NORTHERN TALES: TRADITIONAL STORIES OF ESKIMO AND INDIAN PEOPLES. Edited by Howard Norman, New York: Pantheon Books, 341 pp., $22.95 MOST books are in a hurry to go somewhere. They get off to a fast start. They have an agenda, with beginnings, middles, and endings. They have plots that twist like paths through a dark forest, always keeping us guessing, always pressing forward in search of a dramatic climax.
In such books, we know the characters as if they had been described to us with infinite detail by a psychologist. These characters have complex interior lives. They are driven by anxiety and doubt, ambition and fear. And they are motivated by morality or by a lack of it. They have closets full of clothes and houses full of furniture. Their faces and their voices belong to what we believe to be unique individuals: Hamlet, Oliver Twist.
For us, it is the combination of these familiar conventions that makes a story, a creation that we in the Western world comfortably call literature. We are, however, far less comfortable when dealing with the stories of the people of other lands - stories which have neither the complex plots nor the complex characters that are familiar to us. As a result, what we mean by the word ``literature'' often excludes the better part of the treasury of storytelling created by the non-Western peoples of the world.
Howard Norman is one of a number of authors and anthologists who have been trying to change that neglect. In his new book, ``Northern Tales,'' he has collected traditional tales of Eskimos and Indians - people of the Arctic and sub-Arctic who live in a different reality from the one that is usually described by American and European authors.
As we quickly realize, Norman's storytellers use a set of literary conventions that are strikingly different from the ones with which we are familiar. The characters have more resemblance to the archetypes of classic Greek literature than they do to the psychological individuals who populate most of our contemporary realistic stories.
In ``Northern Tales,'' both humans and animals live on the same plane of consciousness. They are known by their actions rather than by their interior conflicts and motives. The line between dream and waking life is not clearly drawn, and consequently, reality becomes a highly inclusive experience. The ordinary activities of village life are constantly mingled with fantastic elements derived from a mythology that is lived.
As a result, these stories operate in a metaphoric world, and they are more like poetry than prose. Their language sings, and while reading these tales, we are persistently reminded of the voice that lives and speaks from within the written word. There are few elaborations of plot.
Instead, these tales meander across the human mind, never concerned with realistic detail, never in a hurry to reach a dramatic climax.
The storyteller's ending can be nonchalant: ``This is the end.'' Or the story may conclude with an ironic afterthought. For instance, a typical story from the Netsilik Eskimos concludes: ``This is all we know of Nuliajuk, the sea spirit. She gave us seals, but she'd like to get rid of us, too.'' (p219)
The book includes tales of animals who teach, tricksters who confront us with human fallibility, shamans who conjure experiences far beyond the commonplace, and men and women who live deep within the ordinary world, profoundly involved in its pleasures and its pains, its rhythms and its mysteries.
Spanning the era from the ``way-back time'' through the coming of the white strangers, this collection vivifies the native storytelling traditions of Greenland, Canada, Russia, northern Japan, Alaska, and the polar region. At first, these majestically recounted tales of the extraordinary and ordinary may seem a bit remote and curious, but as we are initiated into their marvelous worlds, we begin to recognize ourselves in the unrecognizable reality of other people.
These tales from the north country bring us face-to-face with something within us that we may have previously ignored or neglected - the fragile terrain of the uncharted human imagination.