Sanaaq, the first Inuit novel

I liked Sanaaq from the first paragraph. Getting ready to gather branches for mat-making, she assembles her knife and gloves. “She also filled a small bag with provisions: tea, meat, and blubber, as well as her pipe, matches and chewing tobacco.”

Tobacco, for someone like me (i.e. raised on films of the eighties and nineties), is a signpost of the badass, independent type who cares little for rules or norms. As it happens, this turns out to be true of Sanaaq, a widow who deflects an unwanted suitor thusly: “You smell old! Get out and stay out! I don’t want an old man’s smell rubbing off on me!”


But coming back to that quote later, I wondered whether I wasn’t reading into this story a little. This is not a conventional novel. It’s a series of fictional sketches written in the 1950s and ‘60s by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, who began her writing by elaborating on the word lists requested by a visiting priest intent on documenting the Inuit language. The sketches were eventually translated into French by an anthropologist who made the production of “the first Inuit novel” the focus of his PhD. 

The book tells the story of a small group of people, casually at war with their dogs, getting by in Arctic Quebec in the years and months before the first white men come to stay for good. Death and severe injury are always near at hand. Yelling is preferred to talking. Insults fly. 

The dogs are a major problem, constantly breaking into tents and being driven off with rocks, clubs and sticks. “Pack of no-good mutts” is the preferred term, until the dogs need to be harnessed and put to work. One dog is seriously injured by an angry woman with a stick, too embarrassed at first to own up. “I hurt it, but not on purpose, when I was chasing away the dogs that had invaded my home!” she eventually confesses. Later, and this is only a sampling, “‘Those dirty mutts have broken into the entranceway. Hand me a club!’”

While the dogs are annoying, every other thing is life is simply dangerous. A boy nearly drowns in a pond. A man loses an eye while boiling meat. A small child is dragged behind a dog sled. Someone slips into the frozen sea. Strangely, much of this reads as endearing. 

The yelling I infer from the use of exclamation points at the end of almost all dialog. 

As for the insults, they are simply constant. Collecting sinews from meat (“fresh, and still a little bit alive”) drives one woman to frustration. “‘You’re really stupid, Arnatuinnaq!,’” said Sanaag, insulting her younger sister. ‘What a display of intelligence.’”

There’s something joyfully irreverent in all of this. Something that suggests Nappaaluk is telling the whole story, a truer version than one in which people might, say, experience success or enjoy fine weather. Sanaaq in particular is defiant, independent, determined to go her own way at all times (the story reaches its climax when she refuses to let her child be taken south for medical treatment).

But what kind of story is Nappaaluk actually telling? What, for example, is she revealing about her characters by making them constant bunglers, often to blame for their own bad outcomes? Is this a comedy? Tragedy? 

I have no way of knowing. So I read this in the embarrassing way people share jokes in a new language. Smiling and nodding, never sure if I’m following along or just making an ass of myself, but trying to be polite all the same and learning quite a lot along the way. 

In fact, I wondered if this were a case where the identity of the reader is as important as that of the writer. What do Inuit make of this? Hopefully some will read this book, talk about it, and help us figure out how to understand it. (Many probably have: the Inuktut version was first published in 1983 and shared to schools throughout Nunavik; the French-language version came out in 2002 and was a bestseller in Quebec. The English version only came out in 2014.)

There was one scene that struck me plainly, and is also a pretty good sample of the blunt language to be found in this book, which I admit did frighten me a little, for the way in which it opened up a world I feel ill-equipped to understand, let alone pass judgement on.

“Sanaaq and her family saw a plane arrive once more in the sky, and it seemed to be low on fuel… It looked as if it would land there, as Sanaaq and her family looked on dumbfounded. Inside the plane were two occupants, who were also short of food. Qalingu went closer and said, ‘Autualu! His eyes are wide open with fear, the poor man!’”

Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel
By Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk
University of Manitoba Press 2014
227 pages

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