“Between everything that has happened and everything that happens, there is a dividing line, distinct and defined, like a wall, and the past stays behind that, shut off, forgotten.”
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Norwegian novel Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm is plotless. There is a plot there, but it’s secondary to memory and the idea in which silence, a lack of discussion of some of the more traumatic events in our lives erodes at the foundations of contentment, creating an atmosphere of uneasy disquiet.
At the heart of this novel, which runs to 230 pages in my edition, is Eva, our narrator, a Norwegian woman, a former teacher who is married to Simon, a retired physician. The presenting dilemma is Simon’s deterioration. He’s lately been given to wandering, but more than anything else, he’s sunk into silence. Is this just aging, Alzheimer’s or is there something else at work? Eva and Simon’s three adult daughters, arguing that this is too much for their mother to cope with, are pushing their mother to put Simon in a home. The application form remains blank, and Eva’s three daughters are angry that she won’t begin the process. But that’s not the only thing they’re angry about. They’re also very angry that Eva and Simon dismissed their much-loved Latvian housekeeper, Marija. They want an explanation, but none is given.
This is basically the plot, but Days in the History of Silence is one of those books that is diminished by a plot description. Instead this is a novel of memories with a focus on the lives of Eva and Simon, the patterns of established behaviours, the connections between lost boys, and a linkage between events in which disturbing elements entered their lives, only to leave, and then to be included in the baggage of silence and secrets. Eva gave birth to a son when she was 17 and gave him up for adoption–a secret she only revealed to Simon after they were married. Simon, for his part, keeps the fact that he is Jewish secret from his children. He learned how to live with silence when he and his family hid during WWII, and it’s a state that he learned to accept.
The novel begins with Eva’s memory of a day, decades earlier, when a young man came knocking at the door asking to use the telephone.
I heard the children from inside the living room. Helena was just a baby at that time, she was lying in a sleeping bag while the other two were playing on the floor beside her. I heard the time signal on the radio, behind him lay the garden, at that early hour the air is motionless, the rain from the previous evening only a slight dampness on the leaves, the green grass newly wakened, dazed, something quivering in the transition from shadow to the sudden touch of sunlight. I don’t know what I was on the lookout for, perhaps an excuse to shut the door.
The incident, which brought something dark and unpleasant into Eva’s life haunts her, and she recalls that day often in the decades that follow:
The episode that has a hard and inevitable quality when I reflect on it. It is as though it is scored into or through something. A gash, like a tear in the canvas, in the perfectly normal day, and through that hole something has emerged that should not surface, not become visible.
But there are several other things that Eva would not rather talk about–the baby boy she gave up at age 17 and also Simon’s Jewish background. There was a period years earlier when Simon began trying to find out what happened to his many relatives who vanished during the war. During a drive in the car with the sleeping children decades before, Simon asks Eva how any human being could have killed children in the extermination camps and then casually gone home for the day. Eva does not want to discuss it; to her, such speculation is “coarse and indiscreet,” and she tells him, “don’t drag all that darkness in here.” A lifetime of silence descends onto the life of this couple and the things they don’t discuss increase. To Eva, “words are a way” into their lives and their minds, and some things are better left unsaid.
While Eva appears to be the one who doesn’t have a ‘problem,’ I’d argue that Eva’s insistence on not discussing certain things is corrosive, but then while on the surface she seems to be this nice, respectable, boring wife and mother, there’s some rather unhealthy stuff bubbling away under the surface. I’ll even go as far to say that when it comes to emotional reactions, there’s something horribly wrong–the baby… the dog…. This lack of appropriate emotional response, an emotional disconnect, is in direct contrast to Simon’s moving story of how he hid with his family from the Nazis, and the terribly fate of his young Aunt and cousin.
While the novel is ostensibly about the consequences of a lifetime of not discussing certain topics, the novel appears to centre itself on the dismissal of the housekeeper, Marija. The reason behind her dismissal is not revealed until close to the end of the book, so it becomes a ‘secret’ in itself–a rather underwhelming secret, a slow build up, but easy to guess, which actually works against the book. With Eva as our emotionally disconnected narrator, this is a subtle, slow, and even at times a mundane novel–not a page turner by any means, but in spite of its occasional misstep, I enjoyed it immensely. While Eva and Simon may appear externally as the epitome of the successful life, there are deep scars below the surface, and this author asks–how do we live with damage? Do we move on and pretend it never happened, or do we “drag all that darkness in.”
For Tony’s review and a different opinion, go here
Translated by Anne Bruce. Review copy