In Landscapes of Silence, two narrative streams flow over the Arctic topography that Hugh Brody returns to again and again. The first is a story he has avoided telling all his life, about his upbringing in a Jewish household in Sheffield, England. The second is the story of Qallunaat’s impact on Inuit. Putting these narratives into conversation — making connections between them — was something Brody long resisted. It was only through the act of writing this book that he came to acknowledge and accept that they belong together.
Brody, the British anthropologist and former holder of a Canada Research Chair at the University of the Fraser Valley, is meticulous and precise about the naming of names. Not only does he name complete families he first encountered in the Arctic decades ago, he explains the significance of names in traditional Inuit culture. “Older Inuit were always uneasy about using someone’s real name,” Brody writes. “At birth everyone was given a name that came from a much loved relative, often someone who had died not long before the birth of the person being given the name.” In other words, names “reached back into the timeless past. To give a name was to bring the ancestor back to the world, as a form of reincarnation.”
In the early 1970s, having taught Brody Inuktitut and the ways of the land around Pond Inlet for a year or so, Simon Anaviapik began calling his student Irninguaq, or adoptive son. It was a way of establishing kinship, Brody explains. He was to become a conduit for revealing facts and truths about Inuit to Qallunaat: “If the white people who dominated the world had the facts, knew more of what Anaviapik knew, and were given the truth, then many great injustices would be impossible.”
Brody originally went to the Arctic to get as far away as possible from a somewhat impossible family life. In recounting that history, he is again punctilious in the naming of names: his Orthodox father, Hyman Pinchas Brody; his maternal grandmother, Ernestine Schäfer. Brody’s own first name is that of his maternal grandfather. One day in 1989, Brody sat with his mother and drew an extensive family tree; she easily recalled the names of their relatives and then pointed to each. “She perished,” she would say matter-of-factly. “He perished.”
Brody’s mother died in 2009, almost ninety-one. There is much of her in this book: her beauty, her skill at creating Viennese pastries and Yorkshire pudding, her Meissen china and embroidered linen tablecloth, her rose garden. In the late 1930s, she escaped Vienna with her mother. She married a doctor and bore children in England, while many of her relatives perished in Europe. Her enterprise as a wife, as a daughter, and, especially, as a mother was one of silence: “Her task was to ensure that her escape was complete.” Her behaviour was confusing, toxic, and sometimes violent. Brody recalls “her hands crashing into my face.” Long after childhood, he felt “a horror of being touched by her, even of her standing near me.” Nowhere, not once, does Brody say his mother’s name.
“Silence in the home can leave a void in the child,” Brody writes. “Unspoken grief, feelings of helplessness, anger — all these make sounds that the child takes in and holds and even begins to need.” The silence around him as a boy resonated with a general silence about the Holocaust — never spoken of, never taught. Only Brody’s oma would whisper of the horrors, mentioning victims, showing him blue numbers on the arm of a survivor friend. When it came to being Jewish, she told him, “You could never escape.” Brody found solace in collecting bird eggs, in fishing and hunting, and later in exploring his Jewishness at a socialist kibbutz. After the 1967 war, he tried to raise questions about Israel’s politics. “Don’t say these things over the telephone,” his mother said. More silence.
Shortly before travelling to Israel in March 1962, Brody, then eighteen, went to his attic room, loaded his shotgun, sat on his bed, held the barrel to his forehead, and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired. Brody never again attempted suicide. For many decades, he neither spoke nor thought of that dark evening.
Then in 2002, Brody returned to the Arctic after a twenty-year absence. He was given an envelope containing a five-page list: young people who had recently died by suicide. “I was led into the awful details,” he writes. “Hangings took place in the home.” He recognized many surnames among the dead, and, though he tried, he could not yet write about them.
With Landscapes of Silence, Brody is finally able to contextualize those suicides. He does so, in part, by drawing on three stories from the Belcher Islands, “one of the very last places in the Arctic to be discovered by Europeans.” The first is about the filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who spent time there in 1910, building a house and fathering a son. The second is about a disturbing period of starvation and messianic shamanism in the ’40s, resulting in murders and banishments and ensnaring the younger Flaherty. The third is about Brody’s own mostly pleasurable experience of living in Sanikiluaq in the ’70s: “For all that I have written about my work with and for Inuit, I have written very little about Sanikiluaq.” But now he writes, somewhat uncomfortably, about playing chess with a teacher named Ed Horne.
Shortly after Brody left Sanikiluaq, two boys trashed Horne’s house. One of them then drove out onto the ice of Hudson’s Bay and was never seen again. In 1985, Horne’s long history of molesting children came to light. By 2015, more than 150 victims had been named. Brody never really liked Horne, but he never once suspected pedophilia. Nor did Inuit, who shared countless other stories of Qallunaaq maltreatment, ever discuss Horne’s abuses with Brody. A century of “development” and “progress” imposed shame and a blanket of silence. This attitude, in turn, nurtured hopelessness among the young.
Now eighty — and after decades of close association with Inuit — Brody can draw the line between the grief and silence of those families and his own: “a tangle of connections between where I came from and where I went to.” By giving birth, his mother defied evil. Through brittle silence, she tried to protect her sons. Brody finds new hope in resisting such silence, in Inuit reclaiming land and rights, in the telling of untellable stories. He is a superb teller of those stories.