In a column that explores the Arctic literature of Norway readers might expect to learn about works by Roald Amundsen – the first explorer to reach the South Pole, the first to sail the Northwest Passage and the first to cross the Arctic by plane. Indeed, for adventure-hungry readers, his “First Crossing of the Polar Sea” or “The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912,” would be fitting choices.
Another book in that category is “Eskimo Life” by the famous naturalist, explorer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Fridtjof Nansen. A Renaissance man in an explorer’s body, he traversed Greenland in 1889 and demonstrated the current of the Arctic Ocean by allowing his ship the Fram to be frozen in the pack ice and drift from Siberia to Svalbard.
However, rather than review works by these epic figures, I’ve selected more contemporary authors, including a Saami poet and two Norwegian novelists. While at first an unlikely amalgam of writers, individually they explore the themes of family and identity, and together they give us a sense of place and home in what is uniquely Norway.
Trekways of the Wind
In an age when we 21st-century humans are so attached to our electronic gadgets, vehicles and other modern entrapments, it may be difficult to imagine a life deeply connected to the land. Yet many Indigenous people throughout the Arctic continue to maintain such ties to the earth, depending on nature for sustenance and spirituality. In Nils-Aslak Valkeapää’s “Trekways of the Wind,” a collection of three books of poetry, we see, hear and feel these connections as he weaves in references to sled dogs, a traditional song known as the yoik, colorful outerware called gaktis and other aspects of Saami culture.
In the following poem, we can feel also the anguish of misunderstanding and mistreatment endured by many Indigenous cultures across the region as Western-style government was forced upon them.
My home is in my heart
It migrates with me
The yoik is alive in my home
The happiness of children sounds there
The lasso hums
In my home
The fluttering edge of gaktis
The leggings of the Saami girls
My home is in my heart
It migrates with me
You know it, brother
You understand, sister
But what do I say to strangers
Who spread everywhere
How shall I answer their questions
That come from a different world
How can I explain
that I cannot live in just one place
and still live
when I live
among all these tundras
You are standing in my bed
my privy is behind the bushes
the sun is my lamp
the lake my wash bowl
How can I explain
that my heart is my home
that is moves with me
How can I explain
that others live there too
my brothers and sisters
What shall I say brother
What shall I say sister
And ask where is your home
They come with papers
This belongs to nobody
This is government land
Everything belongs to the State
They bring out dingy fat books
This is the law
It applies to you too
This is just an excerpt of one of the many powerful poems in “Trekways of the Wind.” Valkeapää, a poet and artist, was born into a reindeer-herding family culture in Norway in 1943. Devoted to using the arts to promote understanding of Saami traditions, and to ensure their survival, Valkeapää was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1991. He also delved into the world of music, reviving the yoik by integrating it with jazz and popular music.
In the section “White Spring Nights,” Valkeapää pokes fun at those who cannot see the beauty of the Arctic’s winter nights.
Here there is a little of everything
and if you have eyes to see with
you don’t need to search
Northern lights flare up
ice pearls ignite
mountain fox tracks decorate the tundra
and every new day you wake up
to the laughter of the ptarmigans
This that they call the dark season
This poem and others by Valkeapää remind us that as fall begins to settle on the Arctic, rather than turn away in fear from the impending short days, we can accept them and find beauty in the darkness ahead.
Out Stealing Horses
Upon first glancing at the title of this novel by Per Petterson, I thought I might be about to discover some surprising new aspect of Norwegian culture. Could there be cowboys or wranglers in this part of the Arctic? In fact, “Out Stealing Horses” is a novel based in post-World War II Norway, with a heavy theme and tone to match it throughout.
Fifteen-year-old Trond Tobias – or Trond T, as his father calls him – is jarred from childhood by a series of events that cast long shadows over him, his pal Jon and their families. Petterson presents the anatomy of a family: a father and son united in the outdoors, and a mother and daughter left behind to tend to urban life, cut off from the vibrant countryside. In the uncertain economy of the postwar period, Trond and his father head north from Oslo to work the property his father has bought. On the land they throw themselves into physical work, cutting hay and timber, in the hope of making some money.
Petterson’s sensual scenes transport us to the coniferous forests of northern Norway. “There was the scent of new-felled timber. It spread from the track-side to the river, it filled the air and drifted across the water and penetrated everything and everywhere and made me dizzy. I was in the thick of it all. I smelled of resin, my clothes smelled of resin and my hair smelled and my skin smelled of resin when I lay in bed at night … I was forest.”
In his father’s presence, the boy is comforted and secure. “I lay in my bunk by the open window and heard the crisp metallic clanging of the bells change with the changing terrain thinking I would not wish to be anywhere else than in this cottage with my father, no matter what happened…”
The two even share a growing attraction toward the mother of Trond’s young friend Jon: “Almost unwillingly we turned our heads and exchanged glances and recognized in each other’s eyes what the other had seen. My face grew hot and I felt tense and at the same time ill at ease, but I did not know if it was due to my own surprising thoughts or because I saw my father had thoughts as I did. When he saw me blushing he laughed softly but not patronizingly at all, I’ll give him that. With enthusiasm.”
After the tragic death of one of Jon’s brothers begins to unravel the two families, Trond discovers a secret about his father, Jon’s mother and their wartime connection. Once revealed, his father’s illicit activities force him to flee the country.
Decades later, removing himself from the flash and frenzy of the city and attempting to push away the painful memories of the split-up of his family, Trond is settling into a remote cabin. But running into Jon’s remaining brother forces him to recall that summer of his fifteenth year. “If I can just concentrate I can walk into memory’s store and find the right shelf with the right film and disappear into it and still feel in my body that ride through the forest with my father…”
“Out Stealing Horses” is a depiction of aversion and striving, and attempts to restrict one’s emotions – of turning away from emotions when leaning into them is what might be more healing.
“Boyhood Island” is a stream-of-consciousness-like recollection of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood in Norway – part three of a series called “My Struggle.” Knausgaard leaves out few details as he revisits scenes of his home, his emotionally abusive father, his cheerful older brother Yngve and his kind mother.
Beginning with an account of himself as an infant with “unusually red skin, arms and legs spread and a face distorted into a scream,” Knausgaard seems poised to deliver a blow-by-blow account of his early years, making this reader doubt her choice of book. However, in telling his story, the 40-something writer describes the actual experience of remembering, a process with which any reader may identify. He writes: “There are other kinds of memories – those which are not fixed and cannot be evoked by will, but which at odd moments let go, as it were, and rise into my consciousness of their own accord, and float around there for a while like a jellyfish, roused by a certain smell, a certain taste, a certain sound.”
We witness the young Karl Ove finding secret hideaways in the woods, biking to friends’ houses, learning to swim, fearing the dark, going to school, joining sports teams and discovering an interest in girls.
Knausgaard fills his autobiography with daily activities that are so mundane and described so simply that at times it seems the narrative is standing still. (“One day when we had been at school for the first three lessons, and the bus had dropped us off by the supermarket at 12, Geir and I walked home with John. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the road dry and dusty.” ) Yet as the scenes of his life pass by – as though in a film – the reader cannot help but recollect and mull over scenes from one’s own life. Family, friends, faded hopes and disappointments come into focus again.
For this reason, “Boyhood Island” is both entertaining and evocative. At the very least, it is a study in the form of autobiography, one that is loaded with detail (this novel is just one of six volumes of Knausgaard’s life story) and yet somehow is manages to capture readers across the world.