Sweeter Than All the World
Knopf Canada, 2001
First published in: Books in Canada, 2002
Review by: Kerry Riley
Adam Wiebe, the central protagonist in Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe’s wonderful new novel, Sweeter Than All the World, is a man whose past is catching up with him, both literally and figuratively.
The book opens into Adam’s memory of a pivotal moment in his life—the summer of 1942, where, as a young boy he is about to begin school, learn English, and thus take his initial tentative steps away from his German-speaking Mennonite family and their self-imposed cultural and geographic isolation in Northern Alberta. At chapter’s end his mother’s plaintive call echoes through the evening, and the decades, summoning his childhood self to dinner or bed. It’s a call home, as well, to one who may have lost his way. “A-a-da-a-am,” she cries, “Where a-a-re you?”
Where, indeed, is Adam? At present, in the 1990s, he’s far away, certainly, from his origins, enjoying what seems an enviable existence—as a respected physician, he’s financially independent with a beautiful, intelligent wife, and two children, successfully grown—but in fact Adam, 54 years of age, and toying with retirement, is contemplating a life which is, as he slowly becomes aware, crumbling to pieces before his unbelieving eyes: his wife is estranged, a daughter is gone, perhaps forever, his son is angry and critical, and he himself is in deep conflict with his past. He is gradually coming to realize that the rejection of his cultural heritage, which seemed necessary and right in his youth, and indeed, may have been so then, was not achieved without cost.
Floundering in his present, Adam feels an urge to reconnect with his past, and he sets out on a world-wide quest to rediscover his history on his own terms, a history intimately connected with the Mennonite struggle. He dimly intuits that it is in the repair of the thread (now very frayed) connecting him to his past, that he will find the meaning he and his family need, perhaps in time to save them all.
Adam’s growing awareness of his past is revealed, through the testimony of his ancestors, in roughly chronological order, from the 1500s to the present, in chapters interspersed with and set against the development and gradual disintegration of his present life. So while the mistakes of his youth are indeed catching up with this man, so too, over the course of the book, does his ancestral past, quite literally, overtake his present.
Ironically it is the school, an influence which led him so far away from his Mennonite beginnings, which also, indirectly, leads him back. A teacher, noticing the congruence of names, showed Adam the “Mennonite Yearbook, 1951,” which included mention of an Adam Wiebe, a brilliant Mennonite engineer, born in 1616. Further investigation leads Adam back to the 1500s, to the North Sea coast and earlier ancestors, caught up in religious controversies over baptism. Burned at the stake for heresy, their beliefs did, nevertheless, help forge the famously pacifist Mennonite tradition.
Of course, any history of a persecuted religious minority, particularly one which had its origins in Europe of the 1500s, and later, Russia, is rife with opportunities (the Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, the Russian Revolution, Stalin, two world wars) for examining man’s innate capacity for brutality and the book is, in addition to being a fascinating social history of a pacifist struggle, an examination of, and meditation on, that age-old enigma of the human soul, and its ability to accommodate the extremes of love and hate, kindness and cruelty. Of Mennonite extraction himself, Rudy Wiebe comes to this subject naturally.
Readers beware for the stories told by Adam’s ancestors, some of whom witnessed or experienced the very worst of human behaviour, are, at times, difficult to read. There is, however, no exploitation of violence here, no manipulation, and no embellishment. It is in the cumulative evidence, and the wretched senselessness of the facts themselves, that the book’s strongly pacifist message lies.
As important and as currently relevant as this examination of violence is, it is the exploration of time, and our place and purpose within time, that gives the book its unique sensibility. A prominent scientist once caught my attention with his remark (and I’m paraphrasing broadly) that every individual alive today represents the leading edge of a successful line of reproduction, stretching back to earth’s first life forms. A similar sense of connection lies at the heart of this story. While he does not force the link back to single-celled organisms, Wiebe does characterize the present as the leading edge of a living past. “I was born nearly five hundred years ago….” declares one Wiebe predecessor in a surprisingly robust, and very present, first person voice, clearly untroubled by the normal constraints of time. Throughout the story, we encounter the image of the mother, knitting the fates of her family together, joining lives through generations with a line of red wool. Together, the living, connected, ancestral voices form a “great cloud of witness,” who stand in support of Adam in his present day struggle.
Intertwined with this sense of continuity is the idea that all current and future events can be seen as having already happened—a mystic notion borrowed from the indigenous tribes of northern Canada, and explored in more detail in Wiebe’s 1994 Governor General Award-winning book, A Discovery of Strangers. Indeed, it is an elder of the Dogrib tribe who teases out for Adam the comfort to be derived from this belief. As he explains, “if everything can be seen as having already happened, then there is nothing, further, to be scared of.” In losing one’s connection to the past, however, one is deprived of the stabilizing influence of such understanding.
Nothing clears a metaphysical fog quite like a concrete example, and Wiebe uses the structure of his book to do so brilliantly. Throughout the story, the past and present (and thus future) have existed simultaneously within the covers of the book. In the final chapter, we return to the Danzig of the1600’s, where Adam Wiebe the engineer, now an old man, expresses his hopes for his grandchildren, for the future. We as readers, are, of course, in a privileged position to appreciate this future. We have held it in our hands, riffled through its pages. For us, it has already happened.
Rudy Wiebe is a writer of considerable skill and subtlety, and this novel finds him in sure-footed control of a fascinating, complicated, highly relevant, and powerful story. One could quibble, I suppose, over the vexing intricacies of Wiebe genealogy, but, in fact, there is no overweening need to keep diagrammatic track of it. Those who go to the effort will be rewarded with a clearer chronological sense of a complex cultural history, but those who don’t, will be at no great disadvantage.
Finally, there is the matter of author Wiebe creating a modern day protagonist with a comparable background and the same last name. Considering the heaps of scorn awaiting any reviewer who dares suggest a character may, in any way, personify its creator, this could be interpreted as outright provocation. However, the Adam Wiebe of 17th century Danzig, who provides the modern Adam a link to his past, by virtue of his name, and fulfils an essential structural role in the book was, in fact, a real person. It would hardly be appropriate to change his name, for this would only diminish the historical integrity of the book.
Having talked at such length of violence and struggle, I fear I may leave readers with the impression that this novel is ponderous and depressing—a tough read. In fact, in Sweeter Than All the World, Rudy Wiebe has created a warm, intimate, and very readable portrait of a complex and engaging man, facing a dilemma which is of immediate interest to us all. If the attendant partial survey of humankind’s brutality is unblinking, it is, nevertheless an exhilarating experience to have stared such a beast in the eye, and still come away filled with the sense of hope and comfort that this book imparts.