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Stig Sæterbakken

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To purchase Siamese

Title: Siamese
Author: Stig Sæterbakken
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 164 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Siamese - US
Siamese - UK
Siamese - Canada
Siamese - India
  • Norwegian title: Siamesisk
  • Translated by Stokes Schwartz

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, if rather intense

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/1/2010 Jim Krusoe

  From the Reviews:
  • "In other words, we are traveling here though the bleakest territory of Beckett, the haunted compulsions of Thomas Bernhard, the desperation of Saeterbakken’s countryman Knut Hamsun. But missing are Beckett’s closely reasoned wit, Bernhard’s rigor, even Hamsun’s frantic grasping. Instead, Saeterbakken holds up for our edification a nasty and petulant individual who never was all that much fun in the first place. (...) Siamese is a difficult and brilliant book, like one of those skulls inscribed "As I am now, so shall you be" that a death-besotted Romantic might have kept by his bedside." - Jim Krusoe, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       Siamese is narrated in alternating chapters by the married couple Edwin and Erna Mortens. They're getting on in age and Edwin, in particular, is in poor shape. Practically (or rather: approximately, as he's told) blind and essentially immobile he's permanently ensconced in the bathroom, where all he can do is chew gum, occasionally yell at his wife, and live with his thoughts. All he really has left is his mind: "The body is a sewer. A sewer is all that's left of it."
       Physically, Erna is in better shape. For one, she can still get around on her own. She is hard of hearing -- though Edwin has his doubts about that:

She hears quite well, presumably, but figured out that this so-called handicap of hers is an advantage. Now she's free to pick and choose, she can hear whatever suits her and ignore the rest ... it comes down to her whims, and naturally no one would ever dare challenge her on this point, to suggest she might be faking ...
       Edwin is reduced to being little else other than a mind-creature: he's barely able to feel anything of his body any longer (and, in fact, imagines it would be no bad thing if they lopped off some or all of the useless parts ("My mouth is about the only thing I'd want to keep, it's pretty difficult to imagine myself without a mouth")). He's not particularly happy to be left largely alone with his thoughts:
     I'm no thinker, but I think all the time. It's the only thing I can't stop doing. Completely natural, but unbearable nevertheless. Every thought raises another, and they all resemble one another, so that each ugly child bears the mark of its forefathers.
       For a while he listened to the radio (and obsessed about every bit of news reported there), but Erna removed it, leaving him to stew in his own thoughts.
       We learn a bit about the couple -- about Edwin's former job (fairly good preparation for his current circumstances), that they have no children, etc. -- but it is the hell of the never-ending and hardly ever changing present that dominates here. Edwin is completely dependent on his 'Sweetie' (as he sometimes calls her), while Erna also is seemingly inextricably tied to her husband.
       There's a good deal of fury and frustration in the air and in their thoughts -- much of it a result of their incapacity to escape their current situations. For all Edwin's talk about ridding himself of body-parts or even committing suicide he clings rather tenaciously to life. His great fear is also that of losing his mind -- even as he recognizes that that might well be a blessing, since then he might not perceive the absolute misery and indignity of his physical condition. Erna, too, barely dares wonder what life without Edwin might be like.
       The book opens with Erna getting the building superintendent to change a lightbulb; it's a brief visit, but eventually she'll call him again, setting into motion some changes to their lives.
       These alternating monologues of two people closely bound together in misery and dependence -- and love, of sorts -- have only a particular kind of dramatic tension; there is little action here, after all (though quite a few psychological games in their various forms). That leaves their thoughts. Sæterbakken offers an intense and often uncomfortable litany of complaint and misery, much of which does have a compelling sort of power.
       Siamese is a solid characters-study, the dynamics of the relationship well-presented, the difficult situation well conveyed. It is a somewhat limited novel -- just like Edwin, its reach doesn't extend very far -- but successful enough on its own, limited terms.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 January 2010

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Siamese: Reviews: Other books by Stig Sæterbakken under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Stig Sæterbakken lived 1966 to 2012.

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