It’s a shame that through the Best Translated Book Award I’ve come to know a couple of authors by books that function almost as suicide notes — or, rather, we read them like that because they talk of death and depression (and suicide) and then shortly after their publication the author has taken his (no women to date) own life. Such is the case with Stig Sæterbakken, whose book Through the Night (Gjennom natten; 2011; tr. from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella, 2013) was published shortly before he committed suicide in January of 2012.
Through the Night begins as a suffocating tale of grief. Our narrator, Karl, is grieving the suicide of his teenage son Ole-Jakob. Here is the first paragraph:
Grief comes in so many forms. It’s like a light being turned on and off. It’s on, and it’s unbearable, and then it goes off, because it’s unbearable, because it’s not possible to have it on all the time. It fills you up and it drains you. A thousand times a day I forgot that Ole-Jakob was dead. A thousand times a day I remembered it again. Both were unbearable. Forgetting him was the worst thing I could do. Remembering him was the worst thing I could do. Cold came and went. But never warmth. There was only cold and the absence of cold. Like standing with your back to the sea. Ice-cold ankles every time a wave came in. Then it receded. Then it came in.
This first paragraph gives a good sense of how the first, say, two-thirds of the book goes. Karl goes about his day, mourning with his wife, Eva (“And I knew that no matter what I said to her, no matter what I might once again make her believe, that sooner or later it would be revealed as an empty promise, as a pledge without payment, without any relation to the reality that would always return to ruin things for us yet again.”), and their other child, a daughter named Stine.
Near the beginning of the book, one of Karl’s friends, Boris, tells Karl about the place that, for me, completely transformed this densely mundane story of grief into a hyper, horrific encounter with Karl’s own dark self: it’s a “mysterious house, someplace in Slovakia.” There “you were given a key and a scrap of paper with an address on it, as well as a time, down to the precise minute on a particular date, where you, if you were to let yourself into the house at exactly that time, would be confronted with your greatest fears.” Here we are reading about numbness, about suffocating in front of the television, about a pain that is extraordinary and yet ordinary, when we come across this description of folks who have visited that mysterious home:
There were those, according to Boris, who claimed that they’d been there, seen what there was to see and had come out again with a lighter heart, relieved of everything that had been weighing on them, joyful and in high spirits, without a trace of fear left in their bodies. They’d seen the worst things imaginable, after which nothing could threaten them anymore. Others, Boris reported, had returned with hideous, contorted faces, so that even some of their closest family and friends had trouble recognizing them. One such individual’s skin had turned completely gray, after his visit, and his nose had been moved to his cheek, he never said another word to anyone, locked himself into a room in his apartment and stayed there until he died, which was just a few weeks later. Another man was said to have left home, headed straight for a railway line, and thrown himself in front of a freight train, which severed his head. And some of the people who’d been in the house for only five minutes were said to have emerged again firmly believing that they’d been locked up in there for years. There were others still who said that they hadn’t noticed any real change until long afterward, when the full horror of the thoughts they’d had while they were in the house dawned on them all at once.
As I mentioned, this Lovecraftian nightmare is brought up very early in the book. Once it is introduced, the narrative returns to Karl’s everyday grief, with flashbacks of when Ole-Jakob was a child and to Karl’s infidelity, which repulses Ole-Jakob. As I read these pages, I was interested, but it didn’t particularly feel unique — supremely personal, yes, but familiar in its style and content as a person feels grief and guilt.
This all changed with about a third of the book left, when, as you surely expect, Karl makes his way to that house in Slovakia. Wonderfully, the book contains point-and-shoot photos of Skubínska Cesta 64. As he approached, I almost wanted to go grab him by the hand and push him into the door, but only partly in anticipation of the horrors that had been built up. Really, I was by this point, over 200 pages into the book, so stifled by Karl’s mind that I wanted him to confront his demons. I wanted the character to get shook up. I did not expect to get so shaken myself. It was top-notch horror writing (in my limited opinion) as we first catch glimpses of the homes prior guests and inhabitants.
No madman had ever lived in the house. No bodies lay under the concrete floor of the cellar. No lunatic had run from room to room screaming in mortal terror with a cage strapped onto his chest. Nothing terrible had take place here; no, it was merely the insuperable aggregate of simple human tasks, the interminable succession of departed daily occurrences.
And thus we are escorted to Karl’s own dark encounters. It’s a great passage, one that doesn’t quite hold itself together and fulfill its promise in the end, but great nonetheless. I loved every bit of this section.
Sadly, for me, the very last page of the book undercuts some of its brilliance. The bright — even if ambiguously bright — ending simply didn’t feel right. But that’s only one small page, and, much like the first two-thirds of the book, which are not particularly as strong as that horrific stint in Slovakia, does little to diminish the heights Sæterbakken reaches there at the end. In fact, I’m convinced I won’t even remember the weaknesses of this novel, but I will remember Skubínska Cesta 64.