One of the privileges of working for a journal for world literature like Asymptote is that I get to know some of the best translators, as well as getting an early peek at some of the things they are working on. When Rosie Hedger, one of the most promising young translators from Norwegian (she has also translated that wonderfully claustrophobic novel The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn), mentioned that she was unsure about the reception her most recent translation would have, because it is bold and mad, I was eager to read it. Additionally, it is published by Nordisk Books, whose previous publication Love/War was equally unusual but intriguing. So thank you very much to Rosie for sending me a copy of the book, but you know me well enough by now to realise that this has in no way swayed me to write positive stuff about it if I didn’t like it.
Luckily, I did like it! In fact, I was so captivated by it, that I read it in a couple of breathless hours sitting in my back garden at the weekend. It is very quick to read, written in something resembling a free verse style (short line breaks), but it’s certainly not an easy read. The unnamed narrator, a young girl with mental health problems, does horrible things to others and to herself; meanwhile, horrible things are done to her too. It is the machine-gun approach to storytelling, or one long, angry howl.
There are quite a few accounts of people suffering from mental health problems in literature, some of them very well-known, such as Girl, Interrupted, The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, others far less so: Down Below by Leonora Carrington or Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. What they all have in common is a very unflattering perspective on daily life in a mental asylum, which is certainly present in this book too. However, all of the other books are written retrospectively, while Zero is written in first person, present tense, like a diary. It feels like speleology, like visiting the dark insides of someone’s ‘defective’ head. We witness each thought as it arises, often contradicting the previous sentence, all the jumps and starts and sudden turns. It can feel like trying to navigate a small boat in very rough seas and my advice would be to just give up navigation and allow yourself to be carried away by the monster waves.
The narrator is entirely self-absorbed. Like any child or adolescent she believes the world revolves around her. And she maintains this belief even as she grows up. Everyone else is described in relation to her. Alcohol, drugs, sex, friendships are consumed as casually as the cigarettes she half-smokes. Her self-hatred and doubt are so all-encompassing that they extend to anyone who loves her and believes in her. She pushes away her mother, her boyfriends, her girlfriend. How can they possibly love someone as screwed up and worthless as herself – that must make them either deceitful or worthless.
Her real problem is that she is so thin-skinned that she has no skin left at all, or as she puts it early on: ‘I absorb everything unfiltered’. At times you want to rush in and protect her, but then her self-destructive gene kicks in and you want to slap her and tell her to get a grip on herself.
I’m lucky to be alive, the doctors say
They’re idiots, every last one of them
They don’t realise that I’m actually very unlucky to be alive
There is no sugar-coating, no attempt at self-justification or excuses in this ‘punk rock’ saga. A doctor tells her that she has too much of the victim mentality, that she is feeling too sorry for herself and refusing to accept any responsibility. Part of the narrator understands and agrees with that, but then the rebellious voice starts shouting and she is unable to remonstrate with her.
You might ask yourself how much of this is autobiographical, since the narrator aspires to be an actor, and the author is best known for her acting role in a Norwegian TV series, but it doesn’t really matter. This is the rawest, most believable account of schizophrenia that I have ever come across (at least I assume it is schizophrenia, I’m not a trained doctor, but I’ve had a couple of friends with this affliction). The translation does an excellent job of capturing the fragmented, jolting nature of the work, the repetition, the almost incantatory poetry of it, the breathless present tense. I’m not surprised this won the Tarjei Vesaas First Book Award in 2013 – it is a remarkable and original piece of work.