Siamese

My review of Stig Sæterbakken’s novella Siamese is now up at Three Percent. Sæterbakken is an intriguing figure, although Siamese is only the first of his many works to be published in English. He published his first book (of poetry, I believe), when he was in high school and most recently has stirred up quite a bit of controversy by inviting vile Holocaust denier David Irving to the Norwegian Literary Festival in 2009 (the theme of the festival, pointedly, being “Truth”).

American author Jim Krusoe wrote a nice review of Siamese for the New York Times (which also makes an attempt to reasonably justify Sæterbakken’s choice to invite Irving to the literary festival).

There is also a very interesting speech given by Sæterbakken at a symposium in 2005 called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that I would suggest checking out. Beyond making some very interesting assertions about Norway’s sense of identity and cultural history, the speech also mentioned something that I was completely unaware of: Norway has two official languages. I’ll quote:

“As some readers may know, Norway has two official languages. The first is bokmål – literarally the “language of books” – a modernised form of what was once standard Norwegian, which in turn was derived from Danish. The other is nynorsk – literally “new Norwegian” – a language created by the linguist Ivar Aasen in the mid nineteenth century, a synthetic language based on Norwegian dialects from all parts of the country.

Our two different languages have been – and still are – subjects of dispute, since different parts of the country have bokmål or nynorsk as their main language. For example, we have controversial laws regulating the use of nynorsk on the radio and television. We have nynorsk Publishing Houses, papers written solely in nynorsk, and so on. And conversely: papers that refuse to print articles in nynorsk.

This language dispute has been going on for over 150 years, and has become a part of our political everyday life, to such a extent that some claim Norway is divided into five or six independent zones, defined in terms of the prevailing language spoken within them, zones that have a minimum of contact with each other, like states-within-the-state. Although this is an exaggeration, the fact that it is possible to say such a thing in all seriousness reflects how deeply this language dispute goes within the nation, and shows how irreconcilable both sides have been from time to time.”

I feel like I really should have known this, but I didn’t. At any rate, you can read my review of Siamese at Three Percent here, or see the full text below.

***

Since his literary debut at the age of 18, Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken has made a name for himself by challenging convention. At times, this challenge has manifested as an interrogation of the Norwegian nation’s sense of identity and its relationship to Europe. At others, it has revealed itself more questionably, such as during the 2009 Norwegian Literary Festival on “Truth,” when Sæterbakken, the festival’s artistic director, invited universally reviled Holocaust denier David Irving to be a speaker at the event. (In his New York Times review of Siamese, author Jim Krusoe suggests that Sæterbakken might have been reasonably motivated in this instance, inviting Irving in order to “see what would happen when an agreed-upon truth was forced to confront a pernicious, stubborn falsity.”)

More than simply igniting controversy, however, Sæterbakken has established himself as an accomplished poet, essayist, translator, and fiction writer with more than a dozen publications to his credit. His novella Siamese, which was translated into English earlier this year, is the first installment in Sæterbakken’s “S-Trilogy” (so-called because all three titles begin with the letter ‘s’). Sparsely narrated in unadorned, clipped prose, Siamese tells the story of Edwin and Erna, an elderly couple whose relationship embodies a sort of degenerating symbiosis, a mutually antagonistic and passively spiteful codependency from which neither can escape.

Edwin, the former administrator at a retirement home, is now almost completely blind and living in self-imposed isolation in his and Erna’s apartment bathroom. Subsisting almost entirely on gum and flat cola, Edwin has forced his body into the most fetid deterioration, a squalor sustained—and in some respects, supported—by his hapless, nearly deaf wife whom he harangues and berates as a matter of sport. Isolated as he is—dependent on Erna for everything from changing his catheter to spoon-feeding him the occasional meatball—Edwin takes every opportunity to exert the substantial control he has over Erna, and by extension, his waning life. “It’s my world in here,” he states proudly.

Here, my word is law. I know this room like the back of my hand. It’s as though I have a map of the room in my mind, and I’m intimately familiar with all its sounds, I hear even the slightest movement…It’s true, nothing that anyone does in here escapes my attention. I need to know their positions and what they’re doing at every moment. And whenever anyone else is here, anyone aside from Sweetie, that is, I immediately have the upper hand, immediately score a decisive victory over nature, over what nature’s taken away from me, now wholly at ease, empowered. It’s me who dominates the situation.

Despite all her slavishness, Erna too finds ways of exerting her dominance over Edwin. While her husband opts for more obvious aggression and emotional abuse, Erna’s manipulations and quiet acts of defiance remain almost entirely undetected by her husband. For instance, Edna’s deceit about Edwin’s trusted physician, Dr. Amonsen. Although the doctor has long since moved away, Erna continues to pass along medical advice to Edwin under Amonsen’s authority. “He’s always seen Dr. Amonsen as his savior. His faithful defender.” she explains.

. . . I’ve always lied to Edwin when he asked about Amonsen. I didn’t know what else I could do . . . When Edwin asks me to ask Dr. Amonsen about something, I always let a few days go by before I tell him what Amonsen’s reply was. And as long as I say it was Amonsen who told me this or that, Edwin accepts it immediately.

In the course of tracing Edwin and Erna’s increasingly confrontational power struggle, Siamese explores the truly elemental fears and desires that motivate all of us—the fear of death or inadequacy, the frailty of the body, the need to feel in control, the desire for power. The couple’s relationship is one that also has the potential to be read as a larger, historical allegory. Consider a speech called “My Heart Belongs to Europe. Therefore It is Broken,” that Sæterbakken gave in 2005, during which he discussed the former Norwegian alliance with Denmark. “Our union with Denmark lasted over 400 hundred years,” he said. “The Danish rule is often referred to as the ‘400-year-night,’ an expression taken from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt”:

Recent research, however, has cast doubt over our conception of this long lasting oppression that we, obviously being the weaker half of the Siamese twin Denmark-Norway, experienced during the union…[A] considerable part of the culture we think of as being fundamentally Norwegian, as symbols of Norway as a nation, has been given us by foreigners, Danes mainly, the influence from Danish culture, especially through trading, goes much further back in time than those 400 years of Danish reign.

Without delving too far into Sæterbakken’s assertions about Norwegian cultural history, one can still appreciate the symbolism that he seems to allude to here, and apply it to Edwin and Erna’s relationship in Siamese. The metaphor of two mutually dependent and mutually destructive countries can perhaps expand the scope of this hermetic novel and give it more resonance for readers familiar with Scandinavian history. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Sæterbakken’s novel presents a challenging and frequently disturbing portrait of the balance of power and wages of control in any codependent relationship.

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