In Fond Remembrance of Me: A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic
In 1977, before he began writing the magical Nova Scotia-set novels for which he is known, Howard Norman went to Churchill, Manitoba, on assignment for a museum to record and translate fairy tales from an Inuit elder named Mark Nuqac. There, the 28-year-old American met and befriended Helen Tanizaki, an English-Japanese linguist on a parallel assignment from a Japanese publisher. Tanizaki was in the final stages of terminal cancer when Norman met her, and his desire to memorialize their brief and ďuncommon friendshipĒ is the driving force behind this slim volume.
Interspersed throughout the memoir are Normanís translations of Nuqacís tales, all of them variations on the biblical Noah story. The stories share the same narrative structure: Local Inuits, whoíve never before encountered Europeans, discover a large wooden boat trapped in the Arctic ice. In exchange for a few planks of wood and a meal of the strange and fantastic animals aboard the ark, the locals offer Noah and his family shelter through the winter. Noah rudely rebuffs their offer, often throwing a temper tantrum, after which he either dies, goes mad, or is abandoned by his wife and children, sometimes all three.
The thematic parallels between the dual strands of Normanís memoir are made clear by their intertwining: The memoirist is life preserver of the dead and dying, whether they are the artifacts of an indigenous culture or the spirit of a departed friend. The author is also figured as the white interloper upon whom revenge is taken in the fairy tales, and his desire to be the opposite of the vulgar Noah-figure is clearly felt in every page. Normanís writing is respectful and circumspect, fighting any temptation to sentimentalize the dying woman or patronize the aboriginal culture in which he is a tolerated guest.
Fans of Normanís novels may be tantalized by the few biographical clues that give insight into his recurring fictional themes: the younger man/older woman relationship, the fascinations with birds. But in his determination to be an unsentimental anatomist of memory, the author refuses to disclose the emotional motives that are surely behind such a personal project. The prose is as icy and detached as the Arctic wilderness it so beautifully describes. What are young Normanís true feelings for Helen Tanizaki? Why is he unable to reveal them to her, to us? The writer never lets his reader in, and so leaves us out in the cold.