Authors: Karl Ove Knausgaard,Don Bartlett
She knew very well there had, but she also knew that I liked talking about such things.
‘Yes, there have,’ I said. ‘Just after I was born three men flew there. It’s a long way and it took several days. And then they flew around it.’
‘They didn’t fly; they had a spaceship,’ she said.
‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘They went in a rocket.’
The lights changed to green, and we crossed to the other side, where the square began and we had our flat. A slim man in a leather jacket with hair down his back was standing by a cashpoint. He put out one hand to receive his card; with the other he stroked the hair from his face. It was a feminine gesture, and amusing, as everything else about him, the entire heavy-metal look, was designed to be dark and hard and masculine.
The tiny pile of bank receipts on the ground by his feet blew up in a gust of wind.
I shoved my hand in my pocket and took out a bunch of keys.
‘What’s that?’ Vanja asked, pointing to the two slush machines outside the little Thai takeaway next to our front entrance.
‘Slush ice,’ I said. ‘But you knew that.’
‘I want some!’ she said.
I looked at her.
‘No, you’re not having that. But
‘We can buy some chicken satay if you like. Would you like that?’
‘OK,’ I said, put her down on the ground and opened the door to the restaurant, which was not much more than a hole in the wall and filled our veranda, seven floors up, with the smell of noodles and fried chicken every day. They sold two dishes in a box for forty-five kroner, so it was not exactly the first time I was standing at the glass counter and ordering from the young skinny expressionless hard-working Asian girl. Her mouth was always open, her gums visible above her teeth, her eyes always neutral as if they couldn’t make any distinctions. In the kitchen were two equally young men – I had caught only brief glimpses of them – and between them flitted a man in his fifties, his face expressionless as well, though a touch more friendly, at least whenever we bumped into each other in the long labyrinthine corridors beneath the house: he was fetching something from or taking something to a storeroom, I was washing clothes, throwing out rubbish or pushing my bike in or out.
‘Can you carry it?’ I asked Vanja and passed her the hot box which appeared on the counter twenty seconds after the order had been placed. Vanja nodded, I paid, and then we went into the next front hall entrance, where Vanja put down the box on the floor so as to press the button for the lift.
She counted all the floors aloud on the way up. When we were standing outside our flat she handed me the box, opened the door and called for her mother even before she was inside.
‘Shoes first,’ I said, holding her back. At that moment Linda came from the living room. The TV was on, I could hear.
A faint odour of putrescence and something worse rose from the large bag of rubbish and the two small nappy bags in the corner by the folded double buggy. Heidi’s shoes and jacket were on the floor next to it.
Why the HELL hadn’t she put them in the wardrobe?
The hall was awash with clothes, toys, old advertising leaflets, buggies, bags, bottles of water. Hadn’t she been here all afternoon?
But she had plenty of time to lie on the sofa and watch TV.
‘I got a goodie bag even though I didn’t do any fishing!’ Vanja said.
So that was what she considered important, I mused, bending forward to remove her shoes. Her body was twitching with impatience.
‘And I played with Achilles!’
‘Nice,’ Linda said, crouching down in front of her.
‘Let me see what’s in the goodie bag, then,’ she said.
Vanja showed her.
As I thought. Ecological goodies. Must have come from the shop that had just opened in the mall opposite. A selection of chocolate-covered nuts in various colours. Candied sugar. Some raisin-like sweets.
‘Can I eat them now?’
‘Chicken first,’ I said. ‘In the kitchen.’
I hung her jacket on a hook, put her shoes in the wardrobe and went into the kitchen, where I served the chicken, spring rolls and noodles on a plate. Took out a knife and fork, filled a glass with water, put everything in front of her on the table, which was still littered with felt-tips, watercolour paint boxes, glasses of water, brushes and sheets of paper.
‘Everything go all right there?’ Linda asked, and sat down beside her.
I nodded. Leaned back against the worktop, with arms folded.
‘Did Heidi go to sleep easily?’ I asked.
‘No, she’s got a temperature. That must be why she was so crotchety.’
‘Again?’ I said.
‘Mm, but not so high.’
I sighed. Turned and looked at the piles of washing-up on the side and in the sink.
‘Looks a hell of a mess here,’ I said.
‘I want to watch a film,’ Vanja said.
‘Not now,’ I said. ‘It was bedtime ages ago.’
‘I want to!’
‘What were you watching on TV?’ I asked, meeting Linda’s eyes.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing special. You were watching TV when we came. I was wondering what you were watching.’
Now it was her turn to sigh.
‘I don’t want to go to bed!’ Vanja said, lifting the chicken skewer as if about to throw it. I grabbed her arm.
‘Put it down,’ I said.
‘You can watch for ten minutes and have a bowl of sweets,’ Linda said.
‘I just said she couldn’t,’ I said.
‘Ten minutes, that’s all,’ she said and got up. ‘Then I’ll put her to bed.’
‘Oh yes?’ I said. ‘So I’m supposed to do the washing-up, am I?’
‘What are you talking about? Do what you like. I’ve had Heidi here the whole time, if you really want to know. She was ill and grumbly and –’
‘I’ll go out for a smoke.’
‘– quite impossible.’
I put on my jacket and shoes and went onto the east-facing balcony where I usually smoked, because it had a roof and because it was rare you saw anyone from there. The balcony on the other side, which ran alongside the whole flat and was more than twenty metres long, didn’t have a roof, but it had a view of the square below, where there were always people, and the hotel and the mall on the other side of the street as well as the house fronts all the way to Magistrat Park. What I wanted, however, was peace and quiet, I didn’t want to see people, so I closed the door of the smaller balcony behind me and sat on the chair in the corner, lit a cigarette, put my feet on the railing and stared across the backyards and roof ridges, the harsh shapes against the vast canopy of the sky. The view changed constantly. One moment immense accumulations of cloud resembling mountains, with precipices and slopes, valleys and caves, hovered mysteriously in the middle of the blue sky, the next moment a wet weather front might drift in from the far distance, visible as a huge greyish-black duvet on the horizon, and if this occurred in the summer a few hours later the most spectacular flashes of lightning could rip through the darkness at intervals of only a few seconds, with thunder rolling in across the rooftops. But I liked the most ordinary of the sky’s manifestations, even the very smooth grey rain-filled ones, against whose heavy background the colours in the backyards beneath me stood out clearly, almost shone. The verdigris roofs! The orangey red of the bricks! And the yellow metal of the cranes, how bright it was against all the greyish white! Or one of the normal summer days when the sky was clear and blue and the sun was burning down, and the few clouds drifting by were light, almost contourless, then the glittering, gleaming expanse of buildings stretched into the distance. And when evening fell there was an initial flare of red on the horizon, as though the land below was aflame, then a light gentle darkness, under whose kind hand the town settled down for the night, as though happily fatigued after a whole day in the sun. Stars lit the sky, satellites hovered, planes twinkled, flying into and out of Kastrup and Sturup.
If it was people I wanted to see I had to lean forward and look down to the yard on the other side, where faceless figures occasionally appeared in the windows, in the eternal merry-go-round between rooms and doors: a fridge door is opened, a man wearing only boxers takes out something, closes the door and sits at a kitchen table, somewhere else a front door is slammed, and a woman in a coat with a bag over her shoulder hurries down the stairs, round and round it goes, and over there what must be an elderly man, judging by the silhouette and the paucity of movement, is ironing; when he finishes he switches off the light and the room dies. So where should you look? Above, where a man sometimes jumps up and down on the floor waving his arms in front of something you can’t see but is no doubt a little baby? Or at the woman in her fifties who so often stands by the window looking out?
No, those lives were spared my gaze. It searched upwards and outwards, and not to scrutinise what it found there, nor to be struck by the beauty, but to rest. To be utterly alone.
I grabbed the half-full two-litre bottle of Coke Light that stood on the floor beside the chair and filled one of the glasses on the table. The screw top was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident. But it didn’t matter, I had never been bothered much by how things tasted.
I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a rule in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before my own. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them; on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something which could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway house. There was just the small self-effacing one and the large distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
What was the problem?
Was it the shrill sickly tone I heard everywhere, which I couldn’t stand, the one that arose from all the pseudo people and pseudo places, pseudo events and pseudo conflicts our lives passed through, that which we saw but did not participate in, and the distance that modern life in this way had opened up to our own, actually inalienable, here and now? If so, if it was more reality, more involvement I longed for, surely I should be embracing that which I was surrounded by? And not, as was the case, longing to get away from it? Or perhaps it was the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed, which made everything so predictable that we had to invest in entertainment to feel any hint of intensity? Every time I went out of the door I knew what was going to happen, what I was going to do. This was how it was on the micro level, I go to the supermarket and do the shopping, I go and sit down at a café with a newspaper, I fetch my children from the nursery, and this is how it was on the macro level, from the initial entry into society, the nursery, to the final exit, the old folks’ home. Or was the revulsion I felt based on the sameness that was spreading through the world and making everything smaller? If you travelled through Norway now you saw the same everywhere. The same roads, the same houses, the same petrol stations, the same shops. As late as in the 60s you could see how local culture changed as you drove through Gudbrandsdalen, for example, the strange black timber buildings, so pure and sombre, which were now encapsulated as small museums in a culture which was no different from the one you had left or the one you were going to. And Europe, which was merging more and more into one large, homogeneous country. The same, the same, everything was the same. Or was it perhaps that the light which illuminated the world and made everything comprehensible also drained it of meaning? Was it perhaps the forests that had vanished, the animal species that had become extinct, the ways of life that would never return?
Yes, all of this I thought about, all of this filled me with sorrow and a sense of helplessness, and if there was a world I turned to in my mind, it was that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its enormous forests, its sailing ships and horse-drawn carts, its windmills and castles, its monasteries and small towns, its painters and thinkers, explorers and inventors, priests and alchemists. What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result?