Review - Archie and the North Wind By Bryan Beattie
The Herald (20 September 2010)
An old-fashioned fable travels from the Hebrides to the North Pole.
Angus Peter Campbell’s first novel in English follows Archie on a picaresque journey from his island home to the Arctic to block up the hole the North Wind blows from. A gallery of vivid characters joins him en route from the Hebrides to the North Pole in one of the few books that can convincingly reference both Poolewe and Puerto Rico. Their destiny is a confrontation with an oil company drilling the frozen land and a bunch of international terrorists. This shock provokes one character to tell a story: “Well, what else would he do?”
Traditional stories are recounted throughout this book to complement the central story, which itself has the characteristics of fable. Most of these tales would be at home in the lore of any country, from China to North America, and this reinforces a recurring theme of the novel: how do we create our stories and histories – as individuals, communities and countries. And does it matter if they are authentic?
“Gobhlachan, of course, told the story in Gaelic and it was, of course, a different version of the story, but this is the one Archie remembered, or thought he remembered and told or re-told or embellished a thousand and one times over the years”.
Archie and the North Wind occupies stylistic territory somewhere between Tales of the Western Highlands and the magical realism of Borges and Garcia Marquez (both big influences on the author). There is the salt tang of the islands in the fable-like simplicity of the prose, and a poet’s economy in phrasing, but this is no couthy tale – it is both familiar and utterly contemporary. You are as likely to find a damn Yankee oilman as a dragon – and see if you can tell the difference.
Campbell is a seannachie (bard) and this is a tale told by a storyteller, full of the idiosyncrasy and lateral meandering that entails. The colloquial language is deceptively comfortable but with depth (a homage to TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi almost sneaks past).
Campbell’s story could be considered an environmental fable but that would unfairly simplify his craft. He invents an entirely plausible universe, populated with the almost-familiar, which might even be true. “Wasn’t there any kind of bare story which revealed rather than hid the truth?” he writes.
The author’s work to date has been mainly in Gaelic but, in truth, he is more of an internationalist, and books like this will greatly help the cause of polyglot Scots. Campbell is treading interesting, even new territory in the way he blends and juggles the various elements of his story. The result is hypnotically compelling and feels like the initial flexing of a stylistic muscle that will, hopefully, be exercised and toned in future novels.
Early on, Archie’s mentor scratches out the Gaelic alphabet for him and explains, “Do you know that out of these 18 signs you can make the whole world?” Campbell has shown he can do it with 26 as well.