Through the Night was the last novel Stig Saeterbakken wrote before killing himself in 2012. Maybe this shouldn’t matter when it comes to determining whether it was the best-translated book published in 2013, but there’s something unshakable in the fact that Saeterbakken’s last work concerns itself with suicide, with depths of pain and loss and those regions where words cannot reach. The uncomfortable proximity of the book and its author, especially one as troubled as Saeterbakken, reminds us that behind every novel is a human being.
Through the Night tells the story of Karl Meyer, a successful dentist whose life unravels after his son’s suicide. In its broad contours, this is an unexceptional story, one that in less capable hands might be more tedious than moving. Saeterbakken, though, relates the story in an emotionally honest way, allowing us to understand Meyer while at the same time keeping a necessary distance. So, as we watch Meyer descend into a sort of clichéd self-destruction (against which, of course, we’re helpless)—leaving his family for a younger woman, giving up his practice and leaving the country, abandoning everything familiar in pursuit of the oblivion of elsewhere—we see a man who is both an archetype and an individual. The particulars stick with us: the novel opens with Meyer’s wife, Eva, plunging an axe into the television that Meyer has been glued to since their son’s funeral. It’s the passivity of the binge-viewer that Meyer tries to shake free of as the novel progresses, creating a tension between inertia and action familiar to anyone who’s felt themselves paralyzed by grief.
Part of what makes Through the Night so much more compelling than other novels treading similar ground is that Saeterbakken isn’t concerned with limiting himself to a realist depiction of an extreme psychological state—as difficult a task as that is. As is apparent in his previously translated work—Siamese and Self-Control—Saeterbakken sought to create situations in which extreme states are matched by outward realities, as if he needed to find a physical form in which to embody the waywardness of a world where, for example, a child can die before his parent. In Through the Night, which progresses from psychological realism to surrealism, Saeterbakken finds a haunting manifestation of this waywardness in the house in Zagreb, which is said to contain the fears of each of its visitors. I’ll leave it to the curious reader to find her way there.
Saeterbakken’s final novel isn’t perfect and the translation suffers from an occasional rough patch, but the book is nonetheless a fitting testament to a writer who, more than anything, found it unacceptable to take the easy way out. And while I generally avoid the qualifier “brave” when describing fiction, I think Through the Night is a brave work—perhaps the only brave book on the BTBA longlist. For that alone, it deserves to win.
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