An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

Whereabouts – Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest offering is a treat – a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections, as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer. As a writer she always surprises – this is her first novel written in Italian, as well as the first time she has self-translated a full-length work.

In Whereabouts, this European city is not named, but from various hints peppered throughout, it can be assumed that it’s a city in Italy. It’s a book made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture.

Our narrator is a woman, possibly in her mid-forties, a teacher by profession, and she lives alone in what she calls her ‘urban cocoon’. There is little else we know about her. But that is exactly the point. The idea is not to dwell on her identity, but to get a flavor of her experiences because in many ways they are universal. She could be any one of us. Not all of the events in her life will mirror ours, but quite a few are likely to strike a chord. The chapter headings, deliberately generic – ‘On the Couch’, ‘In My Head’, ‘At My House’ and so on – could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the sense of place in the novel is largely internal.  

The action in the novel is inherently interior, we are privy to our narrator’s thoughts and her perception of the world around her. She might be alone, but she is not completely cut off. Friends, acquaintances mark her social circle, transient relationships exist too. No definite pointers of her existence are handed to us on a platter, and yet a snapshot of her persona gradually emerges.

We learn that she has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother, who tormented by old age, expresses her wish to stay with our narrator if only because she dreads being alone. But our narrator resists, she wants to cling to the independent life she has carved out for herself. The past always comes back to haunt the present, and it’s apparent that the shadow of her father’s death, when she was 15, hasn’t entirely left her. She bemoans her wasted youth, of the years spent conforming to parental expectations, when she could have rather been a rebel with a cause.

Although she’s not married, our narrator tells us of her one long-term relationship with an anxious, highly-strung man, who she later discovers was two-timing her. The end of that union is a sort of a relief because she can “look at him without absorbing a drop of that tiresome anxiety, that ongoing lament.”

Some of her friends don’t understand the choices she has made – “I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?” Another friend envies our narrator, and seeks refuge in her spartan home, away from her harried, busy life of working and raising a family – “’This is the only place I can relax,’ she says. She likes the silence, and not seeing objects scattered everywhere.”

Chance encounters punctuating our narrator’s existence are pregnant with meanings too – a fling with a married man conjures up images of languid afternoons spent in a series of trattorie talking and relishing delicious food, a mother bathing in the sea with her children entrances her because “she was a steady pillar in the midst of that roiling force.” A whiff of sadness permeates her being when her favourite stationery shop shuts down and the family running it, who she is fond of, is no longer around.

Solitude is the dominant pulse of the novel, it throbs persistently throughout the book – “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Indeed, solitude has its pleasures, it allows our narrator to control her time and space. And yet there are moments when she can’t help thinking, “There are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.” Essentially, our narrator wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and a refusal to form lasting ties.

The majesty of Nature also evokes a range of emotions and influences our narrator’s perspective more often than not. While on the beach, she observes that “the gray light that pervaded the sky after sunset made me melancholy”, and at another time she notices “a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.”

The precision of Lahiri’s prose is striking. Her language is minimalistic, stripped off any embellishments and feels bleached down to its bare essentials, but there’s beauty in her stark expressions, the effect they create is hypnotic. You can almost picture yourself sitting in a sun-drenched piazza in a European city, drinking in the warmth with a whole afternoon of people-gazing before you – people whose stories you don’t really know, but sudden glimpses into their lives on display can fire up the imagination of the myriad possibilities. Reading Whereabouts produces similar feelings.

I have read both Lahiri’s short story collections – Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. These collections, along with her novels, have given her much fame, primarily for her exquisite portrayal of the quintessential immigrant experience, notably Indians trying to adapt to a Western land and treading a fine balance between embracing a new culture and staying true to their Indian heritage. Those were books that focused on the disconnect that people feel with their surroundings.

But Whereabouts is a different beast altogether because there are no such clear markers of people and their identities. The disconnect, the author portrays, is more with the inner self. Perhaps, Lahiri is trying to tell us that on some level we are all outsiders, that it’s a collective feeling we sense, not only when we move around the world, but also when we are rooted in the same place.

Is I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape.

Is there any place we’re not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.

The Dry Heart – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

Natalia Ginzburg is making a lot of waves on Twitter these days, and rightly so. I had really liked Family Lexicon published by NYRB Classics and had also recently acquired Valentino and Sagittarius released by the same publisher. But it’s The Dry Heart that kept calling out to me…and having now read it I can say it’s another excellent piece of storytelling by Ginzburg.

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

Our narrator and Alberto first meet at a doctor’s office and from thereon begin to see each other regularly. Our narrator is a woman in her late twenties living independently in the city. But it’s a dull existence. After teaching literature to eighteen girls huddled in a cold classroom, she spends her evenings and nights at a dingy boardinghouse made worse by a bunch of noisy neighbours. Weekends at her parents’ home in Maona in the country are even more tedious.

Her meetings with Alberto therefore are imbued with some degree of novelty and offer respite from the tedium of her narrow existence. During these initial days, in the first throes of a possible blossoming of romance between the two, our narrator is quite happy. Walks by the river, Alberto reading Rilke poems to her, long conversations in cafes add much colour to her life. And yet something is amiss. While she talks openly about herself and her family, all the while thinking up interesting topics of conversations to amuse Alberto, it seems like a one-sided effort. Alberto finds her company charming but remains largely inscrutable, he is reluctant to delve into the details of his life.

At first I didn’t mind Alberto’s unwillingness to talk about himself, but later I was disappointed and asked him a few questions. His face took on an absent and faraway expression and his eyes were veiled with mist like those of a sick bird whenever I inquired about his mother, or his work, or any other part of his life.

Having been alone for so long, our narrator consciously overlooks this aspect of Alberto’s personality. She also wonders whether she is in love with the idea of Alberto rather than Alberto himself, of what he could be rather than what he actually is.

A girl likes to think that a man may be in love with her, and even if she doesn’t love him in return it’s almost as if she did. She is prettier than usual and her eyes shine; she walks at a faster pace and the tone of her voice is softer and sweeter. Before I knew Alberto I used to feel so dull and unattractive that I was sure I should always be alone but after I got the impression that he was in love with me I began to think that if I could please him then I might please someone else, too, perhaps the man who spoke to me in ironical and tender phrases in my imagination.

It’s a relationship that raises conflicted feelings within her. For instance, the idea of marrying Alberto and being intimate with him repulses her, and yet on the days when he is away, she is so gripped by loneliness that the thought of not seeing him unsettles her.

The two eventually marry, but the marriage is doomed from the beginning. The bare facts of this union are presented to us on the first page itself and therefore not a spoiler – Alberto and our narrator were married for four years, they had a baby and the baby subsequently dies.

We had been husband and wife for four years. He had threatened often enough to leave me, but then our baby died and we stayed together. Another child, he said, would be my salvation. For this reason we made love frequently toward the end, but nothing came of it.

Alberto is a terrible husband, lacking empathy, warmth and trust so essential in a marriage. He is away from their home for long stretches of time and resorts to lies to cover up his absences. But it’s imminently clear to both the reader and our narrator that he is secretly seeing the only woman he has ever loved – Giovanna – who, ironically, is married to another man and has a child of her own.

As the drama unfolds, the reader increasingly begins to feel that the narrator’s life before marriage had its merits after all. Atleast she was independent then even if her circumstances were far from ideal. On some level, the narrator is painfully aware of this. And so it’s fascinating that she prefers to remain wedded to her flighty husband rather than part ways and reclaim some dignity. However, so fearful is she of loneliness that she mistakenly equates being alone with being lonely. Her way of thinking is in striking contrast to that of her cousin and confidante, Francesca, who revels in living life on her own terms and refuses to be tied down to any committed relationships.

The Dry Heart, then, is a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

I have only read two books by Ginzburg but it’s apparent that she excels at depicting a range of oddities in relationships, whether it’s the quirks and foibles of various family members as seen in Family Lexicon, or the shortcomings and failures in marriage as in this novella.

Chilling, direct in what it wants to convey and deceptively simple, The Dry Heart charges ahead at the pace of a thriller but without any liberal doses of twists and turns that are so definitive of the genre, and it’s all the more powerful because of that. It’s an absorbing story where Ginzburg, through the magic of her writing, transforms the raw material of a dull marriage into a unique, rich finished product brimming with psychological depth.

Fascinatingly, it ends just as it begins…

I shot him between the eyes.

Last Stories – William Trevor

William Trevor’s Last Stories is an exquisite collection of tales featuring lonely lives, individuals resigned to a quiet existence, love not panning out as desired, and finding contentment in small things.

As tends to be the case with any short story collection, some of the stories were very strong, while others failed to hit the mark. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the ones that made an impression on me because in a sense they also form the essence of the whole collection.

One of my favourite stories, At the Caffé Daria, is a tale of two women – Anita and Claire – good friends once upon a time but no longer. Anita is now a publisher’s reader and frequently visits Caffé Daria as part of her daily routine. On one of these visits, she runs into Claire who informs her that her husband recently died. The death of Claire’s husband brings back a flood of painful memories, as Anita recalls a past tarnished by betrayal. The reader is made aware of Anita and Claire’s friendship when they were dancers in a troupe called Fireflies. During this period, Anita agrees to marry an older man, who declares his undying love for her, and chooses to settle down. But while she is content with married life, her husband abandons her for Claire, leading to a rift in their friendship. When the man dies, in a fit of loneliness, Claire seeks out Anita, but will the latter find it in her heart to let be bygones be bygones? This is a brilliant piece on how betrayal can tilt the delicate balance of friendship, on how loneliness and anger afflict the two women as they cope with abandonment.

Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.

What is the price one is willing to pay to harness talent? At the heart of The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, is our protagonist Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a woman in her early fifties, “slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features.” Miss Nightingale, now all by herself, gives music lessons in the same rooms where she spent most of her childhood and also carried out her secret love affair with a married man. Her parents are now no more, and the affair fizzles out, but Miss Nightingale is not a bitter woman, for “after all there was the memory of a happiness.” When a child prodigy begins to take piano lessons from her she is dazzled by his talent, until, she realizes he is equally adept at stealing objects from her room.

She had sought too much in trying to understand how human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.

In Mrs Crasthorpe, the titular character feels profoundly humiliated because she is the sole mourner at her husband’s bleak funeral, in a village he requested, though she does not know why. But, Mrs Crasthorpe is a woman of secrets herself, and believes that although she married her husband for money and was blessed with a comfortable life, she couldn’t really blossom in their union. Thus, she perceives his death as an opportunity for her to rise in life.

I shall relish my widowhood. I shall make something of it.

Her journey through grief and attempting to forge a new life is contrasted with that of another character called Etheridge. Etheridge has also experienced tragedy with the death of his wife, who he loved dearly, but he finds solace in work, reinventing himself and somehow moving on.

Etheridge’s path occasionally crosses with Mrs Crasthorpe’s, though he wishes it didn’t, and this uneasiness is also mirrored in the reader. This is an excellent, nuanced tale of two people, who grapple with a major upheaval in their personal life, and yet what fate eventually has in store for them is diametrically opposite. 

In An Idyll in Winter, a teenage girl, Mary Bella, living in a big house surrounded by a farm, finds her imagination fired up by her tutor, Anthony, an older man. An attraction that does not play out then, Anthony alters his career path to become a cartographer, marries and settles down with two daughters. A chance visit to the farm, several years later, kindles the romance between Mary Bella and Anthony, and the latter proceeds to end his marriage. Fear grips both the women in the story as they are bound to a man, who despite his best intentions, ends up equally hurting them.  

With that simplicity a loneliness began for Mary Bella that was more than loneliness had ever been before. Belittling the solitude she had so often known, it was mysterious too, coming as it did while she still had the companionship she valued more than any other.

The story Two Women, begins thus: “Cecelia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Cecelia is aware of her mother’s absence during her childhood, but is plagued with doubt whether she is dead. This feeling of uncertainty persists, and her father is reluctant to make things clear. Meanwhile, a new life beckons for Cecelia. Once she is ensconced in a boarding school, where she begins to blossom after initial hiccups, Cecelia notices two women who are possibly stalking her – they are always present at her hockey matches and other events. Who are these two women and will they shed some modicum of light on Cecilia’s origins?

This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecelia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecelia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt.

Last Stories proves that Trevor is truly a master of the short form. His writing is brilliantly understated and nuanced, the stories abound with sensitively portrayed characters.  He crafts his sentences with care, and every piece crackles with aching poignancy.

Not all the people in his stories are lonely though. They are certainly alone, but some find peace in routine and the life they have shaped for themselves.  Others are lonely creatures not only because they have no one that matters, but also when they are in relationships. Some are marginal people, on the fringes of life, like the dead woman in The Unknown Girl, whose life is summed up in a sentence – “Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” Others like Mary Bella are beset by persistent dread of losing the love they possess.

What is also remarkable about these stories is how unpredictable they are. A story will coast along in a certain direction, and the reader might form some assumptions, only to realize that it has shaped up in completely unexpected ways. A tincture of melancholia seeps into each of these tales, punctuated by ambiguities and moments of creeping doubts. Last Stories, then, is a fitting finale to Trevor’s illustrious writing career.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

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.