Howard Norman spent the fall of 1977 in Churchill, Manitoba, translating into English the "Noah stories" told to him by an Inuit elder. The folktales reveal what happened when the biblical Noah lost his way in the Arctic waters by Hudson Bay. By turns startling, tragic, and comical, these inimitable narratives tell the history of the Arctic and capture the collision of cultures precipitated by the arrival of a hapless stranger in a strange land.
Norman himself was then a stranger, but he was not alone. In Churchill he encountered Helen Tanizaki, an Anglo-Japanese woman embarked on a similar project—to translate the tales into Japanese. An extraordinary linguist and an exacting and compelling friend, Tanizaki became Norman's guide through the characters, stories, and customs he was coming to know, and a remarkable intimacy sprang up between them—made all the more intense because it was to be fleeting; Tanizaki was fatally ill.
Through a series of overlapping panels of reality and memory, Norman recaptures with vivid immediacy a brief but life-shifting encounter and the earthy, robust stories that occasioned it.
"A slim and gracefully written memoir . . . Idiosyncratic, thoughtful books like In Fond Remembrance of Me come along rarely in the world of commercial publishing, and Norman is one of those authors about whom critic Louis Menand recently wrote in The New Yorker: 'it is more painful to stop reading them than it is to keep going.' His prose has a haunting, easygoing, addictive quality, and the persona he creates for himself in this book is low-key and observant. There is nothing—and everything—to suggest that he will become a novelist of note. He takes a back seat so that [Helen] Tanizaki can shine. 'Don't forget me,' she says as she leaves on the train to Montreal. And we don't."—Barbara Sjoholm, The Seattle Times
"The book offers much more than a retelling of an authorial experience in a foreign place . . . it is a beguiling study of how stories blend and reshape themselves depending on the teller and the listener. It's also a heartrending celebration of a seminal friendship that forever changes Norman's journey, not only the trips he makes to Hudson Bay, but for the one that he will eventually make as the author of such novels as The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard . . . In this wonderful book that gives words and stories and friendships real value, Norman does something more than help Helen reincarnate herself—he shares this wonderful life with those of us who will never make the trek to Churchill, Manitoba."—Sharon Dilworth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"A slender volume [that] speaks in a quiet voice—but says a great deal. The question of 'appropriation of voice,' the phenomenon of culture shock, and even the basic function of narrative are among the subjects illuminated by this little book."—Philip Marchand, The Toronto Star
"Superb . . . [A] moving account of an uncommon friendship and an extraordinary woman . . . Part memoir, part recounted and translated myth, part literary non-fiction, the work must bear considerable burden for such a slim volume but it does so elegantly and without sign of fatigue, much like its enigmatic heroine. If Helen Tanizaki is listening, we think she would approve."—Karen Virag, Edmonton Journal
"[Norman rises] to the task of conveying something of the remarkable nature and qualities of Helen Tanizaki, and [brings] some of the remarkable Inuit Noah stories to a wider audience."—Catherine Kentridge, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"This short, brilliant book defies categorization . . . A literary experience, In Fond Remembrance of Me is so singular and evocative that it carried me all the way back to Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet."—National Post (Toronto)
"I read In Fond Remembrance of Me the way I usually find myself reading Howard Norman. The manner in which he writes—with great clarity and liveliness, and never with ostentation—makes me read too quickly. When I'm done, I feel impelled to go back to the beginning and read again, and I always feel repaid. There are layers and layers of meaning in this simple-looking tale. What a delightful book!"—Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains
"A sometimes sad but seductive collage of memories of two months spent with a Japanese woman and an Inuit elder in Canada's far north. In the late summer of 1977, Norman, who had not then stepped into his novelist's shoes, went to a town on Hudson Bay in the employ of an American museum to transcribe and translate narratives of the Noah stories. By coincidence, Helen Tanizaki was also there, working on the same stories with the same elder, Mark Nuqac. Tanizaki and Norman were two sides of a coin. She was a sensitive, accomplished ethnographer and translator: introspective, ardent, lucid. He was a befuddled neophyte: agitated, anxious, without poise. Their friendship emerged as they worked to capture and clarify the Noah stories, which were radically different as perceived from the Inuit point of view, on the one hand, and from Norman's point of view, on the other. Less confusingly, these were stories about the precariousness of life, which reverberated long and hard with the fact that Tanizaki was dying of stomach cancer, and about a stranger in a strange land, which fitted Norman to a T. Now blessed with great poise, Norman twines 11 Noah stories with the landscape of melancholy: his ineptitude, the unforgiving Arctic, the 'black butterflies' of Tanizaki's doom. Though Norman is careful not to get sentimental, something Tanizaki would not have appreciated, readers will find it hard not to fall, as he did, for her talent, her epigrammatic opinions, the freshness of her prayers ('I would like to see / a red phalarope / (please)') and the elegance of her restraint. Norman may have been in over his head, but he kept his eyes and curiosity open; he engaged, and Tanizaki likely appreciated that very much. A deep-sounding recovery project of memories new and old, fired by years of reflection."—Kirkus Reviews
"Norman's evocative novels are drenched in the Arctic's treacherous beauty and pragmatic mysticism, and he has chronicled some of his real-life Arctic adventures in My Famous Evening. Here he focuses on his 1977 sojourn in Churchill, Manitoba, where he is sent by a museum to translate stories told by an Inuit elder named Mark Nuqac only to discover that he isn't the only folklorist on the case. His fellow traveler is Helen Tanizaki, a far more accomplished linguist, translator, and expert in Arctic culture, a poetic woman dying of cancer who changes his life. Naturally there is melancholy in this elegant and haunting remembrance, but there is also wonder and comedy, especially in the spiky Inuit tales Nuqac tells about how Noah goes crazy when his ark gets trapped in the ice in the Hudson Bay. As always, Norman has a fine touch, and a keen sense of life's splendor and absurdity, as he turns his lyrical homage to a lost friend into a glimmering reflection on the power of the human spirit."—Booklist