Sunday, October 13, 2013

What we lose by keeping quiet (Books - Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrom)

Norwegian novelist Merethe Lindstrom's Days in the History of Silence (Other Press, 2011 trans. Anne Bruce) is an intimate unearthing of the most private spaces in an aging woman's mind.  Lindstrom's to-the-point prose makes Eva's lonely struggle come alive.  The voice is fresh, even as the moment-to-moment events are mundane - aimless drives, tidying the kitchen, struggles between parents and children, the indignities of aging.

Oddly enough, the great work this novel most brings to mind is Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Although the protagonist is not young and male here, but elderly and female, the inciting incident is loss.  In this case, it is loss of Eva's husband, Simon.  Simon isn't dead, but he has stopped speaking.  This may have arisen from a psychological cause.  During his childhood, Simon and his family were hidden from the Nazis by a non Jewish family.  This meant he was obliged to make as little sound as possible, and almost never exposed to air and sunlight.  He acquires from this experience a habit of silence.  He is a wounded man - having experienced many losses, and he also develops a shame around being Jewish - an aspect of himself he hid from his daughters.  Simon and Eva are both advanced in years, and one or two ambiguous sentences suggested that Simon's silence could also have been the result of a stroke.  But the exact cause is a wound, whether to brain or psyche is not precisely important.  The dismissal of their housekeeper, Marija, a key event in this novel, results in Eva's isolation.  Her chief conflict is whether she will sign a paper, urged upon her by her concerned daughters, committing Simon to an old age home.  Here is the similarity to Hamlet, because Eva is stuck, and the action of this novel might be seen as the unfolding of her hesitation, a paradox, since it demands movement from stasis.


But Eva's mind is anything but still, and Lindstrom's novel of hesitation is full and active.  Eva seems to put her own and Simon's lives on trial.  Her present in now filled with the past - their first meeting, their friendship with and dismissal of Marija, Simon's attempt to contact surviving relatives after the War.  Eva reviews past decisions, chief among them, her having given up a baby for adoption - another instance in which someone who would have received her care, was voluntarily given up to be cared for by others.  Eva, like Hamlet is possessed by loss, but not only of Simon.  Age and isolation have made her frail, and she faces the loss of her recognizable self.  Just at this moment of profound loss, she is asked to make an irrevocable decision.  What Eva reviews is not so much her own and Simon's past actions, as they way they lived with themselves and others.  Simon and she have both kept their most profound choices and their feelings around them completely private, even from their children.  Some emotional reserve or more than that - shame - has cut them off from others.  In the face of yet another self-imposed loss, while she seems to be losing possession of herself, Eva seems to finally question the cost of this silence.  Don't mistake the ordinariness of these characters' daily activities with the theme of Lindstrom's novel, which is the cost of isolation.  Lindstrom reaches beyond the domestic, to the moral sphere.  This is a novel about giving of yourself to others.  It is about our generosity, our ability to take responsibility for others.  Will you hold yourself apart?  Will you judge another unlike you as unworthy?  Or will you give of yourself?  Will you connect?  Will you do so when it is hard?  Will you give part of your house to a Jewish family when the Nazis may come pounding on the door?  This novel is about the cost of being silent, whether in the context of world events or personal ones.  As such, I see Eva's hesitation, even as she looses her grip on the present, as possessed of a certain nobility.

2 comments:

James Chester said...

It's been a while since I've been here. Wanted to let you know that I read a bunch of your reviews this morning and was definitely reminded why I keep Bookeywookey in my blog-roll.

I"ll be looking for Days in the History of Silence. It sounds very good, and it's too rare that I come across a book about people older than I am, even as old as I am. There is so much written for readers under 30 and so little for readers over 30.

Ted said...

JC - Thanks for the compliment and I'm glad you're back. I was writing pretty infrequently for a while. Days in... was one of those unexpected bookstore finds, which made it all the more enjoyable. Let me know what you think.