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.
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.
Herbjørg Wassmo is an interesting lady. She says stuff like: ‘God bless birth control, study loans and the washing machine.’ And she laughs with a charming tickle in her voice, the kind that makes you laugh whether you want it or not. But the most interesting thing about her is her presence. She is the kind of woman you would have anxiety attacks approaching (I did). It’s not due to the fact that she is famous, but because of the ‘can’t-put-my-finger-on-it’ blend of experienced elder and rebellious child.
The dialogue between her and Anette Dina Sørensen, apart from a few cross-linguistic hiccups, was affable. And as an extra titbit the actor Karin Bang Heinemeier read passages from Wassmo’s latest book. She talked about children, being a child and emphasized quite a few times the importance of individuality. How the family quite often was the first assault an individual had to relate itself to, assault both as a physical and psychological entity.
She also stressed how important it was for a mother to be able to step out of the glorified role of Motherhood, and escape the pedestal she was placed on. Accepting your mother, sister, aunt as an individual first and foremost would only be of gain to yourself and to them. And through the passages that were read to us, I got a sense of just how much the individual meant to her. How does a person, a writer, describe another person, or for that matter herself? Is it possible even to capture Individuality when you are mediating thoughts, actions and feelings of someone you have conjured up?
This makes me think about Roland Barthes’ claim that the author is dead, that she/he is of no importance to the work, the key to it is language and the one with the key is the reader.
I imagine Wassmo can concur with this. At one point Anette Sørensen talks about a passage in the book where the pastor and one of the leading women (both married to other people) are in the church, and Sørensen reads it as they are having sex. Wassmo (with a chuckle that makes the whole house smile) says that this is entirely up to her, she has not explicitly written this but laid heavy emphasis on the passion which doesn’t necessarily leads to the physical act of sex. And then says, that when the book is out there, it is out of her hands. She has no ownership of it.
It is interesting though, because she has not completely given her writing up to others without feeling that the work reflects her, and so that it is part of her. With the exception of this one (so she said) she has always felt angst when releasing a book. What would people think, say? And so maybe this latest book is like catharsis for her.
I would recommend reading something of Wassmo, and as one man in the audience said, ‘if you know Norwegian, do yourself a favor and read it in its mother tongue so you get the scent of local dialects too.’