FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More articles by:

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

August 16, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
“Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty”: Why Anti-Authoritarian Doctors Are So Rare
W. T. Whitney
New Facebook Alliance Endangers Access to News about Latin America
Sam Husseini
The Trump-Media Logrolling
Ramzy Baroud
Mission Accomplished: Why Solidarity Boats to Gaza Succeed Despite Failing to Break the Siege
Larry Atkins
Why Parkland Students, Not Trump, Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize
William Hartung
Donald Trump, Gunrunner for Hire
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Morality Tales in US Public Life?
Yves Engler
Will Trudeau Stand Up to Mohammad bin Salman?
Vijay Prashad
Samir Amin: Death of a Marxist
Binoy Kampmark
Boris Johnson and the Exploding Burka
Eric Toussaint
Nicaragua: The Evolution of the Government of President Daniel Ortega Since 2007 
Adolf Alzuphar
Days of Sagebrush, Nights of Jasmine in LA
Robert J. Burrowes
A Last Ditch Strategy to Fight for Human Survival
August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omarosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail