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Interview with Michael Bryson at Underground Book Club

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Hooked on Canadian Books:
The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984

Publication Date: March 29, 2010

Wave of Terror
Theodore Odrach
Translated from Ukrainian by Erma Odrach
Introduction by T.F. Rigelhof


This remarkable novel, hidden from the English-speaking world for more than 50 years, begins with the Red Army invasion of Belarus in 1939. Ivan Kulik has just become headmaster of School Number 7 in Hlaby, a rural village in the Pinsk Marshes. Through his eyes we witness the tragedy of Stalinist domination, where people are randomly deported to labor camps or tortured in Zovty Kazarny prison in the center of Pinsk.

Ivan struggles to make sense of this new world, learning the politics of survival in the emerging Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and trying to sort out his personal life. His passion for Marusia, a green-eyed, unpredictable young woman, is a theme throughout the book.

Although Wave of Terror is based on Theodore Odrach’s first-hand knowledge of events, it is a literary achievement of the highest order, not a mere exposé of Soviet oppression. Alberto Manguel, editor of the Penguin Book of Christmas Stories, which includes a short story by Odrach, says he “has almost a journalistic eye for the story he wants to tell. I felt he was in the same league as Alexander Solzhenitsyn . . .”

The character descriptions call up faces as vivid as those in a movie by Fellini or Tarkovsky: there is, for example, the big woman with great physical appetites who leaves her work as a street vendor of pickled herring to take a teaching position offered by the new regime, and there is the District Committee official who becomes obsessed with her. Even villains like Sobakin, the N.K.V.D. officer, somehow come through as fully realized human beings rather than caricatures.

“Odrach’s individual gift,” says T. F. Rigelhof in his introduction, “the thing that sets him apart from his contemporaries (and draws him closer to George Orwell and D.H. Lawrence than anyone other than Chekhov) is the range of his sympathies and, specifically, his unromantic, anti-sentimental approach to the sensual lives of girls and women. His debt to Chekhov is obvious in his ability to capture the internal drama of his characters with psychological concision.”

Gabor Szilasi: Gathering Presents of the Past

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Oct 9 2009 to Jan 17 2010

For more than five decades, Montreal artist Gabor Szilasi has worked diligently to create a documentary record of everyday life in Quebec, Hungary and elsewhere. Still going at the ripe old age of 82, it’s fair to say that Szilasi well deserves the 50-year retrospective that opened at the Musée d’art de Joliette this summer and continues, starting this week, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Curated by Ryerson University professor David Harris, the exhibition “Gabor Szilasi: The Eloquence of the Everyday” attempts to span Szilasi’s many bodies of work—from black-and-white street shots of Budapest in the 1950s to meticulous colour interiors of rural Quebec homes in the 1970s to collaborative portraits created with mental-health patients in the 2000s. (Szilasi’s vivid views of Montreal building facades from the 1980s and beyond will be of particular interest to Canada’s growing amateur-urbanist crowd.) In a 1977 quotation included in the exhibition text, Szilasi provides insight into his overriding philosophy: “Everything is constantly changing around us: what my camera captures at this moment is already a thing of the past. That is why it is important to me to record the world as I see it today through photography. I am not interested in the past or the future: I am interested in the present.” In the long view, this accumulation of Szilasi’s “presents” promises a lasting gift of insight for today’s art audiences. (380 Sussex Dr, Ottawa ON)