Deracinated, incomplete people undertake interlocking quests for human connection and self-realization.
This epic Norwegian novel, a major European bestseller and prizewinner, is a complex mosaic tracing the lives of several generations of the Nilsens, a fragmented Oslo family, throughout the WWII years and afterward. Christensen’s narrator is Barnum Nilsen, a physically stunted, alcoholic, melancholic scriptwriter who attempts to make sense of his hollow life by assembling a context for it from stories half-told and imperfectly remembered by his distracted forebears and single estranged sibling. The latter is his older half-brother Fred: the product of their mother Vera’s rape by a German soldier, who grew up an angry malcontent (and, incidentally, accomplished boxer), a willfully mute vagabond bent on understanding himself by researching the misadventures of his great-grandfather Willem, vanished during a voyage to Greenland. The former are the unstable Vera herself, her alcoholic mother Boletta, and her maternal grandmother (“the Old One”), a former silent-film star lost in memories of her bygone youth, beauty, and fame. Another narrative and thematic strand explores the past of Barnum’s father Arnold, an itinerant con man who charmed the ingenuous Vera with tales of his youthful adventures, climaxed by joining a circus. It is in fact the lesson Arnold learned under the Big Top (“Imagination is the greatest thing there is!”) that fuels Barnum’s passion to examine every facet of his own past and heritage, in effect curing his own depression and despair by freeing and exercising his imagination. Christensen’s intense saga (with intermittent echoes of such ambitious predecessors as Grass’s The Tin Drum and Michel Tournier’s The Ogre) is both an arduous read (owing to numerous long run-on sentences) and a thrilling and stimulating black comedy that shows, unforgettably, how art—and understanding—are shaped out of pain and suffering.
Translator Steven deserves almost as much praise as does the remarkable author of this enormous, challenging, life-affirming masterpiece.