Review of Archie and the North Wind originally published in Gutter/04 (Spring 2011)
“The old story has it that Archie, tired of the north wind, sought to extinguish it.”
From the start — from that poetically succinct sentence — anyone reading Angus Peter Campbell’s first English-language novel is told that what’s to come is a fable, a story, but that stories and how we tell them now are important. Why? Well, as if to drive the point home, Campbell at one point has his hero Archie and his old mentor Gobhlachan stitting by an old warm forge: “…making nothing but stories which in the end proved more durable than even the iron, which now lies rusting in forgotten fields.” The message is clear: for good or ill, stories last.
Archie’s picaresque journey (which, early on, is denied to be Homeric, or “even Joycean”) might seem naive to ‘sophisticated’ urban eyes, given that he leaves his home on a ‘remote’ Scottish island fully intending to block up the hole at the North Pole through which the North Wind blows. During his journey, however, Archie encounters a suitably diverse range of vividly drawn, enticingly iconographic characters: the beautiful deaf girl Jewel, who teaches him sign language, “to communicate with more than mere words”; the Russian sailor Brawn, who farts cigarrette smoke rings, “dealing with grief through black humour”; and Ted Hah, the Isaiah-quoting oil field chief searching for his “Oil of Gladness” in an Alaskan complex which daily flies in breakfast croissants for its workers from Paris.
No simple slave to ‘realism’, then, Campbell underscores Archie’s progress by the inclusion of several traditional Scots/Gaelic tales which reinforce the author’s main interest: how we all, as individuals, communities and nations, create stories, myths and histories, often with little regard to ‘authenticity’: “Somehow Archie knew that the actual magic was in the words themselves, not in the events. The stories were the iron, to be shaped and moulded.”
Though these stories date back generations, Campbell is well aware of his duty, as a ‘seannachie’ (bard), to show their continued relevence to ourselves today, which is why “…every time he saw a new horror, or a new marvel, (Archie) knew that it was just a modern version of his own old story”.
Archie and the North Wind may be too idiosyncratic and meandering for readers looking for the simple, unthinking ‘realism’ which the colloquial language of the book at first suggests. Yet, almost from the start, this is a world seen through different eyes, where human and animal metaphors are used to describe land, sea and air: “Archie walked down through the winter fields to the edge of the nachair, where the mating was remorseless, the huge Atlantic waves thrashing on to the shore, the beach strewn with the debris of the thrusts.” This is a book closer in spirit to the ‘magical realism’ of Jorge Luis Borges and Garcia Marquez, and yet it delightfully remains both specific and utterly contemporary — a “coalition age” where “ideology (is) nameless”; a world of Gore-Tex, the inter-net (sic), terrorism and the Hadron Collider.
Yes, in this book you’ll read tales of dragons, princesses and magic swords, but you’ll also read of Yankee oilmen, Angelina Jolie and potato peelers, and you’ll perhaps ask yourself what, fundamentally, has changed?
“All was alchemy. Words of course into stories, and stories which bent and altered time and history. He had a tale for every occasion, thought it may just have been the other way round: that, like a modern spin-doctor or ancient houngan, every occasion generated its myth.”
Most of Campbell’s earlier published fiction and poetry have been in Gaelic but this turn to English is no cultural selling out; it is grounded on his reality as a multi-lingual Scot and shows a confidence akin to Archie’s own to show the world from his own unique perspective. An undoubtedly compelling and beautifully-crafted novel.