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B+ : neatly structured and built up story of an awful crime and its effect on the national psyche
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Berge is a triptych, each of its three parts with a different narrator: journalist Ine Wang, judge Peter Malm, and defendant Nicolai Berge. There is some overlap of their three tracks, but mostly these run parallel, each character covering much of the same ground (and, specifically, time and events, though each then advancing the story slightly further), but from their own perspective. The title suggests the central role of the final one in the trio, but it's significant that the title is only 'Berge', rather than his full name. As Peter Malm observes about that term in the original:
Berge: a verb in Norwegian which means to rescue, to keep safe. A positive word distorted into its opposite. A name transformed into a stream of spit cast in the face of a whole nation.Berge is about a mass-killing that takes place on Saturday, 23 August 2008, five people brutally killed in a countryside cabin in idyllic Blankvann in Nordmarka. Among them is Arve Storefjell -- "The Labour Party's most high-profile figure, called after Norway's third highest mountain, Storefjell. Bigger, more important for the party than the Prime Minister himself" --, his daughter, Gry, also a rising figure in the Labour Party, and her French boyfriend, a film director, along with, tragically, his nine-year-old daughter. All had their throats slit. It is taken to be an act of terrorism, political in one way or another, and a defining moment in otherwise so quiet Norway's modern history, a loss of innocence and proof that Norway can not and does not stand apart in the larger world.
There are echoes here, of course, of the (much larger scale) massacre that then happened in 2011 on Utøya (see, for example, Åsne Seierstad's comprehensive history, One of Us), but Kjærstad sets his story before that event, even as the Utøya massacre clearly informs every bit of this novel (written only in 2017). Indeed, Utøya is even mentioned numerous times, still something of an idyll for the characters (as is the similar locale where the murders are set) and Berge, for example, reminisces about time spent at its camp for Labour Party members.
While the murder of such a prominent political figure understandably makes this an event touching all of Norwegian society, the immediate categorization of it as 'terrorism' is the one aspect of the novel that feels slightly off. True, nowadays almost any attack that isn't strictly among family, friends, or rivals is labeled as such, but, other than the political connection, it seems a bit of a stretch here, certainly at the outset. The nature and even the scale of the attack feels much more domestic -- personal rather than political --, and there's the fact that there's not really any credible claim of responsibility. As such, the murder resembles the 1986 assassination of Olof Palme much more than the 7 July 2005 bombings in Britain or the 2004 Barcelona train bombings -- to both of which it is compared --, much less the Utøya massacre. Where terrorism has a more random feel -- indiscriminate killing --, the victims here seem very specifically targeted (at least as far as Storefjell and possibly Gry are concerned; certainly there's also collateral damage, with the killing of innocents such as the young girl).
Kjærstad feels the need to make the slaughter more meaningful than the actual act can bear -- a shame, because it's bad enough as is (five dead at one go is an everyday event in the United States, but there were a total of only 33 homicides in all of Norway in 2008 -- fewer than one a week ! --, so a crime like this already stands out very prominently). So also his characters, especially Malm, are presented as having a naïvely over-innocent view of their native country, with this event then as a breaking point of sorts, with the judge going so far as to having maintained:
As I saw it, nothing was more precious than Norway's paradisiacal state, the fact that this country was almost untouched by major acts of violence. This was the most valuable thing we had.Kjærstad builds up this idea so that, with the crime at the heart of his story, he can show Norway isn't, or is no longer, an island separate from the world's and contemporary civilization's turmoil. Really, it's not something he needs to hammer home as insistently as he does, and this attempt at making his story something bigger and more meaningful in this way actually diminishes it -- a shame, because there is enough to it without this particular point being made so forcefully.
There are nice parallels between the three narrators. Each seemed to show great promise and hasn't quite lived up to it. Ine Wang burst onto the journalistic scene, breaking into male-dominated music coverage when she was young but now, while still respected, feeling a bit lost. She was married, but now lives alone; awkwardly, her former husband has wound up being her boss. Peter Malm was a talented pianist in childhood, but he recognized he wasn't talented enough -- despite what his parents and some teachers said -- and grabbed the chance to become a judge when he could, settling into the role comfortably, even if he realizes his limitations. Nicolai Berge was someone everyone expected a great deal from, the: "product of the union of two Labour Party dynasties", no less, and then aligning himself with another when he became the boyfriend of Gry Storefjell, but he was not equipped for the politician-lifestyle. He tried his hand as a writer, publishing two collections of stories, but found no success with these either; still, he continues to write ("It's all I do. I sit here writing. Day and night").
The similarities extend further: all three are unattached, their present-day isolation not unhappy, but certainly very different from brief periods of passion from their past, as each has been romantically (and very much sexually) involved with at least one significant figure. Each also writes -- not only everyday-professionally (Wang as a journalist and Malm as a judge), but actual books: Berge published two (even if they were barely noticed) and constantly has ideas for new stories; Malm has had modest success with his book, An Eye for an Eye ("it was read enough to secure me a certain reputation in the judiciary"), and is working on another (working title: A Life for a Life); and Wang has hit the jackpot, having finished and delivered to her publisher a book -- the first -- on Arve Storefjell just before he was murdered.
There are other literary connections, even though their interest in literature varies, with Wang having no patience for fiction ("I don't read, I've never read"), while Malm and Berge read extensively. (Malm also enjoys (re)watching Kenneth Clark's TV-series, Civilization, in another rather too on the nose reference .....) Each of them mentions Dickens' Bleak House -- the ultimate story of legal dysfunction -- with Wang unable to pick it up without falling asleep (she can't see the use of such records of: "fabricated and wildly improbable coincidences") while for Malm it: "meant more for my legal work than Norway's Laws" and remains the book that had the most profound influence on him. Berge finds it among his dead mother's books, complete with all her underlinings, suggesting the significance it had for her; it's the only book of hers he takes up and reads.
Presented as introspective and used to being alone with their thoughts, with few people who can function as sounding boards, their accounts -- their monologues, essentially -- sound convincing: these are more or less loners, used to working things out for themselves in their minds. There are exchanges with other people -- Wang interviews Berge twice, and Malm does have one friend whose opinion he values and whom he occasionally seeks out -- but Malm is also happy enough to sip his cocktails or eat out alone. And Berge, at his trial, goes so far as to remain completely silent, not even entering a plea (whereby his defense lawyer at least properly points out: "His silence must be construed as meaning not guilty").
Very near the end, nearing the conclusion of the trial, Kjærstad goes so far as to have Berge realize:
My person has become a corpus, a text, and there is disagreement as to how it ought to be read.He is stating the (too ?) obvious -- but the reminder of the literary artifice of Kjærstad conception -- that this is fiction, rather than fact -- is perhaps also a helpful one. Wang already argued for fact over fiction, but Kjærstad makes the case that a treatment such as this one is perhaps a better way of approaching subject matter such as the Utøya massacre -- which is, after all, what this story is really about. As he suggests by the characters' -- indeed, the whole nation's -- reactions to the crime in the novel, the real can be too close, gut-reaction blinding us and coloring our every thought; to effectively write about, in terms that also allow a digesting of it, such horror requires also creating space and distance -- things he effectively does in Berge.
The novel begins with Wang's account, which opens with her getting the first news of something terrible having happened. She is almost giddy as she learns more, the crime giving her an excuse to leave the wedding she is at; when she learns who the victims are -- and that the subject of the biography she delivered to her publisher three weeks earlier is among them -- she can't believe her luck. And, of course, feels guilty about it. The journalist in her eagerly latches onto the case:
The whole time I feel an upsetting mixture of emotions. I'm deeply moved, just as affected by the memorial as everyone around me, but at the same time I am on the job, I'm going to write about it, and it's easy to write about, because the scenes are perfect, as if heaven-sent. The story has everything. Bestial killings, unknown terrorists, a spooky location for the crime, the forest beloved of all Oslo dwellers -- nearly all the newspapers have used 'The Heart of Darkness' in one of their headlines -- even a cabin which was used by the resistance during the war, and in addition one of the most written-about families in Norway.Eventually she pitches a piece to her editor -- and former husband --: an interview with Gry's former boyfriend, the twenty-nine year-old Berge. Wang expects only to find an interesting perspective on the family, rather than the crime, given Berge's close relationship with Gry, but gets more than she bargained for. She feels the need for a follow-up interview after the first one, and he invites her to his home for it. And while she can't publish the interview afterwards, she is the one responsible for the police (finally) investigating Berge in conjunction with the crime. (Oddly, they hadn't even questioned him during their investigations.)
The second part of the novel is narrated by Malm, who already has strong feelings about the case before he is assigned to it -- "pity the judge who had to preside over such a case", he thinks, before it's even clear against whom the case would be made. He, too, has a connection with one of the victims, though he only knew her under a different name, a fleeting but tremendously significant encounter many years earlier. After Berge is charged, Malm is assigned the case; frustrated by Berge's complete silence in the dock -- in a case that remains entirely circumstantial (though, in part, hard to explain -- and Berge has not offered explanations), his account closes:
I needed a story to put on the other side of the scales: but it was Berge who would have to tell it.And Berge's account then neatly follows -- even if it is all interior monologue, for the reader rather than the court. He goes over the events, as well as his relationship with Gry -- and how truthful (and (in)complete) he was in his interviews with Wang -- and also describes what he was doing that fateful weekend. Wang had already recognized one white (or not so white ...) lie of his -- his claim never to have been in Blankvann, the site of the murders -- but there is a lot he left unsaid to her and here he goes much more into depth about his time with Gry, their split, and the devastating effect it had on him.
As to the crime itself -- or rather the trial --, Berge is eventually left with several choices. Specifically: "I can confess. I can remain silent and surrender to the unpredictable". With the danger that the outcome of the trial might actually be an innocent verdict -- the case is, after all, entirely circumstantial, even if, in part, quite convincingly so --, he wonders whether it wouldn't be better for the nation, allowing some closure and healing, for him to acknowledge guilt (knowing, in the neat design of the crimes as conceived by Kjærstad, that there is no danger of a perpetrator remaining at large and posing a future threat). As the only one with the requisite knowledge -- if he accepts the blame, he would be able to offer convincing proof of it -- his fate, and in a way the fate of the nation, rest in the words he chooses next, a conclusion Kjærstad nicely builds this novel to.
In its three character-studies -- and subsidiary, second-hand ones, as Arve Storefjell and Gry, as well as figures such as Malm's friend Lev or Berge's dead mother are presented by the various narrators -- Berge is a nation-study, a rich commentary on Norway and its citizens. Each of the narrators is an island of sorts -- just as many imagine Norway itself to be -- but events show how much a part they are of this society -- the larger world.
How much this is a nation-novel is also evident in Kjærstad's loving focus on locale: this is a novel of incredible geographic detail, beginning with each of the narrators explaining why they live in the neighborhoods they do, and often closely recounting their movements, in Oslo and beyond. Place matters here -- every place, and there are so many --, from the cocktail bar Malm likes to retreat to, to the would-be idylls of Blankvann and Utøya, which prove anything but.
National, political, social, and deeply personal -- and, emphatically literary, in its (overt) references and presentation --, Berge is a neatly structured and presented thought-experiment, trying to capture an event that, a few years after the time of the novel, devastated Norway. In parts, Kjærstad tries too hard or is too obvious, but Berge is an interesting and mostly successful exercise, and a fine novel.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 December 2019
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Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad was born in 1953.
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