You need to have a great deal of sadness inside you to mourn for other people, and not only yourself.
So says an old lady, a professional mourner, to the narrator, who has come to a remote part of Greece in search of her missing husband. That is why, the old lady says, you become better as you grow older, when you are young you do not have…enough sadness in you to mourn.
It might be as true to say that when you’re young you can’t or won’t see your own sadness clearly enough. That’s the case of the narrator, who is out of love with her estranged husband, and he with her. She has only come looking for him under pressure from his parents, who don’t know that the two are already separated. Dispassionately she explains all this to us, coolly she judges that he has already seduced the hotel receptionist with his calculated charm and that he is probably off on some other adventure with a different local woman. How a marriage that was once “very happy” drifted into this state of apparently emotionless estrangement is something the narrator chooses not to contemplate. We can tell she’s not going to get away with it as soon as she arrives at the luxury hotel so strangely situated in a landscape blackened by fires lit in a vendetta between two families, a place full of ill omens. She’s the only guest, and Christopher has disappeared. The infatuated receptionist, Maria, broods behind her desk and nobody seems to know quite what to do with the foreign wife. And, out of her well-controlled zone of rational calm, the foreign wife doesn’t know what to do with herself either. The uncharacteristic chaos she finds in Christopher’s room is the first thing that makes her reconsider her well-rehearsed dismissal of him as no more than a shallow egotist. And on it goes from there, the dismantling of what she thought she knew and of her own defences. Spoiler here: Christopher’s story has a tragic ending.
Reading A Separation is an unnerving experience, not just for the violence that bubbles below the surface and shows itself so clearly in the landscape, but for the intensity of the narrator’s observation, which has an almost hallucinatory sharpness. I was less convinced by the psychological trajectory. You will have gathered that the narrator comes to a different understanding of her relationship with Christopher and of the demands of intimacy; but she just didn’t take me with her:
I would say that at the time my own motivations were opaque to me. I acted on poorly defined sensations – what are called “instincts” and “impulses” – at first the only indication of this vast alteration in my feelings towards Christopher, toward our marriage, was the fact that the world of Gerolimenas in which I was a charlatan, and which was therefore paltry and insubstantial, had nonetheless become more concrete than any other place, as if the world had reduced itself to this single village on the Greek peninsula.
This “vast alteration” in her feelings didn’t chime with me, perhaps because the character of Christopher never became quite real to me, and because for so long the narrator is so evasive. It’s as if she walks so far out into the field of her own ruminations that she’s marooned. I could still see her only from a distance, despite spending so long in her head.
Don’t take my word for it, though. It’s an impressive piece of work and you may read it more intelligently and more sensitively. Maybe you’ll agree with Knausgaard’s summing up: “A novel so seamless, that follows its path with such consequence, that even minor deviations seem loaded with meaning. Wonderful.”