Authors: Roy Jacobsen
Translated from the Norwegian by
Don Bartlett with Don Shaw
Copyright © 2009 by Cappelen Damm AS
Translation © 2011 by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
This publication is made possible by funding provided in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and private funders. Significant support has also been provided by Target; the McKnight Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.
A Lannan Translation Selection
Funding the translation and publication of exceptional literary works
This translation has been published with the financial support of NORLA.
Published by Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America
First published in Norwegian under the title
Forlag, Oslo, in 2008.
English translation first published by MacLehose Press, London, in 2011.
Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-037-6
2 4 6 8 9 7 5 3 1
First Graywolf Printing, 2011
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011930483
Cover design: Kyle G. Hunter
Cover photo: © Juice Images/Corbis
Wallpaper design: © Pavel Konovalov
My heroes are kids. Brave, struggling kids. Growing up in a working-class area outside Oslo in the early sixties – a time of confusion, excitement and unrefined and rather rough social experimentation. Before oil. Before anybody had any money at all. When a social-democratic welfare state was no more than a vague and desperate idea, so unlike the nouveau-riche society it produced within just a few decades. This was a change so abrupt, radical and unheard of in Norway’s history that all that is left of it is an ambiguous nostalgia and real stories on that eternal subject: how to lose one’s innocence without losing one’s soul. This novel is dedicated to those kids who made it. And to those who didn’t. I love them all.
It all started when Mother and I had some decorating to do. That is, I painted the lowest part of the wall, as I was rather lacking in height – it was a struggle – while she stood on a kitchen chair and concentrated on the bit below the ceiling. At that rate it would actually take several months to finish one wall. But one evening fru Syversen came round, eyed our handiwork, her arms folded across her ample bosom, and said:
“Why don’t you try wallpaper, Gerd?”
“Yes, come with me.”
We followed fru Syversen, who lived across the corridor from us, I had never been in her flat before, even though we had been living opposite each other for several years, and Anne-Berit lived there, a girl of my age in the class parallel to mine, as well as her two little sisters, six-year-old twins whose names frequently came up whenever Mother had a bone to pick with me.
“Look at Reidun and Mona,” came the refrain. Or she invoked Anne-Berit, who, according to fru Syversen, considered being indoors, where her bed and food were, more fun than being out in the street, where life was forged with its immense array of boards and building blocks and roof tiles strewn around between blocks of flats, and down beyond, the grass-covered fields with tree stumps and logs and uncluttered brooks and thick scrub and hidden clay paths, where you could light fires from roofing felt and lumps of tar and scraps of wood, and build two-storey huts, over which famous battles were fought, by the great and the invincible, edifices which could be razed to the ground from one moment to the next and would have to be rebuilt the day after, never by those who had torn them down. Those who build and those who destroy are never one and the same. I mention this because I was a builder, even though I was small, and I shed many a tear at finding our castles in ruins; there was talk of reprisals and bloodcurdling vengeance, but the vandals had nothing to lose save their good humour and broad smirks, already there were traces here of a division, between those who have something to lose and those who have never had and never will have plans to acquire a bean. And this world had nothing to offer Anne-Berit and her sisters, they neither built nor destroyed, they sat around the kitchen table eating supper, all day long as far as I could see, this time with herr Syversen, presiding from the head of the table in a string vest with braces hanging down over impressive bulldozer thighs that bulged over the edge of his fragile chair.
On the sitting-room walls of the Syversen family flat we saw for the first time the large-flower pattern wallpaper that would in the course of the Sixties turn Norwegian working-class homes into minor tropical jungles, with slender book shelves made of teak and supported by smart brass fittings between the lianas, and a striped corner sofa in brown, beige and white, illuminated by tiny invisible lamps mounted beneath the shelving like glittering stars. I could see the cool, faraway look in my mother’s eyes, an initial girlish enthusiasm that might last for three to four seconds, I knew, before giving way to her natural timidity, which in turn would end in the expression of a realistic mind-set: “No, that’s not something
can’t do that.” Or: “That’s no good for us.” And so on. And there was quite a lot of “That’s not for us” at that time for Mother and me, because she worked only part-time at the shoe shop in the Oslo district of Vaterland so that she would be at home and ready whenever I ambled in from school, and therefore she could not see herself having the means to send the lad on holiday, which she said every time spring was in the offing, as if indeed I wanted to be sent anywhere, I wanted to be at home with my mother, even in the summer; there were many others on the estate who stayed at home during the summer, although it was common for people to pretend they didn’t, or at least to say they had no wish to go on holiday.
“Isn’t it rather costly?” she asked, a word she only uses when we are with others; on our own we say “dear”, and we mean it.
“Not at all,” said fru Syversen, who was wont to read Swedish women’s magazines – in contrast to Mother who read only Norwegian ones – and produced a pile of Swedish magazines off a shelf in the tropical rain forest and flicked open to an article from Malmø, summoning herr Syversen from the kitchen as she did so and instructing him to show Gerd the receipts.
I watched the big man, who chuckled Right you are, and was willingness itself, and as he lumbered over to the bookcase and pulled out a drawer hardly big enough to hold much more than a picture postcard, the strange aroma of hard-working adult man assailed my nostrils and I thought, as I always did whenever this large human being came too close to me, on the stairs and in the hobby room, that perhaps being without a father was not such a bad thing after all, even though herr Syversen was good-natured and harmless enough, and always had a pleasant remark to make about some topic that did not interest me. In other words, it was his wife who was responsible for these three well-brought-up girls, who were still sitting in the kitchen and silently chomping away while casting surreptitious glances at us.
What was remarkable was that Mother was unable to dismiss these receipts with her usual set phrases; in fact, the wallpaper was indeed not very “costly”, and it had not been bought in Sweden either, but in a hardware shop, Agda Manufaktur og Myklebust, at the Årvoll Senter, next to the bank, where we did our food shopping if for some reason we did not go to Lien in Traverveien or Omar Hansen in Refstad allé and from whom, until last year, Mother had also rented a freezer until it became too dear or until we discovered we did not know what to do with it; after all, these were the years of the Berlin Wall and President Kennedy, most of all though I suppose it was the era of Yuri Gagarin, the Russian who had astounded the whole world by returning alive from certain death. It was, moreover, also the time a Mark II Jaguar cost 49,300 Norwegian kroner, a snippet of information I mention here not simply as a curiosity, but also because I saw this price, and the car, at a car exhibition at Bjerke Trotting Stadium and have never been able to forget it, perhaps encouraged by the fact that I knew we had made a down payment to the Housing Co-op of 3,200 kroner and that meant the Jaguar was worth the same as sixteen flats, a whole block, in other words. And any system that equates a car with the homes of seventy-six alive and kicking human beings of all ages, such as those living in No. 3, that’s the kind of knowledge that hits you like a goods train when you are young, and it never leaves you. Think of all the smells, every family has its own smell, distinct from all others, and all the faces and voices, the estate’s discordant choir, look at their bodies, clothes and movements as they sit there with their shirtsleeves rolled up, eating dinner and arguing or laughing or crying or keeping their mouths shut and chewing thirty-two times on each side. What can a Jaguar have to compare with all this? A revolver in the glove compartment? At the very least. I have thought a lot about the car, probably much too much, it was bottle-green.
“But then there’s the price of the paste on top of that, you know,” fru Syversen continued, as if it had occurred to her that things were going too smoothly.
“No, there isn’t,” herr Syversen interrupted. His Christian name, it now transpired, was Frank.
“What did you say, Frank?” fru Syversen said in a sharp tone, taking the receipts off him and subjecting them to critical scrutiny through a pair of jet-black hexagonal glasses, which had not been easy to find among the multitude of light-blue porcelain figures and oval pewter ashtrays on shelf after shelf, shelves which, in my opinion, should have been filled with books, didn’t they have any books in this family? But Frank just shrugged, smiled at Mother, placed a leaden hand on my cropped head and said:
“Well, Finn, so you’re the boss at home, are you?”
A remark I presumed was prompted by the green paint on my face, on my fingers and in my hair, and I must have looked as if I were doing a man’s work to keep our two lives afloat.
“Yes, he’s so good …” and at that point Mother’s voice broke, “I could never have managed without him.”
Which is a sentence I quite like, because it did not take a lot to knock Mother off her perch at that time, even though we lived in a house of reinforced concrete with swallows’ nests in the loft and neighbours who sat on their balconies leisurely drinking coffee, or stood with their heads under car bonnets for hours on end; I could read and write better than most, and her wages arrived on time, every fortnight, well, even though nothing at all ever happened here, it was as though we were forever surrounded by perils which we had been lucky enough to avoid so far because, to quote Mother, you cannot learn anything from things that never happen.