My first encounter with Kjell Askildsen’s marvelous short stories was in 1995, in an anthology called Et stort øde landskap (A Wide Empty Landscape), published by Oktober in 1991. Their effect on me was searing. The simple, low-key language had unexpected force, making it almost painful to read the stories. Askildsen’s penetrating insights into dysfunctional relationships threw every incident into relief and illuminated moments of unease and discomfort.
I had never attempted literary translation before, but I felt a strong urge to translate these stories, so, without even asking permission, I launched into a translation of one entitled "I’m Not Like That, I’m Not Like That" from that collection and dispatched it to the author. I was delighted when he was pleased with it. Emboldened, I accepted a commission from Askildsen’s Oslo publishers, Oktober, to translate another collection of short stories entitled The Dogs in Thessaloniki, published in Norwegian in 1996. Thanks to the editors of Words without Borders, the title story is now published.
Askildsen’s prose may appear deceptively simple, but retaining his everyday vocabulary while maintaining the intensity of the words makes it challenging. Norwegian has several small particles—jo, da, vel—which may add a note of uncertainty; they can be notoriously difficult to translate but help to add tension to the strained dialogue that intermittently ensues between husband and wife in "The Dogs in Thessaloniki." Both the narrator and his wife, Beate, use these words on occasion when speaking to or thinking about each other, accentuating their inability to speak directly without a disturbing subtext. In the opening scene, the couple are sitting in the garden and Beate says: "Det er vel best å ta stolene opp på verandaen": "We might as well put the chairs up on the veranda," a statement which seems to beg some kind of affirmation from her husband. This she does not receive as he is engaged in a constant battle to control and manipulate his wife in an underhand way. "Det har jo ikke hendt noe," says the narrator as he contemplates whether his wife and he are at odds with each other after a further incident in the garden; in English I settled for: "Nothing has happened, has it?", where uncertainty hangs in the air.
From the start it is clear that husband and wife engage in only sparse attempts at conversation, frequently interspersed with silence or broken off when one or the other moves out of range. Askildsen constructs a landscape of distance and space around the protagonists in all his short stories. Gardens, rooms, open land, chairs and beds—these areas and objects are among the symbols employed to convey this landscape. Beate disappears into the house when her husband needles her. Her disappearance and her humming indoors appear to infuriate her husband though he would never admit it. Likewise his own evasive behavior when he hides in a forest outside the garden must dismay her though she makes no open conflict out of it.
The narrator’s remarks to his wife frequently carry a note of veiled or open criticism; Hva skal det der være godt for?, "What’s the point of doing that?" he comments when Beate throws a half-smoked cigarette on the ground. Beate’s responses are either silence, as here or sound mollifying as if she wishes to avoid an argument despite having good grounds to feel mightily provoked by her husband. There is no shouting or muttering or hissing, far less screaming, at each other, but their exchanges are punctuated with "I said" and "she said" like rifle shots. This is evident in an exchange that occurs over dinner, not long after he hid from her in the forest and deliberately ignored her calling out to him:
Så sa hun: Forresten, hvorfor svarte du ikke da jeg ropte på deg? Ropte på meg? sa jeg. Jeg så deg, sa hun. Du svarte ikke. Jeg svarte ikke. Jeg så deg, sa hun. Hvorfor gikk du da rundt huset.? sa jeg. For at du ikke skulle skjønne at jeg hadde sett deg, sa hun. Jeg trodde ikke du så meg, sa jeg. Hvorfor svarte du ikke? Sa hun. Det var vel ikke nødvendig å svare når jeg trodde du ikke så meg, sa jeg. Jeg kunne jo ha vært et helt annet sted. Hvis du ikke hadde sett meg, og hvis du ikke hadde latt som om du ikke så meg, ville ikke dette vært noe problem. Kjære deg, sa hun, det er da ikke noe problem.
Then she said: By the way, why didn’t you answer when I called to you? Called to me? I said. I saw you, she said, and you didn’t answer. I didn’t reply to that. I saw you, she said. Why did you go round the house then? I said. So that you wouldn’t realize that I’d seen you, she said. I didn’t think you saw me, I said. Why didn’t you answer? she said. It wasn’t necessary to answer when I didn't think you had seen me, I said. I might well have been somewhere totally different. If you hadn’t seen me, and if you hadn’t pretended not to have seen me, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Dear me, she said, it isn’t a problem, is it?
My desire to convey Beate’s mild presence led me to translate "ropte" as "called" rather than "shouted" and "Kjære deg" as "Dear me" rather than "Good heavens" or "For goodness sake," which would have sounded a note of exasperation. When Beate states, "You didn"t answer," I rendered her husband’s reponse as "I didn’t reply to that," rather than the more literal "I didn’t answer," in order to avoid ambiguity since he had not answered when she called from the garden either. The irony of his reiterating his wife’s words was lost, but his arrogant refusal to meet her in open dialogue is inescapably underlined. His evasive or noncommittal utterances concerning his behavior are indeed worthy of a contortionist, but Beate backs down and doesn’t rise to his bait. She closes the repartee with a weak question tagged onto her patently untrue denial that there is a problem.
Using so much energy on control and evasion, it is not a great surprise that the protagonist cracks up at odd moments revealing his inner anxiety and loneliness as he does when sitting at a café beside a fjord–one of the few specific mentions, besides the forest, of Norwegian topography in the story. His agitation and fear continually surface but the climax is reached when he jerks away from his wife’s caress. The intriguing question arises whether this kind of combat is a peculiarly Norwegian exercise of marital disharmony.
The south of Norway, where Kjell Askildsen has his roots, and from which he fled when his first novel was strongly condemned, is part of Norway’s Bible Belt. The lay preachers who have regular summer revival meetings urge women to obey their husbands, and uphold meekness and mildness as virtues. There is a local joke that when a man was painting his garden fence and a bus drove through a puddle, spattering the fresh paint, the man ran after the bus and, on catching up with it, said to the driver: "I can’t say I liked that." While suppressing open outbursts of anger is normative behavior for many in the region, the effect of Askildsen’s revealing prose arouses extremely strong reader reactions. Not surprisingly, he has won numerous literary awards, and his name has figured on the Ladbrokes lists of possible candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If you would like to see and hear Kjell Askildsen (even if you can’t understand Norwegian), then I can recommend an interview from 1991 with Haagen Ringnes, a reporter on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. You can hear Askildsen reading extracts from Et stort øde landskap’ (A wide empty landscape). You may also wish to read another of his fascinating short stories, "Martin Hansen’s Outing," in the December 2008 issue of Words without Borders.