A couple of years ago, I was blown away by Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace, a haunting exploration of the friendship between two young girls – a novel that made its way into my Best Books of 2018 list. Wanting to read more of his work, I settled for The Birds, and it turned out to be another incredible book.

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is known as Simple Simon in the village. It’s a label that has fastened on to him because of his inability to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” He envies those people who are endowed with the three qualities he realizes he is not blessed with, but for which he yearns – strength, wisdom and beauty.

Hege and Mattis survive on the income that Hege brings home by knitting sweaters. In a way, the burden of providing for the two of them falls on her, and she is frustrated and tired. She implores Mattis to look for work on the farms everyday, but to no avail. Mattis dreads the prospect of physical labour, knowing fully well that he lacks ability. The farmers are aware of this too and therefore don’t want him working for them either.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable, memorable character, although the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show. While Mattis’ awkward conversations with Hege and some of the villagers form one aspect of the novel, Vesaas also peppers the story with some unique set pieces – occurrence of events that are fascinating to Mattis and offer us a glimpse into his mind.

For instance, at the start of the novel, Mattis observes a woodcock flying over their cottage. Woodcocks typically do not alter their flight paths, and the fact that this one has is a source of marvel to Mattis.

Mattis sat waiting almost breathless. For if it was a proper flight, the bird would return in a little while, along the same path, again and again during the short hour that the evening flight lasted. He knew this from other areas where flights occurred. Early in the morning, too, the bird moved along the same path, a fowler had told him so. On dry marshlands he had sometimes seen the marks of woodcocks’ beaks, next to the imprints of their dainty feet.

He sat waiting, full of excitement. The moments seemed to drag on, and his doubts grew stronger.

But hush, there it was. The flapping wings, the bird itself, indistinct, speeding through the air straight across the house and off in the other direction. Gone again, hidden by the gentle dusk and the sleeping treetops.

Then Mattis said in a firm voice: “So the woodcock came at last.”

To him, this heralds new possibilities of their lives changing for the better. But when he attempts to express this to Hege, she barely gives it the importance he thinks it deserves.

Hege is a practical woman, worried about the trials of everyday life and ensuring there is food on the table. But Mattis is mostly in his own world, seemingly inept at carving out the kind of living as defined by society.

And yet, there are activities that give Mattis pleasure because he can do them well – rowing a boat is one of them. Hege pounces on this and encourages him to become a ferryman, just to have him out of the house, knowing fully well that there will be no takers and no money coming from this futile enterprise.

Mattis, though, is optimistic and on his first day on the lake, he ferries across the one customer he will ever have – a lumberjack called Jorgen. Jorgen spends the night in their home, and subsequently settles there – Jorgen and Hege have become lovers.

While a man in her life brings Hege much needed happiness, Mattis feels threatened and unsure of his own position in the house in the new scheme of things.

One of the many things that Vesaas excels at in The Birds is visual imagery. The flight of the woodcock becomes a thing of wonder to the reader as much as it is to Mattis. Then there is the time when Mattis spends the day toiling on a turnip field.  Vesaas beautifully captures the sense of futility that creeps up on Mattis as he struggles to keep pace with the farmer and a young couple on the field. Beset by a stream of thoughts, Mattis is much more arrested by the sight of the couple – sweethearts as he calls them – rather than the work in front of him. A little later on in the novel, when he is rowing his boat out on the lake, a chance encounter with two holidaying girls – Anna and Inger – fills him with joy and instills in him a confidence he never knew he possessed.

Was this happiness? Happiness had come to him on a bare, rocky island, without any kind of warning. He hadn’t done anything to bring it about. He could even make sharp-witted remarks.

There lay the two girls, who weren’t a bit afraid of him. They were so near, he could have put out his hand and touched them. The sun was turning them golden brown for him, had been shining on them for fourteen days.

He had to do something. And it had to be something out of the ordinary.

But for the larger part of his existence, Mattis is always pondering the bigger questions – “Why are things the way they are?” And on those occasions when he musters up the courage to put them forth, no one really bothers to answer him.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel, subtly displaying a gamut of emotions and filled with uniquely etched characters. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both. Being ‘different’ from the others is always tough, but so is the responsibility of being the sole caregiver.


One thought on “The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

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