Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Norwegian Pyromaniac


In the several years that I’ve been reading Scandinavian crime novels (not a steady diet, mind you), I’ve considered myself fortunate that I live in a more temperate, more accessible environment.  Endless winters, unrelenting darkness, inaccessible remoteness—they’re enough to drive one mad, as is the apparent message in many of these stories.  People crack up, they often live truncated lives, they’re short of word, and perhaps curt with strangers—distant, remote, violent.  Not a pretty environment, though I confess that when I’ve visited these areas I’ve been struck by their natural beauty.  Still, the novels are full of whacko characters—some of them downright menacing.

What makes Gaute Heivoll (who is Danish) separate from the other writers is that his novel—his latest, at least—is less sadistic, but equally addictive as a narrative.  In Before I Burn, we learn the identity of the arsonist fairly early on, but then observe the setting of fires—sequentially.  Thus, we’re waiting for the next fire, wondering why this beautiful and supposedly normal young man doesn’t get caught.  And the answer is there at the beginning also.  His supposed innocence protects him for the longest time, as the fires continue and no one realizes that the arsonist is in their midst.  He’s the son of the local fire chief, for God’s sake.  How can he be the one who’s lighting the fires, fires that are lit with an intent to kill?

Much of the novel has nothing to do with the pyromaniac.  Equal space is given over to the narrator’s own life, and that narrator is Gaute Heivoll, the author of the book. As much as anything else, Gaute (born days after the fires began in the late 1970s in an isolated area of Denmark called Finsland) relates the story of how he became a writer.  In a crucial moment, when Gaute was studying law at the university, he learned that his father (who was only fifty-five years old) was dying from a virulent form of cancer.  The knowledge of his father’s approaching death so traumatizes the young man that he stops studying, and on the day of the final exams, he leaves the examination books blank.  When he visits his father in the hospital sometime later, he lies to his father about his exam results, claiming that he got a distinction.

“I had lied to him, the last thing I did for my father was to lie to him, and the lie gave him peace.  That was how it was.”  Afterwards, Gaute leaves the hospital, gets drunk, chews broken glass from a bottle and almost jumps overboard from the ferry he’s taken, nearly killing himself.  The following night his father dies and Gaute writes, “The last thing I did was to lie to him, and I didn’t even have time to tell him I had become a writer.”  Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but he has begun scribbling beforeburnon scraps of paper. What is revealing is that Gaute’s own character is almost as bizarre as the pyromaniac.  They are, in fact, doubles—equally fragile, committing acts that are harmful to themselves and others.

And the pyromaniac himself?  We know that when he was a child, he observed two fires in the community, one of them involving the incineration of a dog.  We also know that he was an angel of a child, never engaging in an unseemly act, beloved by his parents and teachers—but he was a loner (as is Gaute, the narrator/writer).  In his late teens, he accompanied his father on the fire engine whenever there was a fire.  But basically, there were no fires—for years on end.  So he began setting them himself.  Boredom?  Some hidden perversity?  Simple adolescent rebellion?  The novel does not tell us, hardly even hint.  But there is a revealing scene after one of the fires he has started and helped to put out reaches the stage when it’s only smoldering.    He briefly absents himself from the environment, and this is what we next encounter, related from the perspective of the people whose house has just burned down:

“It was then that the fire engine returned.  They heard the sirens approaching.  Next they saw the flicker of the blue lights and heard the roaring of the motor up the last inclines.  Not until the vehicle was stationary were the sirens and blue lights switched off.  Out jumped a young man: it was the son of the fire chief, Ingemann at Skinnsnes.  Inside the cabin he had a carrier bag of food.

“‘Have you been shopping?’ someone asked, but the boy didn’t respond.  He put the bag down on the ground.  It toppled over as soon as he turned his back.  Kasper and Helga watched him roam around the site for a while.  Then he came back and searched for something in the bag.  They hadn’t noticed, but there was smoke still rising from the house and the barn.  It was thin, gray smoke, almost like steam, and it dispersed at once.

“‘Who wants a hot dog?!’ the boy yelled.”  But when he can discover no flames at the site, he adds, “‘Then we’ll have to eat them cold…’”

Figure that one out; read Before I Burn.

Don Bartlett’s translation from the Norwegian is sustains the novel’s continuous suspense.

Gaute Heivoll: Before I Burn

Trans. by Don Bartlett

Graywolf, 307 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email:







Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Uri Avnery
The Peres Funeral Ruckus
Tom Clifford
Duterte’s Gambit: the Philippines’s Pivot to China
Reyes Mata III
Scaling Camelot’s Walls: an Essay Regarding Donald Trump
Raouf Halaby
Away from the Fray: From Election Frenzy to an Interlude in Paradise
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
David Yearsley
Trump and Hitchcock in the Age of Conspiracies
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”