Stig Saeterbakken took his own life in 2012 and this novel deals with suicide, through the eyes of Karl Meyer, a dentist, who is struggling to come to terms with his teenage son’s suicide. The book opens with a powerful set of vignettes, with Karl attempting to deal with his grief, make sense of his wife’s grief (who has just put an axe through the television) and wondering how he can reconnect with his daughter.
Our novel then tracks back, through a long series of short memories, recalling the events that Karl shared with his son Ole-Jacob, and all the actions that may have led to this tragic suicide.
The thought of losing her left me cold and made me feel faint. I didn’t understand why it had to be this way, why one life was so completely destructive in relation to the other. I wanted to live together with Eva, and I wanted to drown together with Mona. So why couldn’t it be done? Was it just down to all the ideas we’d pledged allegiance to, keeping these states mutually exclusive? But what were our real thoughts, aside from what we’d been instructed to think? Why should you have to stop living just because you were drowning?
As a novel this appears to be broken into two distinct sections – the lead up to Ole-Jacob’s death and the events that may have pushed him to take his own life; and then the post death grieving and attempts at reconciling with oneself that final act.
The first section reminded me (slightly) of Karl Ove Knausgaard, in that the everyday was explored in some detail (nowhere near the minute detail we see in “My Struggle”) as Karl recalls his passions, his neglect, his attempts at “fatherhood”, a complex pile of short vignettes that make up this man’s past.
I thought about my father. What would he have made of it all? And what about him, when he was alive? Did he ever want more than he had, more than he allowed himself to ask for? Was he really, as his manner suggested, so reconciled with everything that was his? So uninterested in everything that was not? Or was it simply convention, his generation’s penchant for reserve, the way they would confuse taciturnity with masculinity, that had prevented him from expressing the desire for anything more?
The second section, where Karl leaves his family for a second time, to reconcile with himself the horrors of his son’s death, takes us to a shady world of dream like sequences, changes of character where Karl no longer acts as he would have in the earlier section, visits to horror movies and apocalyptic plays and finally to a house of horror where anybody can confront all of their fears.
Yet I had a feeling of security which rendered me unafraid, now that I was finally standing there. All the scares, they were only there as a barrier, an ordeal you had to endure, an obstacle you had to overcome, in order to get to what really lay in store for you, and which was, as the dream at the Hotel Lucia had convinced me, the fulfilment of all desires, all dreams, all needs. Those who had gone mad from being in the house, they were the only ones who’d given up in the face of all its ordeals. While those who’d come out happy, they were the ones who’d endured them, and defeated them, and in the end had been rewarded, satisfied down to the very depths of their innermost desires.
A novel that is a meditation on death, that takes us through the journey of attempting to make sense of suicide, of a father grieving and looking at ways of healing, this book is does not cover easy subject matter. Very much like Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”’s this is a deeply personal book of a writer struggling with his own existence.
I put my hands in my lap and sat staring, as if it were important not to take my eyes off them, even for a moment. My feet were freezing. I thought about the muddy ground we’d been standing in and imagined I could hear a sucking every time I moved my toes. Some speeches were made. But nothing that was said had anything to do with my son, none of the character sketches were accurate, it was like they were talking about someone else, or like they weren’t talking about anyone in particular, but merely singling out the characteristics of an average eighteen year old, keeping themselves to the fringes of what anyone would assume about boys of that age, without daring to venture in past the periphery, where he was really to be found. Everyone spoke in a subdued voice; some whispered. The whole gathering proceeded in that same drone, a monotonous, lifeless stream of words around the tables, as if volume was a luxury it would be tactless to indulge in.
Personally I found the earlier section more gripping as the character of Karl is slowly revealed and as we learn his fears, misgivings and motivations. Through simple, short sections that portray a man struggling with his own existence we learn all about his fears. The second section, where he confronts such, to me was a little metaphysical and introducing characters such as a man who is on a well-balanced alcohol only diet, although intriguing seemed a little broad for the subject matter at hand. The inclusion of photos of a simple house that you could probably find anywhere in Croatia was a bit strange and I’m not 100% convinced of the ending. The translation was probably a little shabby too, there were a couple of sentences that I read over a number of times before giving up because they simply didn’t make sense – this could be the writer not the translation, however I’ll go with the translator (apologies if it’s not their work!)
Overall another great book from an interesting list of translated works, one that approaches the dark, often ignored, subject of suicide as the main theme. Such a pity our author didn’t personally confront the subject matter he so expertly wrote upon – or maybe he did!