One of the most frustrating aspects of loving Norwegian fiction is the fact that only about one tenth of it is translated into English. One of the Gerts has no choice but to revive her schoolgirl German, as Norwegian writers are much more likely to be translated into German rather than English. Per Petterson has been translated, KO Knausgaard has been translated, but Anne B Ragde has only one book out of the thirty she has written, and Ketil Bjornstadt, the pianist and novelist, only seems to only have two of his many works of fiction translated into English.
What a joy then to find a recent work by Gaute Heivoll, a Norwegian writer whom we regard very highly, translated into English. His previous novel, Before I Burn (winner of the Brage Prize) which we reviewed on this blog, was translated by Don Bartlett, the translator of Knausgaard, but this book has been translated by Nadia Christensen, a winner of the Pegasus Prize for Literature.
Before I Burn speaks in the voice of a writer, who has returned to the home of his early years to write, and to explore the story of an outbreak of arson there in earlier years. It is not an attempt to find the arsonist, whose name has been revealed, but to study his motivation and the impact of his actions. It also includes stories of narrator’s family and relatives and his reflections on the writer’s task.
Across the China Sea also begins with a man looking back on his past. He has come to clear out his family home after the death of his parents. The story weaves back and forth in time, as the unnamed narrator revisits memories and feelings. The family has moved to the far south of Norway just at the end of the German Occupation. Father is a psychiatric nurse and Mother has given up her potential career as a classical singer to train as a nurse. Together they have the aspiration of caring for those who are mentally ill, either through trauma, neglect or birth defect. They decide to dedicate their lives
to a Christlike spirit of love …they would build their own little asylum in the mist of the parish where Papa was born and grew up…
At first, they take three adult men, of whom Uncle Josef, a family member injured in a carriage accident is the top dog. Two other men join them and the three exist together for a while, then the family hear of five children whose parents are unable to care for them. They are starving and living in filth. The father signs papers from the city authorities and takes these children into his care. For the next thirty years this odd group of people live quite harmoniously together.
There is no suggestion that these children may have varying levels of intelligence or ability for education. They are regarded as one group,difference is never considered by their carers. They never go to school. They live a life of routine, safe in the care of the family, with their eldest sister Lilly as the heart of their group. The narrator comes to almost love them and regard them as extended family. Later the two eldest siblings in the fostered family are sent off to be sterilised. There is care and kindness, but no deeper exploration into the individuality of the siblings.
Life rolls on through the seasons, Uncle Josef polishes his medal, Matiassen sits on his stool in the same spot under the ash tree every day, snow comes, thunderstorms crash down, but sometimes, just for a moment, life is different.
Mama turned onto her back and waved to us.
‘Come on, children!’ she shouted. ‘The water is wonderful!’
Suddenly a bird flew out of a pine tree on the other side of the lake It had been perched there the whole time. Now it began long strangely silent flight just above the water’s surface…It turned black against the sky, and then it was gone.
Not long after this a tragedy occurs, and Mama goes away for a while, but somehow the strength of their family life and ideals pulls them through.
Towards the end of the story, Heivoll treats us to another conflagration. This one is not started in secret, but planned to the last detail, with firemen, fire trucks and hoses in readiness. I have a feeling these two books are part of a series, based on events in the author’s life. I await the next book with interest, especially the fire scene.
(The firemen) were wearing smoke diver gear, and when they shouted to each other their voices became distorted through their masks. …Everyone waited as the flames rose inside. I heard a crackling sound that slowly became louder. It grew stronger, wilder. Now and then we heard a crash, followed by a slight sharp echo at the edge of the smoke. Smoke came out of the roof and between gaps in the outside walls upstairs…
For a moment the fire was beaten back, but soon the flames reappeared, and this time they had gathered force and broke through the roof.