The North and the Great Expanse: Representations of the North and Narrative Forms in French-Canadian Literature

Article excerpt

Maybe I had entered, through the coincidence of events and landscapes, a contrived, pictorial place of pure memory, which analysis could not reach or frequentation exhaust.1

In Western history, the North is a mythological space shaped by centuries of imaginary figures from Greek writings, Biblical texts, Nordic sagas and accounts by the great explorers. In the twentieth century, the North is portrayed as an elusive land of conquest that recedes when approached. These representations of the North are not mere descriptions of a geographic place; rather they constitute a fascinating multicultural discourse uniquely nurtured by various layers of ancient cultures, carried on by European cultures, fuelled by Nordic cultures and brought into play by indigenous cultures. Established as a discursive system and not as a description,2 the North unfolds in its historical depth and, when analysed in literary works, in its narrative function.

In Quebec literature, the North has been an element used to differentiate French-Canadian from French literature, from Louis Fréchette's Les Fleurs boréales to contemporary fiction like Lise Tremblay's novels about Saguenay. One can also find a fundamental difference between representations of the North by writers born in Quebec and writers from Europe. Among those, three novelists born in France have been particularly influential to our knowledge of the North at the beginning of the twentieth century and to the creation of a cultural idea of North in Quebec literature: Maurice Constantin-Weyer, who has written a number of works set on the north coast; Marie Le Franc, who has provided a woman's point-of-view representation of the Quebec North; and Louis-Frédéric Rouquette, who has created some ten works on the far North of Canada and Iceland. The North represented by these authors differs both in the ways they create it and in the narrative definitions they give it. The North can be seen in their work as a discursive system applied by convention to a particular territory, but established more through narrative modes and schemes, figures and intertextual references than through allusion to a geographical referent. Their discourse transcends different cultural and textual forms and is based on different historical layers associated with distinct perspectives of representations.

Even if we can find many literary and cultural works that deal with the representation of the North and winter, it was not until recently that Quebec and Canada began to consider themselves northern cultures, in their own separate ways. For English-speaking Canada, the North has become symbolic, as the need to differentiate Canadian culture from American appeared more pressing and distinctions based on Quebec culture and bilingualism seemed more difficult to justify because of obvious cultural and political rifts. It is paradoxical to see the Canadian identity today defined in representations like the Inukshuk, an Inuit figure symbolising the presence of man in the territory - which is sold in Toronto to foreign tourists - because it represents, as analysts and philosophers are quick to point out, a form of modern colonialism. In an essay on this topic, Esthétique du pôle nord, Michel Onfray writes that the Canadian flag in the Arctic remains an emblem of colonisation, and that the symbolism of the maple leaf is inappropriate and out of place in a landscape where the closest maple tree grows 3,000 kilometres south.3 Sherrill E. Grace indicates in her recent work, Canada and the Idea of North,4 that while the North in Canada is more an idea than an experience, it is still part of the Canadian identity - an idea also expressed by novelist Margaret Atwood when she wrote: 'I never have gone to James Bay; I never go to it; I never shall. But somehow, I'd feel lonely without it'.5 For Quebec, considerations of the North are bound up with the need not so much to differentiate itself from other cultures, but to define a new unifying symbol of identity acceptable to the Inuit, First Nations, French-speaking majority and immigrants,6 who see the cold, snow and winter as symbols of a collective challenge and experience. …