A Town Called Mørk

Adam Mars-Jones

  • I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett
    Harvill Secker, 282 pp, £16.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 84655 781 1

Per Petterson makes a small detour in the course of his latest novel’s action, as he steers one of his characters into a bookshop to pass comment on the major Scandinavian cultural export of recent years:

All the new fiction, I didn’t know any of the authors’ names, and on two long tables there were three stacks of fat crime books next to each other, most of them Norwegian, and I hadn’t heard of these authors either, apart from maybe a couple of them, who were selling sensationally well, I had seen them in the newspaper, they were given a full-page spread on the arts pages in Dagbladet, and in the financial section at the back, because they earned serious money, but actually I didn’t much like crime novels.

Even so, his book shares a border of some sort with the crime thriller. Early one morning in September 2006, two childhood friends, estranged for more than thirty years, recognise each other on the Ulvøya bridge on the outskirts of Oslo and exchange a few words. Jim, long-term unemployed and unable to sleep, is fishing from the bridge, while Tommy is out driving his new grey Mercedes with tinted windows. Jim notices without envy that the car’s paintwork is shiny, ‘as skin can be shiny at certain times, in certain situations’, and that though Tommy now looks like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State the horizontal scar above his left eye is ‘still evident, white, luminous, silver’. A scar is backstory made flesh.

The narrative switches back and forward between 2006 and the 1960s and 1970s, when Jim and Tommy were inseparable, and Tommy’s was the life that seemed precarious. He lived with his father (a dustman, powerfully built, who could lift loaded hundred-litre metal bins, one in each arm, as if they weighed nothing) and three sisters, Siri and the young twins. He couldn’t protect his sisters from the kicks dealt out at the end of each working day, but he tried nevertheless to keep some sense of family going after the disappearance of their mother a couple of years before. Jim had no father, and no details about who he might have been. A passage from his point of view shifts between pathos and astringency in a way that is characteristic of the book; in it he imagines the standard image of a missing father, ‘a man so badly needed in his wholeness and consequence’ that ‘life was twisted and distorted for the boy left behind, with his achingly empty hands, robbed of his masculine model, the football-playing man, the cross-country-skiing man, a man who stood his ground, who never let his gaze drop, but looked everyone boldly in the eye.’ But this isn’t Jim’s situation. He is defined by an absence that has no shape, that can hardly even aspire to the condition of loss: ‘In Jim’s mind there was nothing stored, nothing you could see on an X-ray, inside his brain everything was as it had always been.’

One father who has left no trace, and another who leaves red and blue marks, hard scabs where the skin has split and not yet healed. After Tommy, aged 13, goes into action with a baseball bat the two friends are closer to equality in the matter of fathers. Tommy’s father disappears from the area, and the children are split up, the twins adopted nearby, Tommy taken in by a neighbour who soon gets him a job in a local sawmill. Siri lives some distance away in a respectable household, protected from the bad influence of the brother who tried to protect her.

I Refuse is a novel about damage and survival, but the damage doesn’t manifest itself in predictable ways. It’s Jim, less obviously traumatised if traumatised at all, who experiences some sort of emotional illness, in the course of which he rejects the friend who has been his second self. The precipitating event is a midnight lark on the ice in December 1970, when both boys have turned 18:

With a few hefty thrusts of their skates they raced across the lake in a straight line and braked sideways-on in the middle of it all with a shower of ice spraying up from the blades like you could see in a hockey match on TV and stopped and stood still and only slowly looked from side to side, and there was nothing but forest, and no one else was out tonight.

They talk about their friendship, which Jim says (‘carefully, in a low voice’) could last all their lives. Tommy says it will last as long as they want it to, which makes Jim happy, but he presses the point, asking whether there is something special in him, something good. Tommy says he’s just Jim, and Jim is suddenly not sure this is enough.

The next time they take to the ice, there’s a loud cracking noise that echoes back from the hills, then another. They race towards safety, but ‘it was going to go wrong, they could both feel it, or at least Jim did, so whether he meant to or not, he struck out with his right arm, and his hand in its mitten hit Tommy in the chest and knocked him backwards while Jim shot forwards.’ There’s no harm done, or no obvious harm. Tommy isn’t hurt, and the ice isn’t cracking anyway, merely settling as it expands at low temperature. Jim insists that he wasn’t sacrificing Tommy so as to save himself, something he hasn’t been accused of, and becomes obsessed with the idea that Tommy thinks him guilty of it, in a way that suggests the projection of a denied truth.

This is a strange incident, neither wholly realistic nor fully symbolic, though the non-cracking of the ice reveals an actual fissure within Jim. The point of view is elusive, first including both boys, then narrowing to Jim but finally leaving his intentions open to question. There is a certain amount of slippage elsewhere, with some sections in the first person (just Jim and Tommy at first, though the cast list of voices expands as the book goes on), others in the third. This isn’t exactly an elegant way of telling a story but it allows for one striking effect: at a certain point the third-person narrator repeats something the reader has already learned by other means, so that the construction doesn’t hang together, the panels not quite fitting flush. The narrator, though omniscient after his fashion (able to say of the sleeping Jim that ‘he was crying but he didn’t know that’), seems not to be aware of the overlap. This is omniscience with blinkers.

A characteristic sentence of I Refuse will start bleak and becalmed and then find a little energy and a new angle. This is Tommy’s first sight of his father after forty years: ‘His hair was long, and his beard long, and he was grey all over, his clothes were grey with grey stains on them, and the shrill light from the naked bulb under the ceiling struck his open staring eyes and flowed into them and was gone.’ The reunion, to call it that, is anything but sentimental, and marks a reappearance of the title phrase. Earlier in 2006, when Tommy’s adoptive father, Jonsen, was taken ill, the old man had tried to console him by saying: ‘You can’t refuse to die, my friend.’ Tommy’s response was: ‘Of course you can refuse.’ Now he refuses to make peace with someone who wants reconciliation only because he has run out of violence.

On a larger scale, despite the consistent refusal of easy emotion and against the grain of the sentences, there’s a sense that crispness is threatened, as the book goes on, by something slightly soggy. August and September 2006 are pretty packed with incident for Tommy. First his adoptive father falls sick and dies, then his real father turns up out of the blue, and finally he runs into Jim. A thriller would finesse these coincidences more brazenly: here they seem an arbitrary pile-up of unresolved issues. Readers of literary fiction, on the other hand, can be trusted to realise, without a flurry of plotting, that Tommy and Jim are in some way two sides of the same person, so that making up with Jim is also a way of rescuing himself. At different times on a single fate-filled day Jim and Tommy happen to sit down at the same table in a restaurant and make some sort of emotional impression on the waitress. The vulnerability the men express motivates her to leave her husband. (He wants her to wear her ring at work, which she refuses to do, and now she refuses to go on with the marriage.) It’s Tommy she goes home with, but it was Jim who catalysed her feelings.

Already in the earlier timeframe a woman had seemed to function as a symbolising link between the two men, when Tommy’s sister Siri went out for a while with Jim. She also brought a winning floaty lyricism into the narrative:

You can remember what the weather was like, and the sky above, all the skies, and all the days had the same sign, it was plus, plus, plus, and they came towards you and passed by in slow motion, and the piece of clothing was a dress, and wearing that dress you swirled round on one foot only, and you lifted one hand and looked at it, and it was a new hand, it was your hand, but you hadn’t seen it before, and you laughed and said: I’ve got a new hand, Jim, look at my hand, Jim, it’s waving, it will never go home again.

The translator, Don Bartlett, must take credit for the assurance of the cadences.

Women don’t quite have the monopoly on empathy, but it’s chiefly a female accomplishment. It’s true that Tommy, when arrested as a teenager, notices without prompting that the policeman driving the squad car looks exhausted and unwell, and ends up doing the driving himself on the return trip, though too young to have a licence. Siri’s modelling of other people’s mental states is subtler and stronger. She dissuades Jim from picking up a magazine on an unaccustomed day, because she has noticed that the lady in the railway station kiosk, obviously smitten with the handsome young man, gets herself dolled up for his visits and will feel at a disadvantage if he surprises her when she’s looking less than her best. Empathy is the antipodes of trauma, though this theme would be more eloquent if the female characters had more autonomy, if they were defined rather less by their interventions in male lives.

On the freezing night in 1964 that Tommy’s mother left home, she also left packed lunches with the children’s names on them, continuing the tradition of including the twins even though they were too young to go to school. Whether that was empathy or something quite its opposite is hard to decide (‘she had written their names in nicely looped letters on all of them and then nothing else, for there was nothing else she could do, and there was no reason to be sentimental’). The most consistently realistic element in the book is the evocation of a small, almost generic Norwegian town in the 1960s and 1970s – one of a number called Mørk – where everyone knows everything that goes on, though in the case of Tommy’s brutal father no one does anything to help. This is another sort of blinkered omniscience. The community spirit is seen at its best in the way all the neighbours would turn out to help with the horse-drawn snowplough, which needed five men standing on it to keep it down. The neighbours followed

in two lines, one either side of the road, the shovels in their hands, and every winter they did the same, the heavy work, the heavy horses, no boss required, everyone just came, everyone knew what to do. They looked out of the window in the early morning and realised the neighbourhood was so deep under snow that it had to be dealt with, and they all turned out.

A stranger took a picture one year, and when it appeared in the paper the caption underneath read: ‘We’re not waiting for the council’s snowplough. We’re not waiting for anyone. We are the council.’

This is a moral landscape without shadows, as one scene dramatises in the most literal terms. When Tommy’s mother, Tya, leaves home that night in 1964, her getaway is impeded by the uncleared snow. All she can do is take refuge with the man with whom she’s been having an affair, though she’s leaving him behind as well as her husband. She can’t take the train in full view of everyone. In a typically damped down piece of melodrama plotting, he’s the same Jonsen who will adopt Tommy and give him his start in business, though Tommy doesn’t suspect this at any stage. Jonsen doesn’t dare drive her at night:

Just the thought of the loud, whining sound the fan belt would make now, tonight, set his nerves on edge. People would jump to their windows and see his headlights shining up the road and where they were coming from, and for those who could put two and two together, it would be obvious. Of course, they would think, that’s it. I’ve known it all along.

On their way between her house and his, he insists that she walk in his footsteps, for fear that two sets of prints will give them away in the morning. He finds himself praying:

He said to the Lord: let no one be without sleep tonight, let no one stand up from their beds in this hour to sit on a chair by the window and gaze out into the blizzard with their head full of worries they cannot escape in their sleep and catch sight of us here, this woman in my footsteps in the deep snow, in the mellow light from the snow that makes everything so clear no matter how dark it is, and it was past midnight, and if anyone did, if anyone could really see them, he would no longer be the same person to those who lived here, he would for ever be a different man to them and could no longer stay in this neighbourhood.

Perhaps there’s a connection between the absence of doubt in the community’s code of conduct and a typographical quirk of the book, the complete absence of question marks.

*

The odd thing about the Norway in the book is that an oppressively certain social identity goes along with a rather weak cultural one. Even in the earlier timeframe the reference points are all international. There’s High Chaparral on the Swedish TV channel at 7.30 on a Saturday night. Zane Grey books, Casablanca and Disney cartoons are unifying experiences. When Jim looks tense, Tommy immediately thinks of Dylan on the cover of Blonde on Blonde. After a party, somewhat drunk, Tommy and Jim do some digging in a trench being excavated by the telephone company, and decide they need to sing something to help them keep time. They try various songs by the Beatles and the Hollies, but the rhythms don’t work. Rather to their surprise the Norwegian national anthem is a better bet, but they’re embarrassed by it and keep their voices very low, down in the trench, as they sing ‘Norway in red, white and blue’.

Even Norwegian history is refracted by America, in the Steinbeck book Jim lends Tommy (The Moon Is Down) and the film that Jim is reminded of when he catches sight of a power station (‘white anoraks against the white snow and daring sabotage raids’), unnamed but plausibly Anthony Mann’s Heroes of Telemark. Meanwhile high culture is represented by D.H. Lawrence (‘his thirst for life lay burning in my hands inside the cool, darkened hospital room’) and a shop assistant quoting Charlotte Brontë (though omitting the question marks). ‘She straightened her back, raised her finger and said: “Do you think I am an automaton, a machine without feelings, do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless.”’ Jim is flustered and says the wrong thing out of nervousness. It’s not that he doesn’t know Jane Eyre.

The odd thing about the two timeframes of I Refuse is that they bracket, and ignore, the great economic convulsion of Norwegian economic history, when a moderately poor country became a rich one, with per capita GDP going from 85 per cent of Sweden’s in 1975 to 160 per cent of it in 2005. A pipeline from the sea produced in a few years the sort of transformation that in the case of the Dutch Republic required a trading empire, a fleet and the best part of a century. It’s hard to imagine that such a change would have no effect on the characters’ lives, and it’s certainly hard for a British readership to sympathise properly with the adult Jim’s sense of depersonalisation at the hands of a social security system that seems lavishly funded, smelling hardly at all of misery and fear.

The last thing that’s needed would be the moralising that sometimes disfigures Henning Mankell’s thrillers, the deafening subtext that says ‘we in Sweden, in our search for social justice, have failed to recognise the reality of evil,’ but it’s strange to leave so much out of the picture. As a teenager Jim was opposed to the Vietnam War, as an adult Siri works for Save the Children in various trouble spots, but there seem to be no national issues worth mentioning. Perhaps that’s part of the point. Tommy is the only one of the characters who is attuned to the real world, and what that amounts to is that he sells the sawmill, which Jonsen made over to him, to a competitor in Valmo, who promptly closes it down. He acknowledges that he shouldn’t have done it, even that the act changed him, but the bleak lesson he learned from the 1980s was that ‘if you own something of value you will lose money if you don’t sell it.’

It’s Tommy who visits the bookshop while waiting for the transformed and transforming waitress to finish work and join him. But though he dismisses the current crop of crime novels he has tender and painful memories of reading Chandler’s Philip Marlowe books, the ending of The Long Goodbye above all (‘it made me feel upset, almost desperate when I finished it’). Presumably what he found upsetting was the bleak final confrontation between Marlowe and Terry Lennox, the friend who has used him. ‘We were pretty good friends once,’ Lennox says. ‘Were we?’ Marlowe says. ‘I forget. That was two other fellows, seems to me.’ In I Refuse the reference makes it clear that Tommy must reclaim the two other fellows who were himself and Jim in their teenage years. Of course the environment of the book is very far from Californian, not a lush narcotic wilderness in which corruption can bloom unchecked but a place where cold is the keynote – and pain is part of what you feel when numbed tissue reconnects with sensation.

Half-invoking noir signals doesn’t necessarily give your book dual nationality in terms of genre. In fact it’s easier to get stranded, to be neither one thing nor another, than to work the Long Goodbye trick of fully occupying a genre while not being restricted by it. When the successive disappearances of Tommy’s parents turn out not to have any criminal implication, some readers will feel cheated. In Petterson’s Norway, when snow has ‘a porous, red sheen’, this may be simply the reflection of a car’s rear lights, no more than a fact of winter life.