That most ancient of literary genres, the fable is designed to deliver a hard-hitting moral lesson, an insightful comment on human nature or clever social critique viz. a pithy, metaphorical form. In The Ark in the Garden: Fables for Our Times
, noted anthologist Alberto Manguel has collected six wry, satirical, at times dark, at times poignant, and always slightly disturbing, tales cast in a decisively contemporary ethos by some of Canada's most prominent writers. These latter-day Aesopian bards skillfully, gleefully, wickedly negotiate among the conventions of this popular form, its various narrative incarnations by previous writers, and the contemporary socio-political context of millenium-bound Canada. The result is a collection that, while thin in actual number of pages, tackles a tome-like cross-section of the moral, political, social, and ecological issues that face us all.
Margaret Atwood, "[w]ith profound apologies to Charles Dickens", inverts the Christmas classic in a subversively anagramic literary game of transparent disguise. The Ebenezer Scrooge of "A Christmas Lorac" is a man with a social conscience: he has "always paid his fair share", he buys Canadian, he provides his employees with a dental plan and a big Christmas turkey, he pays into "a Provincial Crutch Fund, and [has] supported Wheel-Trans". His transformation begins with a stroll through the inferno-like landscape of Tory-governed Ontario, where the arts have been ravaged, single mothers must rummage through garbage cans, battered wives are jeered at by MPPs, and beggars line the street. It culminates with visits by the seductive ghosts of Maggie Thatcher and Newt Gingrich. But it is the bleak future vision of Scrooge as the last public-minded individual that finally decodes the anagram, recombines the elements to produce another (the original) text, and reforms Scrooge into his proverbial namesake.
In the title story, "The Ark in the Garden", Timothy Findley, this time with "apologies" (not profound) to James Thurber, presents a twenty centuries' old Noah who awakens one morning to find an ark, not of his own construction this time, in his garden. As he watches the privileged-the millionaires with their Jags and the fatted calves and guinea pigs-board, he learns, only once the rain has already begun to fall, that to survive, one needs to be on the "right list".
Neil Bissoondath's "Come, Said the Eagle" features a farmer's wife who dreams of "a new life" where her own personal needs may be satisfied. Her "leave or don't leave" dilemma is insistently played out between her father-in-law's pragmatic voice of family and home responsibilities, and the internal voice of spiritual and poetic aspirations.
Jane Urquhart tackles the ecological hotbed of clear-cutting practices in old-growth rain forests in "The Axe and the Trees". Into the north where humans and trees have lived in mutually sustaining harmony swaggers a bright, sharp axe from the south. The axe proceeds unscrupulously to cut down all the trees for his boss's purse-until his own handle breaks, that is, and he looks around for a piece of wood with which to replace it.
Rohinton Mistry begins "From Plus-Fours to Minus-Fours" with an invocation of avian metaphors that have ceased to express the philosophy of life in a land where once the "principles of tolerance and goodwill and compassion for its members" were, at least, believed. Problems arise in this kite-flying, mountain-climbing community when an artificially-manipulated shortage of cloth forces the king to institute uniform-fabric-saving measures. The citizens revolt and elect a new king-a golf enthusiast-who publicly preaches waste-cutting measures but puts into practice selective cutbacks (the "downsizing" becoming cuttingly literal when it comes to the limbs of all but the golfers).
Finally, in "The Banana Wars", Yves Beauchemin describes the invasion, colonization, and exploitation by the Big Foot monkeys of the land of the Long Hand monkeys, and the eventual compromise that is reached between the constantly warring parties with the designation of certain banana trees (the symbol of freedom and self-determination for the Long Hand monkeys, and of power for the Big Foot) as distinct. "Distinct" are those that have already been picked bare of their fruit. Thus, the designation turns out to be an empty one.
Millenium-bound Canada, it seems, in the view of these fabulous, socially conscious fabulists, is a darkening landscape indeed. Diana Kuprel(Books in Canada) -- Books in Canada