Chez L’arabe, by Mireille Silcoff, House of Anansi Press
The problem with Mireille Silcoff’s Chez L’arabe is that the author has an appalling medical history that is too gripping to ignore and too awful to focus on. This is also its strength.
In the big book no one has yet written on the slippery connection between life and art, teller and tale, Silcoff deserves a whole chapter to herself. Whatever may have ailed us, it isn’t as bad as what has ailed her. When it comes to debilitating illnesses, she wins.
Like the character who appears under different names in this, her first collection of short stories, Silcoff has to lie in bed with her head lower than her chest for an indefinite period of time, trying to keep her brain from colliding with her skull. If you tried to invent the worst illness for yourself, you couldn’t do better than spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak. Only it’s true, as we can read in the feature articles and media interviews that have been appearing since the book appeared, and it really happened to Silcoff.
How could she write an entire book of stories with so little energy? How could she polish each story to perfection? How could she concentrate? For short periods at a time, is the answer. She writes about what she couldn’t do, and when she does so, she’s succeeding in doing the very thing she couldn’t manage. The miracle isn’t just that she wrote at all, though that is a miracle. The miracle is that she wrote so well.
And she does write well. “Chez L’arabe” itself, the opening story, is the best of these fine fictions about a woman of impeccable taste convalescing in perfect interiors in a vividly described Montreal. There is an insider moment for Montreal readers when the sick woman at the window assumes an Atlas cab driver is an Arab, when of course Montrealers know Atlas drivers are mostly Iranians. Nothing is as it seems, however, and as the story proceeds, it turns out that the driver is indeed from Iran, so that the family-run business where he has lunch, like the story in which it appears, and the whole book, should more properly be called “Chez l’iranien.”
In some of the stories, we read about this woman from her own point of view and in others, in the third person. The first person stories are the strongest and the most immediate. For Silcoff’s sleight of hand to work, we really need to be inside this ailing woman’s own precarious brain. That is where her history of unimaginable weakness turns into a strength, and you find yourself wondering if Silcoff didn’t imagine the whole thing just in order to write flawless fiction. This is literary hypochondria as art, and there’s something classic about the impossibility of writing that makes this book possible.
Silcoff has evidently recuperated, more or less, and has become a mother. The illness that is her subject is transformed into health, much as the imperfection of her life is in Chez L’arabe transformed into the perfection of her fiction. Well done, Mireille Silcoff.
Linda Leith is a Montreal writer and publisher. Her most recent book, Writing in the Time of Nationalism (Signature 2010), has appeared in Alain Roy’s French translation as Écrire au temps du nationalisme (Leméac 2014).
– photo: Doug, Flickr Creative Commons