Vibeke, a single mother, and Jon, her nine-year-old son, have just moved to a remote small town in northern Norway. Jon uses matchsticks to stop his eyelids from blinking. Tomorrow he’ll be nine.
“If he’s out while she’s baking the cake it’ll be more of a surprise, he thinks to himself,” Hanne Ørstavik writes in her novella, Love.
Jon goes out in the cold night to sell raffle tickets for his sports club. The old man in the house next door, buys them all.
Vibeke comes home, removes her clothes, washes and meticulously dries her hair. Jon breaks off a stick and writes his name with it in the snow. Vibeke drives to the library but it is closed.
Jon meets two girls walking home and one of them invites him to her house for hot cocoa. Jon is certain his mother is at home baking his birthday cake; he is trying to stop blinking.
Vibeke walks to the fairground near the library where a man chats her up, “A travelling fairground worker. But it’s only a coffee. She smiles and says yes.” Jon feels tired as he walks in the snow, enveloped in silence. Vibeke and the man go to his trailer, “Who said grey eyes don’t gleam.” Tomorrow Jon will be nine.
Vibeke laughs, feeling attractive and buoyant “The whiskey is golden, like distilled fire.”
Jon walks in the middle of the road when there is no traffic. A strange woman asks him to get in her car and Jon does.
Vibeke and the man drive to a bar. The road ahead, banks of snow, marker poles, the forest (“Sounds become so weightless in the cold”). It is dark everywhere, “so dark the snow looks luminous.”
The fairground lights shine in the dark and to Jon they seem like a colony from outer space, camped out on Earth. He wants to go home, he is freezing cold. If I go the long way, he tells himself, mom will be home when I get back. He cannot know the fairground man gave his mother a lift home, that although her car is not there, she is inside.
Love is a novella brimming with darkness, where the point of view shifts from one paragraph to the next, thus mirroring the disjunctions and projections embedded in all human affections.
This is an ice-encrusted night of chance encounters, floodlit by the beam of headlights, as cars are revving up then speeding off. It’s about the discrepancy between any two minds, the inherent misunderstandings arising from different needs and perceptions, the futile wish to control outcomes. In one passage, Jon “tells himself that as long as he can hold his breath then every light they pass will mean a thousand people get to avoid being tortured.”
It is an acutely esoteric story; one is asked to go through an invisible door, behind which lies a hushed landscape populated by thoughts alone. Actions and plot itself become secondary as one follows the inner dialogue of two different people whose external communication breaks down. Through its stylistic and emotional risks, ever so slowly, it becomes a bold attempt to plunge into the depths of the inner life.
Originally published in Oslo in 1997 to great acclaim, Ørstavik has written a delicate, fragile tale governed by its own laws of narration. Love’s impeccable English translation by Martin Aitken reflects the economy and self-possession of Nordic prose. Its seamless narration, drawn in counterpoint, reverberates beyond the eerie landscape, lingering in the mind. It might initially frustrate readers who are used to neat chapters and perspectives but if one stays with it despite the difficulties, Love, like love, yields its own gifts.