Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel
by Mitiarju Nappaaluk
Winnipeg: U of Manitoba P, 2014
Toward the end of Sanaaq: An Inuit Novel the author, speaking through the eponymous main character based on herself, delivers a line most readers will have been expecting: “The Inuit realized for the first time that some unpleasant things were being done to them.” This is written of an unnamed group of Inuit living in northern Quebec sometime in the 1930s. The “unpleasant things” are brought on by the Qallunaat — the Inuit word for whites — who have been slowly and insidiously working their way into the culture of the north; so slowly that by the time the changes are noticed, the traditional Inuit way of life has fundamentally changed.
It is the traditional way of life Sanaaq focuses on through the early chapters. Told in the oral style of the Inuit — the author dictated the first draft of the novel — the short scenes that make up each chapter tell the reader of life in the north. They are meant to inform as much as entertain, so that by the end of the novel, the reader will know how to make a kayak and how to cache meat in a bag made out of a animal stomach; they will know how to make gloves out of seal, and tea in a snowstorm. They will learn the methods of survival in the north, how to hunt, and make an igloo.
Sanaaq, a widow with a young daughter named Qamaq, marries a much younger hunter. Together, they have a child. They live in close quarters with their extended families, all of whom follow the “Inuit custom of not dwelling too much on things.” One typical series of scenes begins with a young Inuit man gets blinded in one eye by boiling water. Once the pain subsides, he gets on with life, as he must. When he later falls through the ice and is swept away, a friend who tried to save him only wonders where he may have ended up, and if they would see each other again. Back at camp, work resumes. The family mourns, but the mourning is tied in with the practical — they will now struggle to find food. There is a timelessness to scenes like these — a sense that this is the way life has always been; that anything that happens in the narrative could easily have happened hundreds of years before.
It is toward the end of the story that this indigenous way of life begins to change for the Inuit. The white people, at first slightly comic figures, go from bumbling incompetents struggling to live in the north, to menacing subjugators. First Sanaaq’s husband Qalingu is talked into allowing the Qallunaat to fly their sick child to a hospital in the south. Sanaaq refuses and runs away with her child. A fight ensues and Sannaq is beaten by her husband — both her and her child are then taken to the south to be cured. The police come for Qalingu — though the judgement of his people affects Qalingu more than the warning the police give him. Then, later, he is taken away to work and at a job he doesn’t understand to make money he’s never needed. When he returns, he finds Sanaaq’s sister has been impregnated by one of the white men from the trading post. Her Inuit suitor is plunged into depression. A nurse comes and makes the children strip and takes their blood samples. They are told they are anaemic and must go south. Other Inuit are told they eat too much or too little. In a few short chapters, the freedom of the Inuit has disappeared.
The book does not pass judgment on this change; it seems in keeping with that Inuit habit of not dwelling too much on things that the people adapt to the new way of things in the North without too much thought to the passage of the old ways. But there is such a depth of feeling behind the deceptively simple writing that readers cannot help but be swept along; while the Inuit must carry on, readers can take the time to mourn the passing of their ways. Nappaaluk has ensured through this unique novel that the people she once knew will be remembered, that their ways will survive.