October 2014

Brian Nicholson

fiction

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman

This acclaimed collection of Scandinavian short stories, Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, may start off as an unknown quantity to American readers, but it establishes quickly enough that its universe is the same as that of Ingmar Bergman films. A harsh bleakness of people speaking pointedly to each other in moments when there should be tenderness, where violence explodes, engendered by nothing. In the first story, a man and a woman are biking through nature with their son. An accident caused by a stick in the spokes leads to the child being tossed into a side-of-the-road ditch, his head hitting a rock. With the child lying unconscious, the man takes the occasion to tell his wife that he's been fucking her sister who, he has already mentioned in narration, "has a tighter cunt."

From this point on, we're taught to see each story's austere sentences, their descriptions of scenery and nature, unfolding as if in Sven Nykvist's black-and-white cinematography. We see these things clearly, even when nothing very much is happening. But, minus the bodies of actors to enact such dramas, the foreground figures tend to blur. In "The Car Trip," there's a frenetic amount of proper names, which subsumes individuals into a collective chaos:

"Tobias reeks of smoke," says Signe, holding her nose. "And wet dog," says Andreas. "Leave Tobias alone," says Mia, who's in an awkward position with one arm reaching into the backseat to give Baby B a bottle. "Can't Signe do it?" asks Nikolaj. "I don't want to," Signe answers. "It's not about wanting to," says Nikolaj, and Mia says, "It's all right. I can do it."

In other stories, pronouns reign supreme, the default subject matter of men and women relayed by use of an elemental "he" and "she," or a first-person's address of an abstractedly intimate "you," as in teenage poetry. These relationships are often estranged and hostile. In one that speaks obsessively of a "she," "Interruption," a foreign woman forces her way into a man's apartment and begins living there, using his things, getting them wet. Her nude body is described unflatteringly. In general, motivations remain a mystery. Most people are angry all the time, and sometimes we are given a reason. In these moments, the reason for being angry is understood as the lack of understanding in others, as in "Candy," narrated by a man whose wife is being held by supermarket detectives for having accidentally left unbought candy in her bag.

One story, "Wounds," is an outlier for how much it reveals, from the full name of one character, to why another acts so distant. Initially, any attempts to ingratiate made by one Ellen Parker are viewed as distressing to the narrator, and the default hostility to women is maintained. But here the characters are focused on as more than just monstrous abstractions, and in the story's climax, the narrator's body is revealed before Ellen as a female body, marked by scar tissue in a way that she presents herself as a man. This moment, after so many stories, written by a woman, about men feeling hostile to women, and these hostilities having been presented largely sympathetically, or organic to its worldview that sees mysterious violence as some sort of universal lifeblood, seems revelatory of some sort of reason to all this cruelty, a body behind it that's capable of sympathy but maintains a default distance owing to violence that's been done to it.

The story that follows and concludes the book, "Mosquito Bite," gives the book its title, in one offhand image, where the infected ass of a man, revealed to one witness, is likened to that of a baboon. The story chronicles the sickness as his symptoms worsen, until, after a year has passed and he has recovered, he is now too weak to stand without assistance. He is grateful for the kindness people have shown to him in his recovery but cannot be bothered to care about anything. And so the secret is revealed by the arc we as readers have traveled, if we read these short stories in the order in which they are presented. The effect Aidt intends is that we see in these temper tantrums our worst selves, and that catharsis enacts itself.

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman
Two Lines Press
ISBN: 978-1931883382
208 pages