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Note: This novel was WINNER of the Premio Herralde de Novela for Best Debut Novel in Spain when it was first published in 1999.

“We live our lives thinking we know who we are and how we’ll react in any given situation, but we just have to dig around a little in our memories to find significant examples of when we reacted quite differently from how we should have reacted…The variables that govern our responses, like the variables of memory, are entirely unforeseeable…Even our reactions or responses to the same stimulus are not always the same.”

Published in Spain in 1999 and just translated into English for the first time by renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa, Paris plumbs the depths of emotions, memories, and thoughts of the main character – as a schoolboy at the beginning and as an adult in the conclusion, twenty-two years later – as he tries to understand and reconcile serious issues about his father and mother, nearly all of which his mother keeps secret from him.  The boy and his mother share an intensely interdependent life since his father is absent for most of the novel, and though the boy accepts the little his mother does say about his father, he also explores on his own and discovers nuggets of additional information about his father which make him question everything else he already “knows.”  When, later in the novel, circumstances arise which his mother could never have predicted, he begins to question her whole story and all its mysteries:  “When our knowledge of a subject depends on the words of others, we can never be sure if they’ve told us everything or only a part….One often lies to and deceives the person one loves most in order to preserve their love, or to protect them.” He wonders “how much my mother will keep silent about until the end of her days.”

As he thinks about telling his own story, he believes that “there will be nothing contradictory…as long as everything I say is told from my point of view at the time.  Any gaps other than those in my own memory will have to continue to exist, because…what purpose would there be in trying to investigate them further?” Foreboding looms over every page, and Giralt Torrente does a remarkable job of tantalizing the reader with tiny bits of new information, as the boy accumulates it over the years, but even as an adult, with his mother in a nursing home, the boy, now man, occasionally has nightmares related to these childhood years.  He lives in a permanent state of incomplete knowledge about his childhood, and he is unhappy that “I will never know more than I know now.”  Perhaps, he suggests, “it’s the impossibility of getting beyond mere speculation,” the perpetual uncertainty about his past, that is so difficult to cope with.

Burgos, where the boy's father was in prison, is also, ironically, the birthplace of Spain's national hero, El Cid.

As the novel begins, the young boy describes his father’s arrest one night when the family has guests for dinner, followed by his father’s subsequent disappearance for two years.  The boy is young enough that his father’s disappearance to some unknown place is something he simply accepts.  It is not until later that the boy learns about a suitcase of money that his father had hidden under the bed.  Gradually, he also learns of other mysterious schemes in which his father has been involved, just as he has also been involved with several other women.  One of his most vivid memories occurs two years after his father’s arrest, when his mother tells him that they are going to Burgos to pick up his father, reminding him in the car on the way that anyone can make a mistake, while she also “paints a picture of him that [is] real and at the same time comprehensible and forgivable.” After his father’s release from prison, his father spends little time at home, and he receives strange phone calls. He does not seem to have regular work.  On one family trip to Toledo to “see an exhibition” at the castle, which is closed for the day, the family stops at a bar for something to eat.  A strange man comes up to talk at length with the “Professor,” his father, in a vernacular that the boy has never heard before, something he later learns is “prison slang.”  His mother tells him nothing more, though the boy prowls around when no one is at home and discovers a few secrets in his father’s “office.”

The castle in Toledo, where the boy and his family expected to attend an exhibition.

When the father disappears again later, the boy goes with his mother to visit her sister in La Coruna, a seaside community many hours’ drive from Madrid, where he has often spent the summer.  This time, however, he learns that he will be staying there with his childless aunt Delfina for most of a year, even going to school there, while his mother travels mysteriously to Paris to live.  Bereft of both parents, the resilient boy still copes, but he has no idea what his mother is doing in Paris and is not able to visit her there while she is gone.  Upon her return almost a year later, the boy has grown older and developed feelings of adolescent rebellion, sometimes getting angry with her now.  “My mother had not been the same since she returned from Paris,” he tells us, “and although it’s true that I could not have said what the difference was, I was sure she had undergone some kind of transformation.”  The mystery of Paris becomes and remains a major question about his mother’s life.

When the boy and his family are in Toledo they go to a bar/cafe, where the father is recognized as the "Professor," and has a conversation in "prison slang" with a former inmate.

Students of writing will be fascinated by the ways in which Giralt Torrente maintains suspense by presenting information in little dribbles instead of in big, dramatic scenes.  He has a formidable task, since the “action” of the novel takes place almost exclusively inside the boy’s head – his inner thoughts, the assumptions he makes about his mother, the conclusions he draws about his father, questions he has which never get answered, and the lack of any kind of finality or reconciliation about the questions surrounding his family and his own life.   The second big challenge which Giralt Torrente faces also grows out of all this internal action.  Because nothing much really happens externally in terms of dramatic scenes, there is very little dialogue, other than what the main character has with himself.  This eliminates much of the subtle interaction among characters which readers customarily use to identify with characters and draw conclusions about who they “really” are.  Instead, the author tells us in great detail what the main character is thinking and feeling, filtering information about others and their relationships through the boy’s reactions and not through the objective lens of the characters’ own interactions.

Waterfront sculpture/mosaic in La Coruna, where the boy lived for almost a year with his aunt while his mother was in Paris.

Though some of the mysteries of the novel remain mysteries even in the conclusion, there is one dramatic revelation (so tucked away that anyone who skims the final pages will miss it)  that constitutes a complete paradigm shift, one which changes every aspect of the main character’s life and all the reader’s perceptions.  Now, twenty-two years after the opening scenes, the reader must ponder this shocking new information and view it and the past in light of the main character’s earlier statement  that “the lie intended to preserve love is the one you never reveal.”

Photos, in order: The author ‘s photo appears on http://ivanthays.com.pe

The Burgos monument to El Cid, Spain’s national hero from the 11th century,  appears on http://en.wikipedia.org/ Photo by ElCaminodeSantiago09 2006 on Flicker, with many other photos from Burgos.

The Alcazar Castle in Toledo may be found on http://www.viator.com/ It was closed when the family arrived.

The family then went to a cafe/bar, with “a very cramped space, and at the back, a few tables topped with faux-wood Formica. ” They decided to sit instead at the bar.   http://www.latortugaviajera.com

The octopus sculpture on the waterfront in La Coruna, where the boy lived for almost a year, is a well-known local landmark:  http://davidsbeenhere.com

The prison at Burgos appears on http://www.panoramio.com Photo by mmrespeto on http://www.panoramio.com/, which also includes many other photos from Burgos.

ARC: Hispabooks

The isolated Burgos Prison is a far cry from the elegant setting of the statue of El Cid, the national hero of Spain from the 11th century, also in Burgos.

“I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children.  I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, however, never overlay, never furnish or adorn.  Open door, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.”

In this truly unique novel, so surprising and so exhilarating that I read it twice during the past week,  I came to know, in a very real way, an author whose currently unwritten new novels I can hardly wait to discover in the future.  Valeria Luiselli, a debut novelist from Mexico, left me stunned the first time I read this novel, though I was excited by her daring approach to writing and awe-struck at her ingenuous and totally honest inclusion of herself, for better and worse, in all phases of the narrative.  By the time I had read it a second time, I was even more impressed by her ability to jump around and make herself at home within three different time periods while telling multiple, somewhat connected stories from four different points of view – that of her contemporary self, of her earlier self before her marriage, of her architect husband, and of Gilberto Owen, a virtually unknown Mexican author-poet from the late 1920s whose work the unnamed main character is trying to have published.  None of these points of view are static, and the author sometimes merges characters and the details of their lives as she plays with reality and imagination, which she sees as both an outgrowth of reality and as an influence on reality.  Fact and fiction become charmingly and often humorously combined in this novel about all aspects of the writing process as the author recreates herself both within her characters and within her own life.  It is an amazing journey for the reader.

Direct narrative here is at a minimum, as the author creates brief paragraphs or episodes and moves around within them, providing information about herself and about the other characters who become narrators themselves.  The novel opens in Mexico City with a precocious little boy awakening his mother with a question about mosquitoes.  She goes on to tell the reader that she also has a baby daughter and an architect husband and that she does most of her writing at night, “A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.”  Her worktable is covered with diapers, toy cars, Transformers, bibs, rattles and paraphernalia, but she works anyway.  “Novels need a sustained breath,” she remarks, “That’s what novelists want.  No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath.  I have a baby and a boy.  They don’t let me breathe.  Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts.  I’m short of breath.” And she writes magnificently “in short bursts,” however short her breath may be.

The apartment building in Morningside Heights where Gilberto Owen lived in the late 1920s.

Gradually, we come to know her earlier life in New York City when she is single and works as an editor whose job it is to find books by Latin American authors worth translating or reissuing.  She leads a bohemian life surrounding herself with unusual characters, like Moby, who forges and then prints rare books on his homemade printing press, selling them to “well-to-do intellectuals”; Dakota, who sings in bars and subways and takes showers at the speaker’s apartment; and Pajarote, a philosophy student who sometimes stays overnight at her apartment.  Her publisher, White, often shares stories about famous authors and is somewhat taken aback by the fact that the speaker is “the only Latin American woman [he knows] who wasn’t a friend of Bolano.”

Eventually, in the Columbia Library, the speaker finds a letter by Mexican poet Gilberto Owen in 1928 to fellow writer Xavier Villaurrutia, giving Owen’s address in Morningside Heights, New York, and she decides to find the building, eventually getting inside, then climbing to the roof, where she finds a dead tree in a bucket which she believes must have belonged to Owen, a motif that echoes throughout the novel.

Duke Ellington during the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s.

When she gets locked out and cannot get back down from the roof, she spends the night there, shivering, but makes the most of it:  “I’d say that I began that night to live as if inhabited by another possible life that wasn’t mine, but one which, simply by the use of imagination, I could give myself up to completely.  I started looking inward from the outside, from someplace to nowhere.  And I still do, even when…the baby and the boy are asleep, and I could also be asleep.”  She takes the dead tree home.

Ghosts and visions appear, whether they inhabit the house she occupies in Mexico City or in a New York bar where, perhaps drugged, she sees William Carlos Williams sitting beside her, the poet Zvorsky at a table, Ezra Pound hanging in a cage at the corner counter, and Garcia Lorca tossing him peanuts. She also sees Owen’s face in the crowded subway, even as he comments to someone else that he has also seen a girl in a red coat (the speaker) riding the subway, another repeating motif.

Ezra Pound in the late 1920s

Finding literary works by Owen becomes problematic for her, however, so she eventually fabricates a manuscript and gets Moby to help her forge it, work supposedly translated by the famed translator Zvorsky.  She imagines Owen seeing Duke Ellington in 1920s Harlem, and meeting with Garcia Lorca, a neighbor, and she feels no qualms about expanding on Owen’s life, remaining scrupulously honest as she imagines what his life might have been like, as he becomes friends with Ezra Pound and others.  Before long, the imaginary life of Owen and the life of the author overlap and eventually coalesce.  Owen, blind in later life, becomes friendly with Homer Collyer (his first name being symbolic), also blind, one of the famed Collyer brothers who became recluses and hoarders in the 1930s, filling their enormous house with “stuff,” including fourteen pianos, twenty-five thousand books, and tens of thousands of newspapers.  The brothers’ deaths inside their jam-packed house in 1947 was one of New York’s biggest stories.

Owen often met with Homer Collyer sitting on these steps outside Collyer's house, where they would both eat chocolate ice cream, supposedly made with cocaine. Twenty years later, as seen in this photo, when neighbors summoned the police, the house had been filled to the rafters with "stuff" by the two Collyer brothers, hoarders.

Gradually, details from Owen’s story and the author’s combine with details overlapping so that the reader is unsure what is fact and what is purely imaginative.  But does it really matter, the author seems to ask.   Most readers of this novel will thrill at the experience of participating in the creation of a novel on all levels, even when not all of the threads and details of the story leading to the conclusion are resolved. Though I am not a huge fan of a lot of post-modern writing, I loved this book for its insights into the writing process, its excitement, and for the obvious trust the author exhibits that her readers will understand and share her journey – and enjoy it as much as she herself has obviously done.

(Artfully translated by Christina MacSweeney, who maintains the author’s light attitude, even as the philosophical issues of reality and imagination unfold.)

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.razon.com.mx

The building on Morningside Heights, where Owen supposedly had his apartment, is shown on http://www.propertyshark.com/

Duke Ellington as a young artist is seen here: http://elmiradornocturno.blogspot.com/

When police were called by neighbors to the Collyer house and opened the front door, they were confronted with this sight. Eventually, they had to make their way inside through a second-floor window

The photo of the young Ezra Pound, supposedly a friend of Gilberto Owen, may be found on http://www.poetryfoundation.org

Gilberto Owen often met Homer Collyer outside his house  on 128th and Fifth Avenue, where they both enjoyed eating chocolate ice cream, supposedly flavored with cocaine.  He never went inside the house, which, twenty years later, became famous when the two brothers, hoarders extraordinaire, died inside, under circumstances which the police and the public could not even begin to understand.http://www.nydailynews.com/

When the police went to open the house, this is what they confronted upon forcing the front door open.  Many of the windows had been boarded shut to prevent neighborhood kids from breaking them and trying to get inside.  The Collyers were reputed to be wealthy, and, in fact, were both millionaires, when adjusted for the current value of the dollar. Inside the house were fourteen pianos, over twenty-five thousand books, thirty-four bank account passbooks, and one hundred twenty tons of other debris collected by the brothers.  http://www.nydailynews.com See also Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyer_brothers

ARC:  Coffee House Press

“After many decades, I felt, grieving, that…I had not in any way managed to think [my mother's] thoughts from within her, from within her breath.  Already at that point her voice could say to me only: do this, do that.”

Though I have read and reviewed both My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name (with the new Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay scheduled for release in early September), it is this novel by Elena Ferrante which remains my favorite, and for that reason I am reposting a review which I posted on another site in January, 2007.  Ferrante impressed me then for her concentration on real life and for her insights into the relationships of mothers and daughters. I was impressed, too, by her ability to compress – to use images and scenes which subtly revealed far more than would be obvious on the surface.  In many ways, My Brilliant Friend, (2013),  and The Story of a New Name (Sept. 2013) reflect a dramatic change of literary focus – a broader, more elaborate one – for the author, and I am posting this here for those who may want to see another more concise, less romantic style by Ferrante.

Troubling Love, an intense psychological novel, translated into English and published in the US for the first time  in 2006 , tells of a daughter’s efforts to understand her mother following her mother’s death.  Delia, a comic strip artist and the oldest of three daughters, receives three strange phone calls from her mother, just before her mother disappears on her way from Naples to Rome to visit Delia.  When the body of Amalia, Delia’s mother, is ultimately discovered floating near a beach, she is nude, except for one piece of underwear, an elegant designer creation completely different from anything Delia has ever seen her wear.  Never very close to her mother but curious about the circumstances of her death, Delia leaves her own apartment in Rome to investigate her mother’s life in Naples.

There she learns from a neighbor that her mother had been seeing someone she had known for some time, that the water had been left running in her mother’s apartment, that there was no underwear in her bureau, and no toothbrush or toothpaste.  There was, however, an expensive shirt belonging to a man, and in a garbage bag, all her mother’s old, well-mended underclothing.  While she is cleaning out the apartment, a man telephones to tell her to leave the laundry bag of dirty clothes for him—that Amalia had promised to do so—and says he has left a suitcase of her mother’s things for her.  When Delia opens the suitcase, she finds items that are completely new, unlike anything her mother has ever worn.

So begins Delia’s quest to discover who her mother really was—and, in the process, who she herself is.  Before long, she has re-met a male friend from childhood, learned about the long-time acquaintance her mother had been seeing recently, and revisited scenes from her childhood.  In the process, she is forced to remember early events in her relationship with her mother, to re-examine her feelings about mother’s life from her present adult perspective, and to rethink her own role in affecting the outcome of her mother’s life.

Author Elena Ferrante, a pen name used by one of Italy’s foremost (and most private) contemporary authors, who may be either male or female, creates haunting mysteries from the lives of ordinary people leading seemingly ordinary lives—the kinds of mysteries which always exist for family members when they cannot quite get inside the lives and relationships of people they think they know but whose intimate lives they have never shared.  For Delia, this is particularly difficult, since “Out of hatred, out of fear, I had wanted to eliminate every root I had in [Amalia], even the deepest.”  Now that her mother is dead, she knows that many mysteries about her mother will always remain, even as her memories of her begin to fade.

This third book in the "trilogy" is scheduled for release in September, 2014. A fourth book is now planned for Spring, 2015.

As Delia revisits the places of her past and re-imagines events, Amalia’s relationships and her attitudes toward life begin to come into focus, her “friendly, at times even joyful, relationship with the world,” despite an abusive husband and a daughter who resented her.  As Delia reconnects with some of the people and places from the past, she begins to realize that she is more her mother’s daughter than she expected, that “I didn’t want to be ‘I,’ unless it was the I of Amalia.”

Dense with imagery which speaks directly to the reader’s own sensibilities about family, the novel recreates the mysteries that will always surround our parents and the personal experiences they have had that we can never fully understand.  At the same time, it reveals the mysteries within the main character, many of which the reader will never fully grasp.  Unique and intensely emotional, the novel is also full of ambiguities which resonate long after this short novel is completed–a dramatic and thought-provoking novel, and one of the only novels of a slender 139 pages that I have ever granted five stars, a ranking that I usually reserve for longer, more fully developed novels.  If you enjoy the recent “trilogy” involving Elena and Lila, which is about to become a quartet in March, you may want to take a look at this earlier, stand-alone novel, too, keeping in mind that it is a more compressed and subtle, less expansive novel.

ALSO by Elena Ferrante:  A “trilogy,” which begins with My Brilliant Friend (#1), The Story of a New Name (#2), and, scheduled for release in September, 2014, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (#3). A fourth book is now scheduled to be released in Spring, 2015.

Note: This book was WINNER of the prestigious M-Net Book Prize and WINNER of the Old Mutual Literary Prize in South Africa.

“As she entered [the snooker room], Karolina felt the hair along her spine and the back of her neck stand on end.  A room filled with strange vibrations, a place where one could go mad and commit a crime, where one could lose one’s head and one’s good judgement, and be at the mercy of the collusions of one’s neighbour as well as one’s own unfathomable drives.  A place that might unexpectedly activate the links in a chain of old memories.  A congenial place, cosy.”

The sardonic comment at the end of this quotation says all that needs to be said in establishing the tone of Voorspoed, a small rural “dorp” in the center of South Africa in 1994, which is the setting of this novel.   A whole new way of life has just begun for the residents, both black and white, since white rule has just been abolished with the election of Nelson Mandela as the new President of the country.  The long conflict between the British and the Boers, both of which sought dominion over the blacks generations ago, has been officially resolved for years, but eighty percent of the country’s residents, its blacks, are still poor and still have little to say as far as the government is concerned.  In this novel from 1994, the tensions and the uncertainty are palpable, but they remain constantly in the background of the novel and only rarely intrude on the action surrounding the main character. Newly translated into English by Iris Gouws and author Ingrid Winterbach, The Elusive Moth captures a unique period in a small rural community in which no one can be quite sure who is really in charge.  Whoever thought he was in charge, especially among the police, made sure that everyone else knew it, whether or not it was true.

Karolina Ferreira, an entomologist who is searching for a rare moth, arrives in Voorspoed, where she summered twenty five years ago with her family, and it is her current experiences  in 1994 that drive this character-based novel.  Her father, from whom she became alienated before his death, was also an entomologist. With her parents dead and her sister far away studying geology in the Arctic, Karolina is alone.  She hikes through the veld each day with Basil September, a botanist, also new to town, who is seeking unusual plants for possible use as new cures for diseases, but Karolina herself, like the country, is at loose ends. “She had long withdrawn from this place, there was nothing here to which she might attach herself now.”  She no longer knew anyone, and many of the familiar buildings were gone.  “There was a different feel to it now.”

Hebdomophruda complicatrix, one of a dozen similar moths of this genus. The Hebdomophruda crenilinea, Karolina's goal, is not shown anywhere on the internet.

Gradually, she comes to know some of the town’s characters, depending on Basil for insights into some of them – and Basil doesn’t hold back, appearing to have an almost extrasensory perception of who they “really” are.  Regarding the magistrate, he tells Karolina that “he pisses a forked green stream…probably rejected by his mother at an early age, unquenchable thirst…Malicious. Manipulative.”  He describes Captain Gert Els, who frightens Karolina when he makes overtures to her as she heads for the ladies’ room, as “a man who finds it hard to restrain himself.”   Lt. Kieliemann, who also tries to intercept her in the hallway, is “of schizoid disposition [with] a tendency towards fetishism…Cool exterior, burning interior, excessive sexual fantasies.” As for his evaluations of character, Basil believes that anyone can do it.  The ironies of all these absolute statements seem to escape both Basil and Karolina.

Karolina is fascinated by the paintings in the dining room at the hotel where she lives, one of which is of the Battle of Ladysmith, in which the British liberated the besieged town of Ladysmith after almost four months.

Using the hotel bar and snooker room as the town’s central gathering place, Karolina meets many men (like moths to a flame?) but few women.  She does observe lovers having illicit affairs, and she enjoys dancing every Saturday night with one man with whom she rarely even talks.  Over time, their dancing gradually becomes more and more frantic, until eventually she experiences a kind of dance-induced euphoria.  “She no longer expected immediate gratification.  The study of moths and the refinement of her dance technique, these were the objects of her passion. She expected nothing at all from any man, woman, or lover.”  In the meantime, she still has nightly dreams of the past, many of them sexual, and it is not until later in the novel that she begins to feel signs of real love.

Karolina's lover has a Tibetan tanka on the wall of his room, celebrating the eastern view of death and reconciliation.

Karolina’s search for her moth is focused on what for hundreds of years was its natural habitat but which is now a dry, dusty plain with almost no vegetation left, the result of the wars between Boers and British, a hundred years ago, and the burnings that took place on the veld.  Though the reader recognizes the symbolism of Karolina’s search, she herself seems not to notice.  “The moths are elusive.  That’s why they’re so good at surviving in extreme conditions,” she remarks, seeing no parallels to her own life.  She continues to experience nightmares and dreams of death, some of them undoubtedly induced by violent events in Voorspoed, and related to the changing political scene.  Accidents which may not be accidents, murder, suicide, and racial crimes all appear as the novel develops, and while the reader may be horrified, as the author undoubtedly intended, Karolina remains relatively insulated from the horrors.  The town breathed “not a word to give any indication that things were constantly brewing underneath the surface,” as Karolina slowly develops her own sense of self.

Late in the novel, Karolina has contact with her sister, whose research is on Victoria Island, near Banks Island, in the Beaufort Sea. Double click to enlarge.

As in her two later novels available in English, To Hell with Cronje, and The Book of Happenstance, Winterbach deals with clear themes of life, love, and death, analyzed on a grand scale and shown in an equally grand evolutionary context.   Her concern with her characters’ places in the world is not frivolous, not simply a literary conceit chosen to allow her to give “significance” to her story.  In all her novels, she shows a total commitment to big ideas on a big scale and organizes them in such a way as to enhance the story, not overpower it.  Powerful and dramatic, her novels may deal with major events, such as the Boer War in To Hell with Cronje (which I regard as one of the best war novels ever written), or with smaller events, such as we see here, in which the focus is on the inner life of a main character at a crossroads in his/her life.  Though there are times in this novel in which the philosophizing and the allegorical connotations may begin to overpower the story, Winterbach aims high, a goal to be celebrated even if it occasionally overshoots its mark.  An unusual novel set during a unique time in the history of South Africa.


Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://nb.bookslive.co.za

Karolina’s moth, Hebdomophruda crenilinea, is not pictured anywhere on-line, that I could find, though a dozen other genus Hemophruda are.  All resemble this Hebdomophruda complicatrix in the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology.  http://www.boldsystems.org

G. W. Bacon’s print of the British liberating Ladysmith after four months of siege is found on http://angloboerwarmuseum.com

The Tibetan tanka about death, which Karolina’s lover has on his wall, may be found on http://wallpaperpanda.com/

Karolina’s sister does research on stones on Victoria Island, in the Beaufort Sea, Arctic Circle.  Double click on the map to enlarge it. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/

ARC:  Open Letter Books

“[Siri] hadn’t thought much about that [long ago] trip [to Faro Island] with her father until she and Jon and Alma were standing on Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester [Massachusetts] more than twenty years later and thousands of miles away, looking at the silhouettes of the two lighthouses, the twin lights on Thacher Island.  And Jon would turn around and say to her, ‘Your light shines more’ – more than the lighthouses on Thacher Island.”

Norwegian author Linn Ullmann’s novel The Cold Song defies easy categories.  It is not really a mystery, since the opening line announces that “Milla, or what was left of her, was found by Simen and two of his friends when they were digging for buried treasure in the woods.”  We also know from the first page that a “boy known as K.B.” was later arrested and charged with her death.  Still, this dark novel, filled with foreboding throughout, creates an atmosphere which mystery lovers will find intriguing, if not gripping, as the lives of the main characters move back and forth in time, creating their own suspense as each character reveals personal secrets and emotional limitations.  Siri Brodal, the owner of two well-established restaurants; her husband, Jon, the author of two best-selling novels; their strange, sometimes irrational eleven-year-old daughter Alma; and Siri’s mother Jenny, a feisty, no-nonsense woman who is about to have her seventy-fifth birthday, form the crux of the novel and control the emotional climate throughout.  Haunting all the action, however, is nineteen-year-old Milla, who disappeared shortly after she was hired to care for Alma and her much younger sister Liv during the family’s summer vacation on the Norwegian coast. The discovery of Milla’s mangled remains, as the novel opens two years later, preoccupies all the characters and looms over the action throughout.

The discovery of Milla’s body by children looking for treasure establishes the dark irony of the plot, and as more information is gleaned, the reader discovers that the mother of one of the boys digging for “treasure,” is having an affair with Alma’s father Jon, whose marriage to Siri is in jeopardy.   Siri, constantly busy with her two restaurants, is virtually the sole support of the family now, since Jon, after the success of the first two novels of his trilogy, suddenly discovers that he has writer’s block and cannot write the final novel, despite the publisher’s advance payments.  Flashbacks to the deliriously happy early years of their marriage, in which Jon and Siri spent time on the Massachusetts coast in Gloucester, the name Siri now uses for her restaurant and where Jon wrote an average of ten pages a day, contrast with their current state of sleeping in separate rooms, sniping at each other, and, in Jon’s case, seducing whoever appeals to him.

The twin lights on Thacher Island, outside Gloucester (MA), a place of light, both real and symbolic to Siri and Jon when they were in America. Photo by Sharon Lambert

As Siri reminisces about their early years, she also remembers seeing Jon for the first time as he looked at her in front of the King Haakon VII statue in Juni Square in Oslo, then on a later occasion when he waited for her in the rain at the base of that statue, one morning at 3:00 a.m.  He introduces himself to her by pointing to his wet clothes and saying, “His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean, if you know what I mean.”  It was not until after they were married that she realized that “he’d given her a line from a Dylan song” in an effort to impress her.  In typical fashion, however, she corrects him, “Not dirty, but wet…There is a difference.”

Statue of King Haakon VII in Juni Square Oslo, where Siri first met Jon.

Jenny, Siri’s mother, to whom Alma, the granddaughter, is particularly close, lives in the somewhat decaying family mansion on the ocean, north of Oslo.  Cared for by Irma, a strange and assertive woman, Jenny tries to resist the efforts of Siri to have a big party to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday, and when Jenny’s wishes fail, she takes matters into her own hands. Siri, a romantic, imagines a party featuring filmy white dresses, tablecloths fluttering in the breeze, fresh picked flowers by the children, and ocean mist adding atmosphere to the whole event, but Jenny herself, fortified by wine, the first she has drunk in twenty years, dodges the party.  Meanwhile, the unstable Alma, thirteen, is dealing with her own fears that her father will die, sharing her thoughts with her father who tries to evade his responsibilities by suggesting that Alma talk with her mother.  Jenny’s party inspires memories of Alma’s own disastrous 11th birthday party, and in a surprise to no one, the party for Jenny is a major disaster, family-wise.

Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), with William Holden as the failing writer and Gloria Swanson as the woman he works for - a film purchased by Jon, also failing.

As Jon keeps many relationships private and hides the fact that he has had evidence about Milla that no one else has had, the novel continues, developing themes regarding personal responsibility vs. personal desire on several levels. Alma’s life goes off the rails as she tries vainly to become accepted by her classmates, who otherwise ignore her, and no one in her family notices or seems to care much, beyond the obvious social embarrassment of her bizarre behavior.   Jon continues his pretenses, and Siri tries to deal with his almost constant affairs, while both remember events from their pasts.  In a rare moment of insight paralleling many aspects of his own situation, Jon orders a copy of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard film, in which William Holden, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, becomes dependent upon a woman (in this case an aging actress played by Gloria Swanson), and loses his soul.  Whether Jon can recognize the parallels and then act on his own behalf remains to be seen.  The Cold Song eventually becomes a psychological novel with ominous overtones affecting all the characters individually as it leads to its final resolution.

Faro Light by David Arvidsson, a place Siri had visited with her father.

Imagery of light, both real and symbolic, pervades the novel, which is also filled with startling, and often dark, imagery.  The novel also provides some insights into the life of the author herself, a successful writer in Norway who is also the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.  At one point, Siri visits her father in Gotland on Faro Island, and sees the lighthouse with him, enjoying the earthy atmosphere of Slite, with its cement factory, while rejecting the “prettiness” of the only town on Faro, an opinion which may parallel that of the author, whose obvious love for Faro comes through in her descriptions.  Faro was her father Ingmar Bergman’s residence and the location of seven of  his films, a place he treasured for its seclusion and where he  died and chose to be buried. His author-daughter, in addition to her work as a highly regarded writer and critic, is also the  co-founder and former Artistic Director of the international artist residency foundation recently established at the Ingmar Bergman estate on Fårö Island, Gotland.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://lib.ncepubd.edu.cn

The twin lighthouses on Thacher Island, off the coast of Gloucester (MA), by Sharon Lambert is from http://www.anewenglandlife.com/

Faro Island, off the coast of Sweden, where Siri's father lived, was also the place where Ingmar Bergman, the author's father, was able to lead a secluded life. See story in NYTimes link. Photo by Dean C. K. Cox

The statue of King Haakon VII on Juni Square, Oslo, is where Siri first met Jon.  http://www.royaltyguide.nl/

Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder (1950), starred William Holden as the failed screenwriter and Gloria Swanson as the woman who hires him to work. http://www.frieze.com/

Siri, like the author, visited Faro Light with her father.  Photo by David Arvidsson, Flickr Creative Commons photo, June, 2009:  http://www.unc.edu

A story about Faro Island, “The Enchanted Island that Bergman Called Home,”  appears in http://www.nytimes.com Photo by Dean C. K. Cox. Bergman filmed seven films there, and chose to be buried there.  Photo by Dean C. K. Cox.

ARC: Other Press

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