Translated from Norwegian by Torbjørn Støverud and Michael Barnes
How time flies. It’s almost 3 years since I read – and adored – The Ice Palace. I bought The Birds as soon as Penguin issued it as a Modern Classic, reading it two years later for Annabel’s Nordic Finds Norway Week.
Hailed by Karl Ove Knausgard as “the best Norwegian novel ever”, I have to say, yes, it is pretty darn good! (That’s understated speak for masterpiece.j
40-year old Mattis lives with his elder sister, Hege, in a lakeside cottage in rural Norway. This is no countryside idyll, however. They’re on the breadline. Hege makes their small income by knitting sweaters. Mattis, on the other hand – well, perhaps it’s best to say upfront, that he is known as Simple Simon within the local community. His mental disability means he’s not cut out for making a living, although he does try his hand occasionally as a casual worker on the neighbouring farms. It usually ends in disaster, and when it doesn’t, it is because allowances are made, and Mattis is treated with kid gloves. But there is no rush to give him a second chance.
We can see why, even though the novel is told from Mattis’s point of view. Vesaas writes him so convincingly. We struggle with him, as he tries to overcome his limitations. We can see how he is patronised (as does he, but what can he do about it?) And I actually filled up when he talks so sensitively of the small things he treasures: his altogether imagined yet special relationship with a woodcock, which suddenly starts flying over their cottage, a kindly word of acknowledgement from two strangers. At the same time Hege’s frustration with Mattis’s obsessions and despair at the hand fate has dealt her are all too understandable, even though Mattis is puzzled by her sudden mood swings and her occasional bouts of nocturnal tears.
With his talent for finding hidden significance in everyday events: cf the aforementioned woodcock, you can imagine the effect on him of a lightning strike on one of the two aspen trees, nicknamed by locals as Hege and Mattis. The state of anxiety that this induces is set to skyrocket during the second half of the novel. He now tries his hand at being a ferryman, despite there being no custom. (I suspect Hege knows this, but sending Mattis to sit in his boat all day, gets him out of her hair for a while). Then one day there is a passenger, a lumberjack named Jørgen, who is about to turn Mattis’s world upside down …
… because lonely Hege is not destined to be lonely for much longer, and Mattis is terrified of losing her. When Jørgen attempts to teach Mattis his trade, he perceives this as a threat. He just cannot fathom an honest-hearted attempt to help. He becomes convinced that things cannot continue as they are and determines that it is time to face fate head-on.
The heartbreaking finale, its details skillfully foreshadowed throughout, proves there are some tragedies that, despite the best efforts of all concerned, just cannot be avoided.