Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm

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I wish I could read Norwegian. This was the first thought I had upon finishing Merethe Lindstrøm’s most recent novel, Days in the History of Silence, which won both the 2011 Nordic Council Literature Prize and the 2011 Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature. Anne Bruce’s translation is lyrically sparse and straightforward, but it alone could not dispel my general puzzlement as I read the novel, nor after I completed it. This is a quietly suspenseful yet oddly inconclusive book. I wonder if reading it in the original would have allayed my confusion—whether particular, perhaps difficult-to-translate words or phrases would have provided access to an additional level of understanding. Or not.

I would bet on the latter, though I feel obliged to state my curiosity. Eva and Simon are an older Norwegian couple—we learn that Simon is in fact much older than his wife, and that he is Central European—with three adult daughters and a house in an upscale, residential neighborhood in an unidentified Norwegian city. He is a retired physician, and she is a retired teacher. Weeks, months, years seem to pass unnoticed as the narrative unfolds, and few places or even people are identified by name. The main arc of the story is Eva’s struggle to articulate how she and Simon ended up friendless, largely solitary, living suspended in Simon’s silence—even as she seems to understand intuitively why this is the case. Eva is a narrator faithful to her own, often painful, thoughts and reflections. She is an appealing character, honest with herself if not with anyone else.

Eva and Simon see and spend time with their daughters, but they are fundamentally estranged from them due to the secrets they are hiding: Simon’s true identity as a Jew; how he and his immediate family survived World War II; the son Eva gave up for adoption when she was a teenager; and the real reason why Eva and Simon dismissed their beloved housekeeper, Marija. We learn the details of these secrets as Simon’s retreat into silence quickens, and the narrative pacing of the secrets’ revelation is the book’s best attribute. Lindstrøm successfully creates an atmosphere of nervous anticipation around Eva’s storytelling; it is impossible, as a reader, not to want to skim several pages to learn the resolution to the novel’s major questions: What did Marija do? Do the police capture Simon and his family? The answers, however, are consistently anti-climactic, and lend the book a pervasive sense of disappointment. This may be Lindstrøm’s intention, but for the reader the effect is frustrating.

Most puzzling is the exact cause of Simon’s descent into silence. In one of the book’s more lucid explications, Eva suggests that it is because of the magnitude of all that Simon has kept hidden from their daughters:

He never told them about it, although he planned and practiced all these evenings, nights, days, when he went over the painful aspects of the past with me. Instead he became more and more silent. As though the recollection of the past, of these events, had been only the start of an interior journey, backward, as though the memories he had initially considered so vivid, changed, he said they were no longer so easy to access, complained that he felt as though they were standing outside them looking in, they became untouchable, tableaux on display in glass cases, they were something he could not catch hold of. And therefore could no longer attempt to explain. In the end he chose silence. Was that how it was?

Merethe Lindstrøm

Merethe Lindstrøm

That may be how it was, but as the book progressed, I could be persuaded equally that Simon’s silence is merely a symptom of dementia, or a convenient plot device for Eva’s reminiscences of giving up her son for adoption. At a few points in the novel, she uses nearly identical language to describe both the baby and Simon silently watching her. The descriptions underscore Lindstrøm’s gifts as a writer, but the inclusion of these and what seem to be other purposefully coincidental scenes and themes is one of the book’s weaknesses. Eva fixates on several solitary and largely silent young boys and young men—an intruder, a young boy she sees walking in her neighborhood, a dead young man whose grave receives no visitors except for her—and though their presence alludes to her unresolved issues with her son and her husband’s past, the cumulative effect is one of metaphorical overkill. So, too, is the presence of dogs in the book, and Eva’s repeated mention of Marija’s dislike of dogs in general. Equally distracting are what appear to be arbitrary vignettes scattered throughout the novel. A snail shell that Eva finds in the closet, a stop at a strange town on a long drive, an anecdote about teenage boys almost drowning in the lake—these digressions feel forced, an odd disruption from the book’s otherwise pleasing narrative rhythm.

The strongest characters are Marija, whom Eva remembers and describes with mixed emotions that ring true, and a young aunt and cousin of Simon’s who die in the Holocaust. Lindstrøm’s depictions of the latter two are particularly moving, and result in the novel’s most chilling and powerfully written passages; despite their limited presence in the book, they are the characters that stayed with me in the days after I finished it. The majority of the others are two-dimensional, but this doesn’t seem unnatural given Eva’s narrative perspective. Only one character proved difficult to fix, and that is Helena, Eva’s and Simon’s youngest daughter. She occupies a conspicuously Cordelia-like role in the novel—the daughter who is closest to both of her parents, her actions a series of small but devastating betrayals, from her insistence that Eva place Simon in a nursing home, to her refusal to read the book on World War I battles that Simon loves. She is the only daughter Eva did not baptize.

Days in the History of Silence, despite its title, is a novel about quiet people, not silent ones; through Eva’s reflections, we hear even Simon’s voice. What his and the other voices tell us, however, is ultimately neither complete nor convincing. Lindstrøm suggests that the full story of Eva and Simon lies as much in the silence between them as it does in their words. By itself this suggestion seems plausible, but I didn’t finish the novel persuaded of it. I just felt that I was missing something. Novels can end with more questions than answers and still convey a sense of resolution. Days in the History of Silence is an inchoate enigma, not a well-developed one. This is probably frustrating for all readers—even for those who can read Norwegian.

Caitlin Callaghan lives and writes in San Francisco, and has published on topics as varied as American public higher education and suicide in medieval England. She holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from Cornell University, and works in public affairs in the Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter at @tinycaitlin. More from this author →