December 2009

Jacob Silverman

fiction

Siamese by Stig Sæterbakken, translated by Stokes Schwartz

If by one clichéd definition the body is a temple, then in Stig Sæterbakken's novel Siamese, that temple has been sacked and pillaged, trod upon by a thousand unknown invaders, and really, Edwin Mortens -- one of the novel's broken down elderly protagonists -- would rather that you just demolish the whole thing. Turn it into dust and forget it, Edwin says, because as a sickly old man, unable to feel anything below his waist, confined to a rocking chair in his bathroom, where his suffering wife, Erna, attends to him, Edwin feels "a miserable parody of myself." Once he goes -- and he's eager for that moment -- Edwin demands they "turn the heat up all the way, no half measures, I want to be entirely incinerated, I want there to be nothing left of me."

This short novel, translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz, is a catalogue of Edwin's decay and his desire for annihilation. The title is a reference to the peculiar symbiosis, the fetid yin-yang, that has developed between husband and wife: that is, Edwin, besides being locked in his chair, hooked to a catheter and colostomy bag, is nearly blind but hears quite well. Erna is ambulatory and sees perfectly, but she is nearly deaf. Erna puts up with Edwin's outrageous verbal abuse, bringing her husband food (which he often refuses) and making sure he remains warm. She also brings him tremendous amounts of gum, the only thing that can stymie Edwin's nausea -- a Gogolian disgust that stems as much from his ill health as it does from his exhaustion with the corporeal world. Occasionally, she deposits the "pellets" of gum in Edwin's mouth, as if he were a rabbit, and he repays her by littering the floor with wrappers and spitting out the wads after they lose their flavor.

Edwin is a monstrous creation, sometimes capable of very morbid humor: "I don't have emotions when I think, which is an improvement… Who knows how long I've been decomposing. I think there's more ammonium chloride than flesh down there right now." If the novel were told only from his perspective, it might be insufferable. Instead, the narrative wisely alternates between Edwin and Erna. And although Edwin is abusive -- possibly stemming from a burgeoning dementia -- he is not entirely awful. Even in his most vicious moments, he calls Erna "Sweetie," and there seem to be some pleasant shared memories, although these facts are hardly exculpatory.

Still, one of the unarticulated questions of this novel is: what are the limits of love? Can old age bring on the sort of changes, physical and emotional, that make spouses unrecognizable to one another? In contrast to the troubled, but persevering, Edwin-Erna relationship, Edwin occasionally recalls his time working for a nursing facility, where sickly octogenarians were abandoned by their children, who went home to await their inheritances. Edwin's experience there leaves him capable of terrifying verbal dissections of the human form. Describing one patient:

Mr. Reum had surgery on his back once and the incisions never properly closed up again, they'd opened him up from his shoulders all the way down to his heels, but sewing him together again apparently didn't go too well, though it wasn't entirely their fault, his skin just wouldn't cooperate frankly, the lips of his wound curled away from each other like magnets with opposing poles… instead of healing they just formed a permanent rubbery crust on either shore…

These are the memories that, combined with his utter helplessness, cause Edwin to wish for death and to be so crazed. Even so, Erna's devotion to Edwin remains unconvincing, likely because there are so few moments of pleasantness, either new or recalled. This novel is a grim, though interesting, read, and it is sometimes a relief to end an Edwin chapter and find shelter in Erna's calm narrative. But Erna contains her own kind of sadness. Besides suffering from verbal abuse, she's practically alone. No one visits her, except occasionally a cleaning lady, and she can't help but be obsessed with Edwin's well being. When a building superintendent comes to change a light bulb, Erna, with pathetic earnestness, hopes that he can at least introduce some change in her dreary life. For the reader, though, this is clearly a sad, misguided hope.

Siamese never leaves the confines of the Mortens' apartment. Together with Edwin's body and these two suffering minds, a series of prisons appears, all interlocked in the kind of miserably codependent relationship to which the title alludes. Erna knows that she's trapped here, that her suffering is "his way of keeping himself at the center of [her] attention." And so as Edwin approaches death and his pitch black humor yields to frightened madness, it's clear that his end will bring, for everyone, a hard-won release.

Siamese by Stig Sæterbakken, translated by Stokes Schwartz
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564783251
168 Pages