‘Archie and the North Wind’ could only have been written by a Gael from north-western Scotland. It could probably only have been written by a Uibhisteach. It has inevitably been written by Angus Peter Campbell.
People who are illiterate in Gaelic will not be familiar with most of Angus Peter’s published work. As well as writing a weekly column in this newspaper, this alumnus of Garynamonie School has written collections of verse, children’s literature and three acclaimed novels in his native language.
He does not often venture into English. There are sound ideological reasons for that stand: Angus Peter is not alone in believing that good modern Gaelic literature is essential for the wellbeing of the language (although he is almost alone, among contemporary literate Gaels, in devoting so much of his time and output to Gaelic).
He does not write in Gaelic for parochial reasons. Quite the opposite. Angus Peter Campbell is a man of the modern world. His literary heroes are from Italy, Colombia, England, Russia, Argentina and elsewhere.
His stated intention in such novels as ‘An Oidhche Mus Do Sheol Sinn’ was to help Gaelic to join the modern literary mainstream, not to moulder in splendid isolation. His writing — in Gaelic and English — is studded with references to iPods, the Rolling Stones and the Conservative-LibDem coalition, as well as his fine young family’s performances at the National Mod.
A writer with such influences, who is also bilingual, should not be confined to just one of his two languages. Angus Peter Campbell has been deeply influenced by the Latin school of magic realism. (This incidentally has got him into trouble with some critics who presumed that his homages to Gabriel Garcia Marquez indicated a deliberate parallel between his own work and the author of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. Critics in any language can be unkind.)
His first book-length work of English prose, ‘Invisible Islands’, was a clear and honest tip of the hat to Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’. His second, the newly-published ‘Archie and the North Wind’, is vastly more complex, original and successful.
With Angus Peter you have to look for the sources, because the sources are so intriguing.‘Archie and the North Wind’ is a novella, a parable and a folk tale.
Following a disastrous storm on his Hebridean island, Archie sets forth to discover the source of the north wind.
Angus Peter makes no attempt to disguise the roots of this first part of the fable. It is the folklore of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd, which found its deepest, strongest and most articulate expression in his native Uist.
Being Angus Peter Campbell, he has his protagonist realise that folk tales, such as the one that leads Archie to search for the hole in the ground at the Arctic pole from which the north wind issues, are not unique to north-western Scotland. They are echoed all over the world, wherever people follow the human urge to tell and hear stories.
But the core of‘Archie and the North Wind’ is firmly in the tales collected by a dozen folklorists and told by Highlanders. Just when you begin to suspect that Angus Peter has set himself a straightforward task: to reinvent the Gaelic folktale for the 21st century; he segues into another dimension. If ‘Invisible Islands’ owed itself partly to Calvino, ‘Archie and the North Wind’ offers a stage bow to Voltaire. Archie in his search for the North Wind becomes a modern Candide. This innocent abroad travels east and south before going north, as you must if you journey by public transport from South Uist to the North Pole.
He moves through Skye and Scotland. He discovers London. He hooks up with a young woman who is dumb — allowing his creator a few charming asides on the nature and importance of any spoken language. He moves among the wholly mystifying and entirely fascinating outside world. He rubs his guileless shoulders with a bizarre cast of contemporaries. Archie reaches his destination to discover ... well, to discover that the old stories had, in their way, been right all along.
Like Candide, Archie travels without malice. Like Candide, Archie wants only to do as he would be done by, and to discover the secrets of the world. Like Candide, he arrives at a single essential truth. Like Candide, he retires to his own machair.
‘Archie and the North Wind’ is a fantastic exploration of the Gael in the modern world. It indicates, among much else, that the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino was perfected centuries ago by the ordinary people of South Uist. In some important ways they were modern before modernism, cultivated before culture, alive to the metaphysical power of everyday life before any fancy academic pointed it out to the rest of civilisation.
If having a unique voice and things to say in that voice are qualifications for literary excellence — as they are — then Angus Peter Campbell passes with room to spare.But then, you readers of Gaelic already knew that.