Misfits, Taggers and Horror Builds Up

This grouping of reviews will puzzle you, perhaps, but the three books provoked a similar reaction in me, albeit with different degrees of discomfort. They are all about misfits, and give a rather brutal picture of Scandinavian societies, which to many of us seem a haven of egalitarianism and tolerance.

somerainKarl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall (My Struggle 5), transl. Don Bartlett

I admit I’m a bit addicted to the long, rambling, self-absorbed outpourings of Knausgaard. It’s a little like reading all your unedited jumble of thoughts (somewhat better expressed). The author is so hard on himself (or on his younger self, which I still believe is a bit of an alter ego rather than his real self), particularly in this volume. Karl Ove is now 19 and has followed his big brother to Bergen, where he will attend the writing academy. He stays in Bergen for fourteen years, during which he feels he is not making any progress as a human being or as a writer, despite his utmost efforts. He has no one but himself to blame: he is constantly sabotaged by his own ego, envy of others, awkwardness, drinking and lust. He feels hurt when others criticise his writing efforts, plagiarises someone’s work, gets drunk and violent, is a lousy boyfriend, tries to be part of a band although he can barely play the drums, doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. This is such a powerful, unvarnished portrait of a young man trying to rise above the average but fearing that there may not be anything of substance within him.

Yes, all the usual criticism of Knausgaard applies: it is overlong, it goes off on tangents all the time, it feels unfiltered like life itself, but it is eminently entertaining and readable. Disquieting? Yes, especially when I read the book below straight after. Unfair to compare Karl Ove with Anders Behring Breivik? Well, in the sixth and final volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard explores that connection himself, looking at the darkness inherent in human nature and the choices young people make. The difference being, of course, that while both Karl Ove and Anders are self-conscious and awkward youngsters who want to believe they are the best, Karl Ove is also self-aware and self-deprecating.

oneofusÅsne Seierstad: One of Us – The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, transl. by Sarah Death

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister’s office in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the wooded island of Utøya, where he gunned down sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of the country’s governing Labour Party. In this book, journalist Seierstad explores not only the life of the perpetrator, but also of a few of his victims, and examines the inadequate police emergency response on that day, as well as the debates surrounding his trial and plea of insanity.

We get a glimpse into Breivik’s childhood, his distant father, life with his depressed single mother, attempts to ingratiate himself with the hip-hop community and make a name for himself as a graffiti tagger, a right-wing activist, a successful entrepreneur, and then an Internet game addict and self-styled master warrior who believed he could save Europe from the threat of Islam and multiculturalism. However, Norwegian society is also closely examined: the official rhetoric of feminism and tolerance compared to real-life examples on the ground. We see that Breivik was far from alone in his beliefs, although few were willing to openly voice them and no one else was prepared to take such violent action. And we wonder if it was liberalism or indifference which allowed him to pile up such an arsenal of weapons and bomb-making equipment in a derelict farmhouse.

This was really hard to read at times: detailed, fascinating and distressing in equal measure, and at times it felt voyeuristic and too graphic in its description of the massacre and the grief of the survivors. An important book, however; no doubt about it.

girlbombJari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb, transl. by Kristian London

We move to Finland, to the small town of Kotka, near Helsinki. Rust and Metro are graffiti taggers and lovers, always trying to stay one step ahead of the law. Just like in the real-life account of Anders Breivik’s teenage years, the police are cracking down hard on graffiti artists, whom they perceive as ‘vandals’ and often outsource the catching of them to private security firms. As they are being chased one night by these security guards, Rust falls to his death. The guards try to cover up the incident and Metro is determined to take revenge for her boyfriend’s death.

I really enjoyed this short, sharp, clever novel, with its alternating points of view. I liked both of the main characters, feisty Metro and hapless security guard Jere, who only wanted a quiet life but finds himself taking the blame for somebody else. I kept wishing that they weren’t on opposing sides and that there would be an explanation between them and a ‘happy ending’ of sorts. But of course no such happy ending is possible when violence, accusations and misunderstandings escalate. An intriguing peek into an urban subculture, as well as a deep-dive under the seemingly serene surface of Finnish society to the murkiness below.


Modern German Classic: The Mussel Feast

MusselFeastWritten just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this book by Birgit Vanderbeke is both domestic and allegorical, examining how all revolutions start with one small act of insubordination.

The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister and their mother are waiting for the head of the family to show up for supper.  They are having mussels, a food none of them like very much, but which is their father’s favourite meal.  It is a special occasion, they tell each other, father is having a business meeting which may well end in a promotion. As they sit and wait, we find out more and more about this apparently ordinary German family, about the parents’ escape from East Germany and the back-breaking menial jobs their mother had to endure in order to support their father’s studying.  The author does an excellent job of describing the public charm and private horror of an inflexible, tyrannical man, but she doesn’t spare the mother either.  From the daughter-narrator’s point of view, her mother has colluded with her oppressor, switching to ‘wifey mode’ to appease and soothe him.  Yet only a few pages further, we discover that the daughter herself likes to be thought of as ‘Daddy’s girl’ and takes sides with her father to mock the other two members of the family.  The dictator’s policy of divide and conquer seeps in gradually, poisoning everything in sight. The more we find out, the more we discover this is a family reigned by fear and despair.

Presented as an ongoing interior monologue (much of it in just one paragraph), the book is an easy read, partly because of its brevity, but also because of its subtle humour and contradictory statements.  Yet for anyone who has lived in a non-democratic society or in an abusive family, it is a painful read.  It works perfectly well on both levels, describing the gradual descent from praiseworthy public ideals  to subverted, selfish interpretations. Thus, the father’s vision of  ‘a proper family’ ends in constant criticism and disappointment that his flesh-and-blood children do not live up to his ideal. His desire to be ‘doing things together’ ends in him spoiling the atmosphere and blaming everyone else when things are not quite perfect.  And ‘investing in the children’s future’ becomes a pointless exercise involving an expensive stamp collection that no one is interested in.

Communism failed not because it didn’t have inspirational ideas, but because it refused to take into account human nature when putting them into practice.  Marriages and families fail because we cannot allow the others to be themselves.  A valuable lesson, presented in an intriguing way, with an ending that is stunning in its shocking simplicity.

I read this as part of my 2013 Translation Challenge and on that note, let me make one small aside. I was sharing this book and my delight that Peirene Press is making such work more available to an English-speaking audience with a group of aspiring or even published writers based here in the Geneva area. I bemoaned the fact that there have been few translations into English of world literature so far, and commented how pleased I was to see some new initiatives.

Their reaction surprised me a little.  OK, a lot!

They said that no wonder that German and French publishers translate so much literature from the UK and the US, because that’s where the best work is produced. (Never mind that they also translate from many other languages.) And that they themselves cannot be bothered to read literature from other countries, because the style is too different ‘from our own’.  Bear in mind that this is not a random group of expats, but keen readers and aspiring writers, who have been living in the local area for many years and usually speak the language very well.  The lack of curiosity and insularity perhaps explains why so little contemporary fiction is being translated into English.  It saddens me, because it feels like people are deliberately limiting their horizons, but what do you think?

English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Th...
English: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. The photo shows a part of a public photo documentation wall at Former Check Point Charlie, Berlin. The photo documentation is permanently placed in the public. Türkçe: Berlin Duvarı, 1989 sonbaharı (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cynic

Something wicked this way comes

and no pricking to forebode it:

half-life of worry to presage,

beating of the foreign drums.


It’s all counting, it’s all trade,

beauty envied but not looked at.

Stuff back, shot-like, into boxes,

all the pretty dreams we made.


Hurting now, distance shattered,

we’re too close to feed our vision.

We lunge, retreat, fall out, regroup,

as if anything mattered…

Rereading ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French

I was a feminist without a cause when I read ‘The Women’s Room’, that classic angry novel by Marilyn French, published in 1977, at the tail end of the feminist movement.  I was about 18-19, had been brought up to believe that I could achieve anything regardless of my gender, and had not really encountered any prejudice or sexism to change my sunny view of life. Some wolf whistles here and there on the street, some anxiety about letting me make my own way home at night, but the world was still one of limitless possibilities.  Of course I believed women were as good as men, and that they should have equal chances in life, but this was an attitude born of rational thought rather than any personal pain.

Marilyn French coverSo my first reading of ‘The Women’s Room’ was one of bemused detachment.  How much anger and frustration these women had!  How awful it must have been for women of my mother’s generation!  Thank goodness things had moved on since the publication of the book and this was all a description of quaint historical practices! My life, of course, would never be like that: not only had the world moved on, but I had all the information, warning signs and negative role models featured in this book (and Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir – oh, yes, I read the entire feminist canon and absorbed it all with my brain). I would not claim that my heart was unaffected, but what I felt for these women was pity.  Such a patronising attitude, but typical of my 18 year old self, who thought she knew so much about everything.

Last week, while on holiday, I found myself at a bit of a loose end regarding reading matter, so I picked up this book off someone else’s bookshelf and reread it. And this time I read it with my heart.  And what surprised me most of all is how accurate the portrayal of marriage, motherhood, the thin line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom still is. This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and class for her stories).  Many of the stories will strike a chord with women of my age today: the women of the post-feminist generation, who thought they could have it all, but have now realised that family and motherhood have enslaved them in ways they would not have thought possible in their youth. Nowadays, the luxury of daytime boredom and party planning is not even available, as most women are working outside the home.  But are they working at jobs (to make ends meet), or do they still have careers? And if they have careers, at what cost to their families, health and sanity?  I conducted an informal poll among the women I know: the only ones who do not feel pulled in all directions are the ones who are unmarried and childless.  And even they manage to find plenty of things to feel guilty or anxious about!

So that was my first surprised observation, that it feels less outdated now than it did twenty years ago. Yes, marginalisation of women is now less overt, men pay more lip service to the notion of equality, advances have been made in certain areas.  We are all far more aware of our options now,  but awareness does not blunt the ruthless blade of reality.  The schizophrenia of impossible choices is still largely left to women to handle. French seems unsure whether to blame  the patriarchal society or men directly for this, although to me it seems clear that she also partially blames women themselves for it.

The second observation is that many of the quotes attributed to the author, which have sparked angry reactions and criticisms, are in fact uttered by one or the other of the many female characters appearing in this book.  For instance, that incendiary opinion that ‘All men are rapists and that’s all they are’ is actually a statement made by aggressive, uncompromising Val just after her daughter has been raped and her case is dismissed by the police and the judiciary system.  It is a statement that the central character, Mira, actually finds uncomfortable, and it is certainly not Marilyn French’s opinion.

What I liked about this book (and had forgotten until I reread it) is the plurality of stories and views on offer.  Other reviewers have pointed out how relentlessly grim the stories are: rape, death, illness, insanity, divorce, breakdown – true, the author is trying to cram it all in. What is more concerning and striking is the lack of male voices – the men are shadowy figures, almost caricatures.  I am almost sure this was deliberate, partly because French is giving voice to those who were habitually voiceless, but also because she felt that men were choosing not to engage in the debate.  There is a poignant scene in which Mira’s husband comes home and tells her they need to talk. Looking at his wistful gaze, his deep sigh, she dares to hope that they will have a meaningful conversation about their thoughts, their values, their feelings.  She hopes that they will finally connect, be true and equal partners. She leans yearningly towards him, ready to forgive, to restart, to believe … and he tells her that he wants a divorce.

So what did I feel this time, upon rereading ‘The Women’s Room’?  No longer anger and pity.  No easy target to blame.  Instead, sadness and recognition that we have not quite come such a long way, baby!