All the people

I read in an article recently that it took us several hundred thousand years to go from 0 to 1 billion people, and only 12 years from 6 to 7 billion which is expected to be the count for the world population in 2011. So many people, everywhere, and a number that is growing so rapidly, has gotten many people seriously questioning the prospects of sustainability and life quality. It is estimated that 1 billion people suffer chronic malnutrition and many more are just scraping by, affected by floods and other climate disasters that countries are unable, in one or several ways, to help their citizens survive. At the other end of the line, where the life and death scenario is not an immediate issue but where people are struggling to find meaning of their existence in this big world, you have the misplaced, the in-betweens, and the getting-by’s of Western so-called developed countries. Someone has said that we are losing touch with compassion, empathy and solidarity across the board the last decades, that our trip to individuality has left us so me-me-me fixated that we cannot see past the tip of our noses if it doesn’t apply to us in an immediate fashion.

I got a call from Amnesty yesterday. It was a person on the other end who first thanked me for my contributions in the previous year and then told me that they could use more help if I was up for it. He then went on to talk about a specific place where my contribution (they never say money, maybe it is just to dirty a word, to acknowledge that our society has built itself around currency) could do good, namely Haiti, where women are raped in greater numbers than ever before due to the lack of control and corruption that leave the police at best indifferent (his words) to the women’s suffering. Finally he asked in a meek voice if I thought that I had some way of making room in my budget so I could possibly up my contribution a little bit, so they could do more humanitarian work. When I said yes to his suggestion he sounded so genuinely happy, that I felt really ashamed that I had not suggested a larger amount of money. And then surprised by this. Now why on earth was I not just happy to contribute?

And why mention this in a book blog? Well, I have had these kinds of thoughts with me while I read Harstad’s ‘Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet?’ (English title: Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion?). Maybe it’s a bit weird to introduce Harstad’s novel with these two very concrete examples, since it is not a book that deals with natural disasters, famine or (over)population. But it deals with the one in the masses of humanity, and what effect they have on others, what sort of chain reactions lead on lifeline over to another. For me Harstad’s character, Mattias, is a central contemporary voice of those in-between’s. He is also the One in the book – the individual, the center of causality. But even so, it is not an egomaniac who fills the pages. You feel like slapping him for his apathetic and apologetic nature, and yet you sympathize and identify with him. The novel centers around a person who is dislodged and alienated from himself, his family, his girlfriend and society so much, and just wants to fizzle out in the great vast ocean of people, to not attract attention or make a fuzz, that he ‘flees’ from Norway to the Faroe Islands. A place where no one knows him and he knows no one. In this postmodern, fast-paced lifestyle he is one person who does not feel or doesn’t want to feel the drive of a winner, a top-competitor, someone who strives to be the best, at one point it states that he wanted to be the best second-best or runner up. He just wants to get by, to fill some service void, and get on with it. At the same time he is caught between two places, because he is aware of the fact that he doesn’t want to disappoint those who are close to him – he is scared to oblivion of being useless, of being in the way. He creates a buffer around his person and all around him. But on the Faroes he discovers a group of people (or rather they discover him) who take him in – at a psychiatric half-way house – and he connects with them. They are in a way embodiments of his own fears, and at the same time mirrors of his situation. Together they form a society of in-betweens.

Johan Harstad - Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet

It’s not very often someone from outside the Faroe Islands sits down with a pen and starts writing a novel using the islands as a backdrop. And in a way it feels very strange reading this without giving way too much attention to the scenery when you know Klaksvík, stood freezing in a bus shelter on Hvítanesvegur and drove too many times around the islands in a car because there is little else to do when you are uninspired. And if I am not much mistaken, the photo on the cover is of the road to Gomlurætt – a symbol of a halfway place between modern city and quiet home town. Always covered in fog – timeless. Very symbolic! But then again, it is not a story of the Faroes but of Mattias and all the people.

The style of narration is exquisite, so vulnerable and rambling at points and concise at others. Some parts of the book have sentences that go on for 2-3 pages without a punctuation, and you find yourself running along with this fast pace, this ‘have-to-get-it-out-no-matter-how-it-sounds’ pace. He describes with fervor the in-the-moment scenery that you make faces and places come alive in your head while you read instantaneously. I think it is also this in-the-moment moments that Mattias lives by and can cope with. The world is so big, there are so many people, all the people everywhere, that he chooses to focus on one person or one feeling at a time.

I will end with a quotation taken from a beautiful funeral scene, where Mattias is to sing (he is previously introduced as a very, very good singer, but rejects it because of the center stage character singing entails). It barely needs more introduction or else I will spoil it for people who would want to read the novel:

And the important thing is not what I sang, but that I did it, and the sound filled the room, it forced its way around the church multiple times and through our heads before it pushed its way through drafty walls and clock towers, half-open doors and the people who stood outside felt warm for a minute, they closed their umbrellas in sync and stood there silently as the sound lifted itself over their heads and  laid down on Saksun like a fog no one had ever seen before and I heard people crying, I heard people who could no longer hold back, and the minister went to his quarters for a minute, Havstein took a hold of Carl and Carl was sitting with his eyes fixed to the ground and did not dare look at the mother and Anna held her arms around Palli and Palli looked straight ahead and Havstein smiled to me, Sofia’s mother closed her eyes and I sang more powerfully than ever before, I tried to lift the roof, I tried to force the beams holding the roof to loosen from their battened places and open the building up, I wanted for the model boat that hung from the ceiling to sail out and the organist was doing his best to keep up, kept the pace with the notes and crawled up the register as I moved further and further in the song and at one point I left the lyrics entirely the way it was supposed to be sung, but the organist followed, we left the music and the lyrics and it just became sound and the sound enfolded everyone of us in warm woolen plaids and got us aboard unsinkable boats and I carried us over the oceans and onto land in another place and held the last notes for as long as I was equal to, and afterwards it was so quiet that you could have heard a bacteria falling from the ceiling and landing on the floor.

Not even God himself could have walked soundless through that room.

5 thoughts on “All the people

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention » All the people Penciltwister - a Jenny Johannessen book blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Hey, this is Harstad’s American editor, John Thornton — I just wanted to do a drive-by comment here to let you know that the book is going to be coming out in English in June 2011 from Seven Stories Press, translated by Deborah Dawkin. (I’ve linked this post to the book’s page on our website.) Would love to get you a review copy when it’s released — I really, really like what you have to say about the book, and glad there’s a kind of vanguard of English-language fans of Harstad out there! J

    • Hi John,
      Thank you for the kind words, I am looking forward to the release of the English edition of ‘Buzz…’
      Harstad’s novel is definitely a book I would recommend people to read, so I hope your release goes well (I think I convinced my sister to read it with this post, so that’s one down) :)
      J

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