An elderly man dying of cancer finds redemption through his wife’s love, in this Norwegian novelist’s minimally drawn, quietly detached, very moving third outing (Stella Descending, 2003, etc.).
At 69, Johan Sletten—an ordinary man, twice married, not terribly courageous or dignified, having enjoyed some success during his 40-year-career as an Oslo newspaper journalist, and a recent humiliation for plagiarism—discovers that his cancer is spreading and he has only a few months to live. The “grace” in his life is Mai, his second wife, a pediatrician, 17 years his junior, and utterly devoted to Johan despite his ordinariness. While Johan is haunted by the indignity of his father’s last days, and the prospect of ending the same way, he extracts from Mai the promise to help him at all costs if his illness “should become a burden.” With the expediency of the healthy (and with relief, Johan notes wretchedly), Mai agrees to help him die when the time comes. His last days become a sequence of small, enormously affecting moments of grace: watching Mai quietly reading in evening firelight, remembering times as a child picking strawberries with his Mamma, and meeting his unlovable grown son, Andreas, again after an estrangement of eight years. The time for keeping control comes swiftly, however, and Johan, babbling on morphine, fights all the way up to an ambiguous close: Does Mai give him the lethal injection against his will? Ullmann writes with a wondrously light, deft touch, selecting the most telling, startling detail to sketch her characters, such as Mai’s lying about seemingly insignificant matters, and Johan’s choosing to hide behind a tree than meet confrontation. Ullmann’s detachment is wry rather than cold, and her pared-down portraits result in real characters who carry all the true-life weight of self-doubt and inner purpose.
Slenderly executed work of stunning emotional magnitude.