. Wow. Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
In these short pieces, Bergen displays a remarkable sensitivity to his characters and their complex feelings. Each person is fully conceived through deft strokes, so that each is distinctly and fully drawn. Many stories, however, have an incomplete ending. Does the young murderer of “Saved” get off scot-free or not? What happens to the rancher and the disabled woman? As in much of Alice Munro’s fiction, Bergen asks us to contemplate the final outcome, which often arrives only after the story ends.
The collection concludes with two pieces that appear for the first time, and it is here that a character-centred book becomes a character-biography. “Man Lost” follows the tale of Quinn from the age of six to his early thirties, spent as a fisherman in the Caribbean. Once again prayer plays a large role. His wife “went to church three times a week, and she attended prayer meeting with the women on Wednesdays and she made cakes for the children with AIDS at the local hospice.” After being stranded at sea, and then stranded in federal prison, Quinn, too, “had learned to pray.” The narrator tells us, “Where it is darkest there is only hope, and that hope was achieved through talking to a god that he needed during his time in prison. This was not sentimentalism or a deathbed conversion.” We are left to wonder, What does prayer actually accomplish for its practitioners?
A novella, “Here the Dark,” occupies nearly half the book. It recounts the astonishing story of Lily, a young Mennonite girl, from the age of thirteen, when “she gave her life to Jesus,” to her fatal rejection of her religious upbringing. A questioning individual, she is constantly rebuffed: “It was dangerous to question and it was dangerous to doubt, for questioning and doubt were forms of sin and sin could only lead to hell.” Through her childless marriage, through her inability to go to church, through her relationship with her husband’s brother, she finds herself excluded from her relationship, from her church brethren, and from all that many believe is fine and sensible. The surprise in the final pages leaves the reader, once more, imagining what will happen after the story ends.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Morley Callaghan introduced contemporary urban settings into his short stories. In the ’30s and ’40s, Sinclair Ross brought the contemporary drought and depression of the prairies to his. Bergen unites salient features of these two writers as he presents the conflicts and personal agonies of contemporary human beings trapped in their makeshift worlds. They often long to escape. Sometimes they do. At other times, they settle into their entrapment. “At that time in my life, at that moment,” the narrator of Bergen’s “April in Snow Lake” confesses, “I could make no sense of how to choose.”