September 2013

Ben Ashwell

fiction

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe LindstrÝm, translated by Anne Bruce

Metrethe LindstrÝm's Days in the History of Silence is a brooding, melancholy novel in which the narrator, Eva, struggles to come to terms with the past. On the surface Eva and her husband, Simon, have a good life -- a long-lasting marriage, three daughters of whom they are very proud, successful careers, and enough money to afford a comfortable suburban house and someone to clean it. But they are haunted by secrets that, over time, have created gaps between the family -- gaps that are filled only by silence and Eva's troubled attempts to recall events.

Eva is increasingly troubled by the son she gave up for adoption when she was seventeen years old. The baby was not Simon's, but it was a secret that she kept from him for many years. Simon grapples with his youth, having been raised a Jewish boy whose family and friends were killed, scattered, or lost forever during the Holocaust. They cherish a doomed relationship with their Latvian cleaner, Marija, who grows to become a close friend and occupant of the house. As Eva and Simon get older, shielding their daughters and Marija from their secrets (or shielding their secrets from their daughters and Marija), they drift apart emotionally to the point where they are just two inhabitants of the same house, choosing not to confide in one another.

Eva is held captive by her own actions -- the son she surrendered for adoption, a chance encounter with a stranger who entered her house when her daughters were too young to remember -- and yet, her memories do not have a confessional quality. Events are told in a confused, insecure manner that implies that she is grasping for memories and emotions that she can't fully recall. "No, he said eventually, you never gave him the chance to become that. Or were those the words he used? It seems too emphatic. Perhaps I have changed them with the passage of time."

Her curiosity about the son she never knew develops once her daughters grow up and move out of the house. Encouraged by Simon -- who is incensed by why she would surrender a baby and never mention it to him -- she tries to track him down, but loses her confidence at the last moment, thus confining herself to a life of looking at young men and wondering whether they could be her son. Throughout the novel the characters reach out for support from outside the family, but these relationships are never fully successful. It's as if Eva acknowledges that she needs help from somewhere, but even in narrating the novel, she isn't capable of discussing the past transparently.

If Eva is a lonely and isolated figure, then Simon is a man on the brink of insanity. Withdrawn from the world and completely mute, it is unclear whether he is still capable of rational thought. During his adult life he attempts to acquire more information about what might have happened to his family and friends during the Holocaust. He protects this information from everyone else and only occasionally recalls to Eva the terrifying experience of escaping to hide in a tiny annex where no one said a word for fear of capture. Ambivalent toward his religion as a young boy (he even secretly attends a Catholic ceremony), he never reveals his history to his daughters. But, as revealed in the ending of Marija's relationship with the family -- an event that you feel sends long-lasting shockwaves that neither Eva or Simon fully comes to terms with -- his experiences give him a strong sense of personal identity.

Presumably there was a time when Simon was a happy man and a good husband and father, but there is little trace of those memories in LindstrÝm's novel. Instead he is characterized by complete silence in his old age, coupled with an increasingly alarming habit of disappearing for long journeys. These episodes escalate -- from being found at the back of the garden to catching a train to a town some distance away -- and they take their toll on Eva.

LindstrÝm directs the characters as though they were in a suspenseful play. Drama threatens on many occasions, but in the end the cowardice and introversion of the characters means that it never quite boils over. The best example is in Eva's reluctance to check Simon into a nursing home -- a parallel to her regretted decision to sign her child away. Eva and Simon are portrayed as selfish in a self-destructive, insecure sense, which pulls them apart. Stylistically this also plays a part in Eva's narration -- her retelling of events is often fragmented and full of second-guessing. But the simplicity of the language and the domesticity of the surroundings make it an immersing read.

Eva's attempts to claw back moments from the past, and her failure to do so objectively, are reminiscent of Julian Barnes's 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending. LindstrÝm's tone is fitting for this type of a novel -- airy, vague and downbeat. Days in the History of Silence is not an emotionally wrenching read for the subject matter it covers (the Holocaust, for example, is skirted around without examining it in any real detail), but the distance that grows between a married couple in suburbia is alarming and will stay with you long after you put the book down and move on.

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe LindstrÝm, translated by Anne Bruce
Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590515952
240 pages