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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jens Bjørneboe

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Powderhouse

Title: Powderhouse
Author: Jens Bjørneboe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 201 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Powderhouse - US
Powderhouse - UK
in The Moment of Freedom Trilogy - UK
Powderhouse - Canada
Der Pulverturm - Deutschland
  • Scientific Postscript and Last Protocol
  • Norwegian title: Kruttårnet
  • Translated and with a Introduction by Esther Greenleaf Mürer
  • Part of the History of Bestiality trilogy that consists of:
    1. Moment of Freedom
    2. Powderhouse
    3. The Silence

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lacking in story, but another grisly indictment of mankind

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Scandinavian Studies . Winter/2000 Jan Sjavik

  From the Reviews:
  • "Powderhouse continues Bjorneboe's reckoning with European history. (...) Both the doctors at the asylum and the psychopaths who are their patients serve to illustrate Bjorneboe's point that the world has gone mad." - Jan Sjavik, Scandinavian Studies

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Powderhouse is another variation on the History of Bestiality, the twelve-volume work the narrator of the first part of the trilogy was working on. The narrator from Moment of Freedom has moved on -- and is less tormented -- but his preoccupation remains. And he's come to the right place: La Poudrière ('the powderhouse'). The centrepiece of the facility is a well-fortified structure "in fact built as a munitions tower, or powder magazine", and the facility itself is a mental institution -- an asylum, in fact, for the wealthy or well-connected criminally insane.
       Unlike in Moment of Freedom, the narrator does have a name. Predictably, he doesn't merely have one (so true identity remains uncertain and out of focus): in this international community he is called variously Ivan, Jean, Giovanni, or Jochanaan. He is a caretaker, and lives on the fringes of the asylum, as much inside or outside of it as he wants to be.
       Jean takes LSD with the head of the institution, Dr. Lefèvre, (they: "travel to the sun", as he says of their trips), and smokes hash with the doctor's Arabic onetime boy-toy (now also a doctor at the institution). Despite the escape into drugs and the insanity around him, he's still is pursuing his interest in recording the History of Bestiality and claims:

I have full opportunity to pursue my studies and my research here. My interests are the same as before, even though I've acquired an ice-cold scientific attitude to reality.
       Jean has withdrawn from the world and reshapes the small part he inhabits so he can work within it. The periphery of madness is preferable to the village-life he left. He goes further, too: for example, the chapters of this book are dated according to the French Revolutionary Calendar (the book begins Prairial 6, the year 176).
       Not much happens in Powderhouse: there is a murder and a spot of other trouble, and a bit of romance, but mostly it is description and talk. The centrepieces are several lectures, delivered by Jean and some of the patients. These lectures are one of the therapeutic methods at the institution, offering enlightenment and entertainment -- though in their stark brutality they are a decidedly odd approach to calming and curing the criminally insane.
       Jean's central preoccupation at this time is with Christianity. As Esther Mürer points out in her introduction, many of the names clearly refer to Christianity, from the author's own (Jean/Ivan as John, author of the Apocalypse, or as Jochanaan) to "Christine, Lefèvre (maker), Lacroix (cross)". When Jean is to deliver one of the therapeutic lectures, he does so on "the Christian heretic and witch trials".
       Jean believes:
Christianity holds nearly all the rest of its ideas and concepts in common with other religions, as borrowings or from a deeper source. Only heretic- and witch-burning is our own invention; the Inquisition Christianity's sole original product, its greatest contribution so far.
       The lecture is a gruesome tour de force, a lengthy historical survey of the burning of witches and heretics told alternately in clinical detail and with sweeping generalizations.
       Another lecture is by Lacroix, an executioner, who gives an introduction to his ... craft, and the master practitioners thereof over the ages. This lecture, especially, is an odd mix of twisted horror and cry for sympathy: it's not an easy job, Lacroix repeatedly reminds his listeners.
       The final, shortest lecture is Lefèvre, on: "The Culture of the Stake". He too has a simple message: "Never has the world seen such an incarnation of evil as the Christian Church." The excesses of Hitler and Stalin pale by comparison, the toll the Church is responsible for far greater than any other.
       The Church -- and Leninism -- are seen as the cause or motivation behind many of the slaughters of past and present times, but it is evil itself, man's need to kill fellow man (and preferably his whole community), that is the concern of those who speak. It's no small irony that half the folks here are criminally insane, and have committed some of the very excesses being decried. And they too have not been rendered entirely harmless: murder and assault occur even in the short span covered in the novel.
       Powderhouse is a novel of talk and historical and philosophical speculation. Coloured slightly by the times it was written in (the years of the Prague Spring and the war in Viet Nam) and the lingering memory of what happened under Hitler and Stalin, it nevertheless shows evil as having become pervasive long ago. Jean can't stand completely aloof, even on the fringes of this thick-walled asylum, but he does seem to find some hold, a possible bit of inner peace radiating ever so slightly outwards.
       This isn't a novel for the faint of heart: even the slight humour and the often detached or ironical presentation can't lessen many of the horrors presented here. Story is not first and foremost: there are a few episodes, a bit of forward movement, but on the whole the focus is on presenting thought: it is a lecture-novel. It is gripping -- but it certainly won't be to everyone's taste.

       (Powderhouse is nominally the second volume of a trilogy, but the books are only loosely connected, and can be read out of order.)

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Powderhouse: Jens Bjorneboe: Other books by Jens Bjørneboe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jens Bjørneboe (1920-1976) was a leading Norwegian author.

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