The Half Brother: A Novel
Lars Saabye Christensen
Arcade Publishing, 2004
696 pp., $27.00
Reviewed by Elissa Elliott
Telling Lies, Telling Stories
This is a great, panoramic saga of a book. Winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2002 and now arriving in the States in a fine translation by Kenneth Steven, The Half Brother is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections—but more engaging and better crafted.
Barnum Nilsen—a pudgy, Tourette Syndrome-afflicted, borderline midget—is the narrator. He's a perpetually inebriated screenwriter who cannot sell his brilliant work. How do we know it's really brilliant—that he isn't merely a self-deluding wannabe? Well, he's asked, at the end of the book, to write a screenplay about his half brother Fred, the one born in a taxi, the boxer, the dyslexic, the sometimes aphasic elder brother conceived during a violent rape on May 8, 1945—when the town was celebrating the end of World War II. And we're convinced that this bruising and sorrowful novel we've just finished reading is the result.
Barnum and his half brother Fred live with their great-grandmother, The Old One, a former silent film star; their grandmother, Boletta, who works at The Telegraph Exchange; their mother, Vera, who is in stubborn denial of all things unpleasant; and Barnum's elusive father, Arnold Nilsen, whose visits are sporadic and unpredictable. In fact, the men in Barnum's life are ephemeral at best—Boletta calls them the Night Men. The Old One's lover disappeared on an Arctic expedition to Greenland; and the only thing that remains of him is a lengthy letter found in his coat pocket, which the family reads so frequently, they have it memorized. Boletta no longer waits for her man; instead she souses her memories at the North Pole, a dive where the beers are colder than ice. Vera meets Arnold Nilsen, a diminutive con man who drives a Buick and wins her heart. They marry and produce Barnum—who's named after none other than the P.T. Barnum of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.
In a home where no one can be trusted to stick around, lying is a way of life, elegantly formulated in the circus motto Barnum learns from his father: Mundus vult decipi. Ergo decipiatur. "The world will be taken in, thus it is deceived." Barnum—who wears platform shoes and keeps his hair curly to appear taller—embraces his role as a storyteller, to protect his brother Fred's secrets and to weave sense into his own life. When given the opportunity to make psychological connections in the book, he doesn't. He simply abandons his ideas or thoughts and plunges forward with the narrative. And we forgive him for it. We understand that the truth might scar, might sear its way, like lightning, down through the soles of our feet.
The many references to fiction (Knut Hamsun's book Hunger, for example) and films (starring the famously short Humphrey Bogart) and even an odd, fragmentary screenplay by Barnum at the end of the book (detailing a horrible childhood experience) emphasize the necessity of imagination, that innate process of forming hints of truth out of haphazard pieces of questionable material. We are left on the cusp of unbelief—did these things really happen?
It is a tribute to Saabye Christensen that the book—full of flashbacks and asides and anecdotes—reads as smoothly as it does. It would read even faster had he paragraphed the dialogue out, but then again, that would have doubled the length of an already weighty book.
Lars Saabye Christensen is one of Norway's leading contemporary authors. He was born in Oslo in 1953, and at the age of 24, he published his first novel. His fame spread with the publication of his novel Beatles in 1984, a story of four boys growing up in the shadow of their pop icons during the volatile Vietnam era.
Most novelists cannot rival Saabye Christensen's sensitive treatment of his flawed characters. Never do we detect an overbearing, omniscient authorial presence. The characters' voices and actions speak for themselves. But Saabye Christensen isn't the only one who deserves credit. This behemoth of a book must have been lovingly translated. For that, we have Kenneth Steven to thank. He writes in a translator's note: "All translation is a compromise; there are inevitable losses in bringing a richly woven literary text from its native tongue. It is not the thousands of words that pose the difficulty, it is the single words—the tiny words that have been chosen by the author for their resonance, for their resemblance to other words in the language, their interplay with different elements of the text."
Rightly said. In the end, there are not enough words, not enough precise ones, to translate all the secrets of our lives.
Elissa Elliott is writer in Rochester, Minnesota.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Half Brother is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Most reviews of the English translation of The Half Brother have so far appeared in the U.K. The book has been reviewed in The Telegraph, The Guardian, and twice in The Independent. It has also been reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Arcade Publishing's site has a bit of information, but not much, on the book.