Two months ago I went to a book shop and, on a table displaying books in German translation, I found a novel written by Ketil Bjørnstad. I’d not heard of him before, which isn’t surprising, as only two of his novels have been translated into German so far. None has made it into English. There are a few available in French though. Still, it’s a huge loss because Bjørnstad is one of those multi-talented authors that are so fascinating. Not only has he written far over 20 novels, but also poetry and essay collections, and he is a famous musician and composer.
The novel I bought is called De udødelige (The Immortals – Die Unsterblichen). It was published in Oslo in 2011. The main character, Thomas Brenner, a general practitioner is one of the most complex characters I’ve come across in recent literature. He’s sensitive, kind, a born caregiver, who is acutely aware of other’s needs. But there’s another layer, buried deep within him— guilty feelings and cowardice. As much as he wants to help, it drags him down, frustrates him, and angers him that he has to give endlessly. Brenner is an example of what I’ve seen called the “sandwich generation”, the generation who has to care simultaneously for their children and their elderly parents, drawn by both sites into opposite directions, exhausting their strength and financial means.
The key plot element is his wife’s, upcoming 6oth birthday. And a planned trip to Chicago, the home of Saul Bellow, his wife’s favourite author. The success of the birthday party is threatened and overshadowed by many things. Brenner has heart problems and he’s pretty sure his wife, Elisabeth, is hiding health problems of her own. His mother, who is over 90, has to go to a nursing home, while his father stays at home, getting more demanding every day. Elisabeth’s parents live in the same house, and so does their older daughter Annika. She’s almost 30, but still not capable to make money and unwilling to move out. All these things burden Thomas, but he doesn’t want to confront anyone. He has to be pushed into a corner before he says anything unpleasant to anyone, even if this behaviour costs him his own health and happiness in the end. His wife Elisabeth isn’t much different. She has even stopped working a few years ago to look after her parents who don’t even thank her for this.
Brenner is a very sensitive, introspective man. And aware of hist shortcomings. He knows, he’s a coward, he knows that his kindness is to some degree weakness. He hasn’t learned how “to be cruel to be kind”.
Many of his Brenner’s thoughts circle around the so-called immortals— very old people who simply don’t want to die or change the way they live and are kept alive endlessly thanks to modern medicine. (The quote is taken from the author’s page)
My God, he thought, there were patients who had been living in nursing homes for over 15 years. They never died, because their lives were always saved by anticoagulants and heart medications. Their bodies could be disintegrating, but their hearts kept on beating. Even if their memories had vanished, what did not vanish was their agitation and anxiety, their restless wandering from room to room in the hope of finding peace, finding a home, finding a person, a Jesus or a God who could both comfort them and explain everything to them.
That these older people, like Elisabeth’s mother, cling to their old way of life, infuriates him. At the same time he feels deeply ashamed for thinking so and is happy that, in some cases, others take things into their hands. If it wasn’t for the authorities, Elisabeth’s mother, who is over 90 and not able to hold a steering wheel anymore, would still be driving. The older she gets, the more stubborn she becomes.
The Immortals is a timely book, one that addresses contemporary problems without dressing them up in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian horror scenario. Thomas Brenner’s life is one that many people live, especially the quiet ones who hardly ever complain but suffer in silence. Those who abuse them never even wonder what it means for them to be at their service constantly. I felt a lot of compassion while reading this. But I was sad for his children and his parents too. The daughters and the parents were filled with anxiety, feeling helpless and dependent. Caring for the ever-growing number of very old, frail people is a problem for our whole society. Not everyone can stop working and take care. I suppose we will see this intensify because more and more people have their children very late in life, which means many might be in their forties, while their parents are already well over 80.
I’m not sure this book will be translated, although I wish it will. The writing is light and subtle. With only a few sentences Bjørnstad captures a mood, an atmosphere. Brenner feels deeply at all times, is always honest to himself; listening to his thoughts, is like listening to a good friend. The end of the novel, which takes place in Chicago, is radical. I didn’t see it coming and I’m not going to forget it soon.
Luckily, music needs no translation and so all of those who will not be able to discover this sensitive author, may at least get a taste of his wonderful music.