To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as translators are praised for their work with complex, tangled sentences, I often wonder if bringing life to minimalist work is as much a challenge, and Seán Kinsella brings that life:
I went down to the living room. Daniel was standing by the veranda door. The storm had put me in a conciliatory fram of mind, and I went over to him and said: Isn’t it spectacular? Spectacular? he said. The apple trees are being stripped of fruit, and look at the sugar snaps. I looked at them; some of the stalks lay on the ground.
In all that is unspoken, by narrators and between characters, in all the we can’t know, tension builds and fear of something sinister, even in the mundane, is birthed. In his sense of uncomfortable danger in human relations, Askildsen calls to mind Michael Haneke. Haneke may be most widely known for the bloodier, more dramatic violence of some of his films, but the smaller acts, the more frightful for their commonplace, can be as much an assault on the viewer. Code Unknown features two of these that stand out in my memory more than any scene from Funny Games: a scuffle in the street, a frightened mother slapping a child who carelessly put itself in danger.
These types of moments simmer in Askilsden’s Selected Stories. In “The Dogs of Thessaloniki” a husband and wife sleepwalk through their day, distant from each other, but going through motions that could have once brought them close. Sitting outside at night, moon out, drinking wine, in what should be a romantic evening, the wife rises:
She came around the garden table and stopped behind me. I grew afraid, I thought: now she’s going to do something to me. And when I felt her hands on my neck, I gave a start, and jumped forward in the chair. At almost the very same moment I realized what I had done and without turning around, I said: You scared me. She didn’t answer. I leaned back in the chair. I could hear her breathing. Then she left.
The man fears an act of love from his wife as someone fears sudden violence. The sense of foreboding is so powerful in “The Dogs of Thessaloniki” and other stories in the collection that the belief that something truly violent will occur never leaves our mind.
“A Lovely Spot” is told mostly in the dialogue of a couple visiting the vacation home of the woman, a place she remembers fondly, but now seems to fear. To feel safer, she wants things done as they always have: the flag hoisted on arrival, taken down in the evening. Her fear heightens when she sees a man out on the headland, looking toward their house (this, a man outside of the property, watching from a distance, occurs without development in more than one story). Unsettled by the man, she wants the door locked. Her husband instead turns her efforts for comfort against her, refusing to lock the door because “We never lock it before we go to bed.” These quiet acts of verbal and emotional violence bleed throughout Askildsen’s stories.
Later, he mocks his wife’s unsettled response to the man, again on the headland. “—Are you afraid that he’s going to come and get you? he said. —Oh, Martin. Really, she said.” His mocking seems to lead her to dismiss her own feelings, but without elaboration from the narrator, without direction or description of her actions, we’re unsettled, unknowing. Most of the dialogue in Selected Stories is this way, words exchanged without tags to help the reader interpret, removing affect, deadening potential emotions. The characters lose something, become further away, and in that space, as we try to cross it, they elude us, leading to dark corners.
Even more unsettling is that the characters themselves don’t seem to know what they mean, don’t know what they want or how to find out what they want, so they choose to act out in ways that aren’t explained, cannot be explained. In “Where the Dog Lies Buried,” a husband finds a dead dog in his basement and insists on dealing with it in his own way, regardless of his wife’s opinion or common sense. After an argument, he leaves her and goes to the kitchen:
He drank a glass of water. Then he let the glass fall to the floor, but it didn’t break. He picked it up and dropped it again. He put some force behind it, but not much. The glass broke, but not into as many pieces as he’d imagined. He fetched the dustpan and the broom and began sweeping it up. Erna didn’t appear.
Does the man want to scare her? Have her think the argument upset him enough that he is destroying things in their kitchen? Does he want her to think he’s had an accident and come in, concerned for him? Does he know why he smashed the glass?
Other acts are even stranger, more violent in their confusion and inexplicableness. The wife of the couple in “A Lovely Spot” has gone to bed, the husband stays up drinking. Eventually he goes upstairs and into the bedroom, where he opens the closet door:
He slammed the closet door. She didn’t move. He tugged the duvet off her.
—Martin! she said.
—Just lie there! he said.
—What is it? she said.
—Just lie there! he said.
Then he left.
The story ends shortly after. The incident seems like an assault, but one absent of the acts of assault, so a response is impossible.
While much is obscured in this fog of unknowing, there is also much that Askildsen’s characters conceal intentionally. His men lie for the sake of lying, hiding things without reason, besides some vague hope that the lie gives them more life. They watch people around them without that person knowing, not spying on anything illicit, just holding that power of observation to themselves. There are so many lies that we lose track of what is a lie and what is not: “You didn’t give yourself much, she said. I don’t drink in the middle of the day, I said. Me neither, she said.” We hardly know those characters, so they could be agreeing to lie to each other.
These are men and woman who hardly exist, the men especially: the men as narrators, the women as figments who move around them. It is as if they are fading away. The last story in the collection, “Everything Like Before” is perhaps the strongest, and reflects what came before. The man is still fading, and it is still from his perspective, but now the woman is the one who acts out, who wants some unknown something, who is threatening. By switching the roles, with the man passive but still the narrator, and the woman active, but still the observed, Askildsen adds an extra layer to the other stories, and though we’re given more insight, we’re left in the dark as ever, knowing only that “Nothing’s the way it used to be, she said, everything is so . . . strange.”