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 on 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.