Normality Becomes Madness: Trauma in Contemporary Nordic Speculative Fiction
By Katie SmithJanuary 20, 2020
Christiansen’s titular protagonist Fanny, a high schooler who refuses to confront her grief at the sudden death of her parents, slips seamlessly in and out of reality, between dreams and memory, leaving readers unsure what’s real or imagined. In one moment, she hears her parents’ voices in a hyperreal, uncanny reality, when she suddenly blows on an ember, and the lump of coal in her palm goes up in flames; in the next, she wakes in her bed, hands empty, fire out.
An otherwise straightforward writing style becomes abrupt, slippery; the anxiety and disorientation readers feel largely mimics the experience of trauma or grief — life is largely happening to you without your consent or agency, and you’re left running to keep up. It’s a unique reading experience, but one I’ve had in various forms last fall with three different Nordic novels in translation.
Whether it’s coming out of the literary tradition itself, or perhaps more a reflection of what the US market looks for in literature in translation, there’s been some incredible literature to come out of Scandinavia in 2019 that captures different fragments of grief’s manifestation and reality. Each author approaches a different facet of unimaginable loss — coming of age and learning the realities of death; political and religious division, concentration camps, and genocide; and the sudden, inexplicable loss of a child — and uses form to bring the reader into their heads and their pain. It’s as if to say: You’re having as hard a time reading this book as I did writing it.
In addition to Christiansen’s Fanny, Johannes Anyuru’s They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears, translated by Saskia Vogel, captures the disorientation of a terrorist attack and radical subjugation of Muslims in Sweden by inserting speculative fiction devices — time travel, premonitions, and switching bodies — into a normal, contemporary reality that looks much like our own. The juxtaposition is deadly, suggesting just how easily one’s quiet little life can become the stuff of political action thrillers, or rather, of living nightmares.
The most experimental of the three novels, Naja Marie Aidt’s When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book, translated by Denise Newman, charts similar grief territory to Fanny but in very different forms. Aidt chronicles the blurry weeks after her son Carl’s sudden, violent death through mixed mediums — prose narration, poetry, journal excerpts, and dictionary definitions — and repetition, the result of which is a literary punch in the gut. Readers feel the full complicated weight of the narrator’s grief and, in the end, are left feeling like it may never become easier to carry.
Though innovative approaches to trauma writing isn’t exclusively a Nordic tradition, there is, perhaps, a basis for its prevalence. “The Scandinavian novel is, generally speaking, less interested in the storytelling that characterize many American novels and more interested in experimenting with the novelistic form,” says Claus Elholm Andersen, PhD, assistant professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Part of this is due to the historical development of the Scandinavian novel, [and] part of this can be attributed to the support that many authors receive from the state, which, at least to a certain extent, makes them less dependent on sales.”
Dr. Andersen suggests, though, that a recent influx of this kind of novel could perhaps be explained by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a six-part 3,600-page autobiographical novel, that “undoubtedly has paved the way for more experimental narratives from Scandinavia.”
Writing through trauma in experimental forms, though, didn’t necessarily originate in any one tradition; rather, it’s a universal human coping mechanism. As Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “All trauma is pre-verbal.” Humans remember and store trauma as fragments of experience or sensation, instead of a traditional narrative memory, and as a result, even verbally narrating what has happened is a challenge. The brain can’t process what has taken place.
For example, as Aidt captures in Carl’s Book:
[N]o language possible language died with my child could not be artistic could not be art did not want to be fucking art I vomit over art over syntax write like a child main clauses searching everything I write is a declaration I hate writing don’t want to write anymore I’m writing burning hate my anger is useless a howling cry.
The practice of writing through trauma, then, is often a natural method to organize your thoughts and feelings. Christiansen, Aidt, and Anyuru deploy a number of forms and techniques to capture the fragmented nature of their experiences, including the themes of memory and dreams, as well as the use of the uncanny, symbol, hybridity, and setting. While some have a basis in Nordic tradition, each device truly does the heavy lifting of showing readers what our characters and authors cannot straightforwardly put into words.
Memory and dreams — or in Anyuru’s case, premonitions — are central features in the three novels. If memories of traumatic experiences are elusive, as van der Kolk describes, dreams allow humans to reenact them. In Carl’s Book, Aidt works through her guilt over her son’s death in her dreams, as well as comes to accept — however unhappily — that her son has died:
The second dream (June 5, 2015)
I see Carl as a figure with his back turned doing nothing. He’s sitting completely relaxed, looking out of a window. Beautiful light on his half-turned face, his hair hangs down his bare back.
The third dream (October 10, 2015)
I dream I’m in jail. It turns out it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. You can go out to a garden. But there are bars on all the windows, doors and gates.
In Anyuru’s They Will Drown, the narrator is an unnamed time traveler, though not in the traditional sense. She had no DeLorean or time machine; rather she awoke in another girl’s body in another country, a few decades in the past. The time traveler’s dreams, then, function more as memories of her other life in her other body and, since she lived in the future, as premonitions. She knows what will happen before it does and, where the timelines diverge, she knows a different Sweden than the one she lives in now.
Christiansen’s Fanny desperately avoids all memories of her childhood and life before her parents’ death. “Should she let her memories in?” writes Christiansen. “But opening up and letting the memories in, the images and events flow by — no, what was the point of that?” But her grief needs to materialize somehow, and soon dreams begin to overtake her waking life. By the end, the reader can’t discern if Fanny in her head or in reality. The author dissolves the barrier between what’s real and what’s imagined, capturing, to use Freud’s word, the “uncanny” — the experience of something strangely familiar.
In Fanny’s dreams, her house and the surrounding woods are exactly as they are in real life, but as the scene progresses, details are just a little off.
The following night she had a dream. She dreamed she could hear the sounds of her parents in the house, a faint rustling in the walls. And everything she saw there in her sleep was real, as real as the quiet circle of light that spread out from the lamp on her bedside table, despite which she had fallen asleep, just as concrete as the comic book that had fallen onto the floor, and as tangible as the branch that once scratched her face...In her sleep, she blew on an ember and the ember grew; it cracked, came alive, and offered up neat little flames. She could hold it in her hands, but then she woke up … and when she sat up in bed and looked down at her hands, they were empty.
In They Will Drown, just as events start to go off the rails and the reader can’t quite tell what’s real and what’s imagined, Anyuru signals that something fishy is going on in our narration through the use of symbol. As the time traveler’s memories from her previous life begin to return and inform the present, she sees a moth appear out of thin air. The moth follows her throughout the novel, popping up as an indication of the supernatural; it’s as if Anyuru can wink to readers and say, “Yes, I am playing with your sense of the uncanny, but I’ll give you a hint.”
For example, the novel begins with a terrorist attack and a narrator who can’t remember who she is. As readers will learn, in the narrator’s first timeline, that terrorist attack was a pivotal event that was used as a reason to subjugate Muslims across Sweden. But in this second timeline in the past, where the narrator has somehow traveled, she has found herself as one of the perpetrators of that attack, where her conspirator Hamad has just been shot. She knows what’s about to happen before it does and, crucially, can try and stop it. But she can’t quite square why she knows all of this — and that is when the moth first appears:
She thinks she sees a moth, large as her palm, crawling over Hamad’s face […] The clamor of time. She isn’t who she appears to be. Doesn’t come from here […] Wings trembling, the moth creeps across his forehead and into his hair. She stares at it, frozen. A new memory: A man looking out into the night through a shattered window. Her dad. She remembers her dad. Her mom beside him, knife in had. She sees them clearly. What happened to her? […] She senses a mechanism inside time, a power that sucks everything backward into the dark. This isn’t the first moth she’s seen.
These authors bring us into their characters’ realities, lull us there a little, before slightly turning it a few degrees — things become just a little off. It’s a subtle way of demonstrating to readers that our narrators can’t fully be trusted. We are inside their minds, and those minds are full of traumatic experiences that distort the picture. How can we expect anyone to be telling us the truth if they don’t know themselves?
While all three authors play with form in some way — Anyuru through conflicting timelines and Christiansen through the juxtaposition of dreams and reality — Aidt’s Carl’s Book uses true hybridity of forms to create narrative chaos; the reader needs to feel as unglued as she did at the death of her son. Aidt imitates the experience of living through a trauma like grief through constantly launching between traditional narration of her son’s death — getting the call, going to the hospital, making his medical decision — and poetry, dictionary definitions, excerpts from a lifetime of journals, and stream-of-consciousness sections. The resulting picture is a novel that, at turns, explodes, hides, and charges unrelentingly from page-to-page. What Aidt can’t summarize in words, she illustrates through the scattered form.
A frightening fish-out-of-water, transformation experience is central to all three stories, as their central traumatic event is each novel’s jumping point. “In Scandinavian horror, the underworld is the Nordic landscape, where the protagonists undergo a series of transformations or ritual sufferings,” writes Matti Savolainen in his book Gothic Topographies: Language, Nation Building and “Race.” “In today’s horror stories, the protagonists are often modern city-dwellers who by accident […] end up in an environment they are not familiar with[.] […] The landscape becomes a devious place, not just a backdrop to what happens, but an antagonist.”
These novels are not horror in the traditional sense, but employ horror devices to bring readers into the terrifying nature of their traumatic experience. Christiansen brings this out most clearly in Fanny, who travels into the wild landscape of the forest to confront her feelings of grief and death. But the experience of hospitalization or being in an institutional setting — a sterile environment where you or a loved one are held against your will and life-threatening decisions are made for you — appears in They Will Drown and Carl’s Book, turning the landscape device in on itself. Whereas the forest or the primitive is traditionally employed to elucidate the protagonist’s fear and isolation, Anyuru and Aidt use human-created, fallible, constructed spaces to heighten the reader’s terror, suggesting just how easily a tragedy like theirs could happen to you.
“Scandinavian horror,” Savolainen continues, “represents a fear of losing control over external conditions, over the landscape and the climate.” For our authors, and in the modern world as a whole, no experience better illustrates that loss of control than their own. Sudden death of a cherished loved one or large-scale destruction become the symbols to illustrate the tenuous hold one has over their reality, their sense of normalcy.
Whether with Christiansen’s subtlety or Anyuru’s and Aidt’s brute force, each novel gives the reader’s sense of “normal” a total realignment. If trauma is pre-verbal, as van der Kolk argues, then these novels grapple with trauma through highly experimental prose that elucidates the mind-bending experience the authors are living.
As Anyuru’s time traveler warns in They Will Drown, “I’m writing to those of you who don’t know yet that madness will always become normal; in the end, normality becomes madness.”
Katie Smith is a writer from Philadelphia. Find her on Instagram at @realmoaningmyrtle for cat pics.
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