The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad (Part II of V)

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

Scarcely an hour earlier, after collecting a pile of sheet music, he had closed the gate of the house he would soon be moving into and which people would dub Villa Wergeland, and set off down the road he had walked every day of his childhood. Wherever he turned his eye he risked becoming lost in memories: a life-threatening bonfire, the windows Ivan broke, the wallet in the ditch which brought him a heaven-sent fifty-krone reward, the magnetic, nipple-shaped doorbell on the front door of Anne Beate Corneliussen’s building. He sauntered along, wishing to prolong the poignant aspect of the moment. There was a strange mood in the air too. It felt as though there was no longer the discoverer anyone living in the houses he passed. Even the shops looked deserted. It was an exceptionally dull day. Damp. The last leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground was covered with an indeterminate gunge, as if after an incredibly drunken party. The blocks of flats and the shopping center reminded him of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The whole of life seemed suddenly drab and dreary. And yet—in spite of all this—he felt hopeful. As if he knew that behind all the greyness lay something else, something surprising. Something is about to happen, he told himself.

As his eye was drawn to a couple of solitary clusters of rowan berries, two rosy, bright spots in all the greyness, he found himself thinking of another grey day in his life. The year before, off his own bat, he had gone to Moscow with a friend and colleague from the NRK purchasing department who was attending a television conference there. They had stayed at the Hotel Ukraine, one of Stalin’s seven so-called “wedding-cake” buildings from the fifties, all of which looked like squat, bulky versions of the Empire State Building. One morning he had crossed the grey River Moscow, meaning to walk to the Kremlin. Ahead of him lay Kalinina Avenue, broad and surprisingly empty-looking, despite the cars. The weather was clear, but a haze still managed to leach everything of color. The distances seemed enormous, and almost in order to escape from those vast, empty spaces thick with the fumes from low-octane gasoline, he took a right turn which led him into some narrower streets. Here he found more people. Women in headscarves, carrying baskets. And there were lines. Two in one short stretch. For eggs, perhaps, he thought. Or toilet paper? To these people, even the magazines he had bought at Fornebu airport, with their glossy adverts, would be objects as rare as rocks from the moon. He walked along, looking and looking, trying to take in the dreariness around him. Brown, grey, black. Hulking, homogenous buildings. Everything covered in a thin layer of grime. He fancied that he was wandering through a sort of populated desert. Always, when he came to a new place, he went exploring. As a small boy he had transformed every house he visited into an unknown continent. He was a Columbus, stepping ashore. The threshold was a beach. The hallway a jungle, the stairs a mountain, every cupboard a cave. But Moscow: so gloomy, so dispiritingly vast. This was obviously not a city one simply strolled through. Best be getting back, he thought, before I am engulfed by all this greyness.

The problem was, however, that he no longer knew where he was. And as if that weren’t enough, he desperately needed to go to the toilet. He cursed his bad habit of drinking too much coffee at lunchtime, while casting about in hopes of finding some building that was open to the public. He fell in with a stream of people who seemed to have been caught by a current and were being swept towards a façade with a large M over the doors. He had always liked the letter M, took this to be a good omen. He was not prepared, however, for the sight which met his eyes, for the way the stony desert gave way to a shimmering oasis.

In his mind he was in Moscow, in reality he was approaching Grorud shopping center, casting a nostalgic glance in the direction of Wolfgang Michaelsen’s garden where every autumn as boys they had gone scrumping for glossy, green apples so juicy and so sweet that they even merited running the risk of the Michaelsens’ Rottweiler getting loose. There was a slight haze in the air, the sort of autumn mist that quickens the senses and which, rather than concealing things, seemed to bring them closer, even things that were a long way off. Chet Baker weather, he thought to himself. He felt nervous. Before him lay a sight which triggered memories of childhood theatricals, packed gym halls. The fluttering in his stomach might otherwise have been attributed to his own misgivings, a dawning sense of having come to a dead end. In his life. The problem had to do with his work at NRK TV. He was an announcer, and popular. And yet he wasn’t happy. He did not understand it. At some point in his life he had abandoned all of the goals he had set for himself as a youth. He had thrown in the towel halfway through a course in architecture, having previously dropped out of a course in astrophysics. By chance—and not really caring one way or the other—he had allowed himself to be led into a tiny television studio. For many years he had been more than happy with his good fortune, with having found a job where he could do so little, and yet, it appeared, mean so much to so many. But now it seemed that an old ambition was once more stirring. Something he had forgotten. Wanted to forget. His conscience still pricked him. He caught himself looking for a loophole, a way out, a way forward. Which may have been why now, on this day especially, despite his sense of confusion, he suddenly felt optimistic. He had a strong feeling that something awaited him. That it was only minutes away. That something, a curtain, would be pulled back and something else, he did not know what, would be revealed.

As in Moscow. Because, when he penetrated beyond the grey façade with the steel M over the doors it was like stepping into the foyer of a theatre. As though someone up in the flies had dropped a richly hued stage set into place right before his very eyes. He walked along broad, brightly lit corridors, gazing round about him in disbelief; found a toilet without any problem. He had always set a lot of store by mazes and the possibilities these presented. You set out to sail to India, and wind up instead on an unknown continent. You go looking for a toilet and stumble upon a metro station, a veritable treasure house. He seized his chance, followed the crowd, popped a five kopek coin in the slot and passed through the barrier. Moments later he was being transported down into the bowels of the earth on the steepest, longest escalator he had ever ridden, a wooden one, at that; then he found himself in a vast, glittering white chamber hung with magnificent chandeliers. A sunken palace. He was Alice in Wonderland, the victim of a supernatural occurrence. He took the hall in which he found himself for a glittering ballroom until a train came rushing in and stopped right in front of him.

Out of sheer curiosity he hopped on, only to alight at the next station—Plostsjad Revoljutsii, he later learned: Revolution Square. It was like entering a museum. The station concourse was full of bronze sculptures. As far as he could tell, they represented the different trades. He was about to take a closer look at a statue of a sailor when he almost bumped into a shabby-looking character sweeping the floor. The man stopped, leaned on his brush and examined Jonas. The look he gave him contrasted sharply with his down-at-heel appearance. Keen eyes studied the small Norwegian flag which Jonas was wearing in his lapel while in Moscow, a badge intended to serve much the same purpose as the tag on a dog collar: indicating which embassy to contact were he to collapse in the street. The cleaner stood for a while staring into space, as if deep in thought. Then: “Gustav Vigeland,” he said at length, extending his arms to the statues round about them. Jonas nodded. There were certain similarities. “Gustav Vigeland,” he responded. These two words pretty much said it all. Forged a bond between them. Encapsulated a whole story. Or so Jonas thought, until the Russian leaned towards him: “Fascism!” he hissed, pointing eloquently at the sculptures. Jonas smiled uncertainly, tried to nod politely before continuing his tour. This man could easily be a professor of art, he thought, but now here he is, sweeping railway platforms for holding certain incorrect opinions on art.

Jonas was right underneath Red Square, but he was not interested in taking the escalator up, out. Why see Lenin’s tomb when he could see this? He wanted to stay down here in this brilliantly illuminated secret. Here, in Moscow, they had built their sculpture parks underground. Jonas wandered on and off trains for hours, endeavoring to see as many stations as possible. A subterranean grand tour, he thought to himself. Proof that man had evolved beyond the caveman stage. He strolled through halls faced with every sort of polished stone, a genuine geological museum. Everything was spotlessly clean. Jonas walked upon gleaming tiles, down colonnades, amid copper and steel, surveying all manner of ornamentation: mosaics, reliefs, stained glass, statues of pilots and scientists. All of this decoration sprang from the ideal of bringing art to the people. He thought of his brother’s favorite writer, Agnar Mykle: “Socialism is clean bodies and classical music in the factories.” And art in the metro stations, Jonas might have added. During his visit, Jonas came across nothing that told him more about the Soviet state and, not least, its part in the last war. He had seen something like this before: the Town Hall in Oslo. He went on walking and thinking, considering. What, today, was the greatest public space? Might it not be television, the box, the square common to all? In other words: wasn’t that the place for art—in palaces of a sort, beamed into
people’s living rooms?

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