In general terms, the word “saga” evokes images of grandiosely epic tales steeped in myth or remote history. In fact, this book’s high-sounding title, together with the obviously Scandinavian sound of its author’s name, may very well lead readers to expect something quite different from what is actually offered in its pages.
Fragments of Peter Svarttjern’s Saga, the second novel by Norwegian author Torodd Fuglesteg resembles its predecessor, The Final Ride, though it also diverges from it in quite a few ways. First of all, it is narrated in the third person – therefore lacking The Final Ride’s obvious autobiographical flavour; moreover, the presence of multiple points of view besides the main character’s lends a more realistic, multidimensional feel to the narration. However, the matter-of-fact, often unadorned style – a legacy from the author’s past experiences as a journalist – has not changed, even if the story has a much more ambitious scope, and is over twice as long as the author’s previous effort.
Organized in five rather lengthy chapters, the novel chronicles the life of a peculiar figure of “man without qualities”, his relationship with his family and the world at large. While the narration revolves around Peter Svarttjern, his family and friends are equally important to the development of the story. References to contemporary events and phenomena (first and foremost, the rise of computers and information technology) frequently crop up – especially as regards changes in the fabric of Norwegian society – but, as a whole, this backdrop often reads as a sort of alternate history, as the information is patchy and there are no dates to provide an actual timeframe. This, however, is in no way detrimental to the story, whose main focus is private rather than public.
Fragments of Peter Svarttjern’s Saga would comfortably fit in the “family saga” subgenre that includes famed literary works such as Thomas Mann’s The Buddenbrooks and Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not surprisingly, death and loss are constant presences – but then, so is life, as generation follows generation. Illness, financial and professional setbacks, and failed relationships disrupt the lives of the novel’s many characters, but optimism surfaces as the younger generations learn from their elders’ mistakes, and forge their own path in life.
Though the novel’s blurb states in no uncertain terms that Fragments is the story of “a man forgotten by everyone”, and “pointless as life itself” – therefore warning the reader that this is not an exactly uplifting read – the tale is far less gloomy than one might expect. The author’s main concern are those who, on account of personality disorders or other mental problems, have shut themselves out of a “normal” life – presented in all their vulnerable humanity with deep empathy, albeit without whitewashing. Peter Svarttjern is what today would be called a nerd: computers become his lifeline as he grows up in surroundings that become increasingly alien, even hostile, cultivating his mostly solitary hobbies (such as fly-fishing, jigsaw puzzles, and subsequently motorbike rides) and his unflagging work ethic to the detriment of human relationships. Especially in the second half of the story, he comes across like an outsider trying to look in, and never being able to recreate the simplicity of his earlier life as regards human relationships. On the other hand, it is made clear that he does have feelings for the people in his life, both family and friends, and that any loss or falling out wounds him deeply. Particularly poignant is his almost non-existent relationship to women, who often see him as a freak and ultimately cause him to adopt a cold, distant attitude as a defense against further rejection.
The author’s own rather conflicted relationship with his native country, which was also explored in The Final Ride, is one of the central themes of the novel. Like the author, Peter Svarttjern leaves Norway when still young, and most of his life unfolds away from it. Unlike the author, though, he never forms an attachment any of the countries where he spends his working life, and never manages to sever his ties with Norway – no matter how hard he tries. In the way of many expatriates (something I personally know all too well), he nurtures a love-hate relationship with his native country, which he leaves gladly (and with good reason), but which then becomes an object of yearning almost immediately after moving away.
The use of a third-person narrator with multiple points of view allows for a more objective take on the events, if compared to the intensely personal perspective displayed on The Final Ride. However, the narrator is not as detached that one might expect, as if he/she was an observer with at least a partial interest in the plight of the characters – an aspect highlighted by the detailed way in which the relationships within Peter’s family and with the outside world are illustrated. His tendency to repeat the name of the subject of each paragraph reinforces his focus on each character, so that the events are laid out almost as in a list, often dispensing with the use of connectors and other words that give a written text a sense of natural flow.
The author saves his descriptive, almost lyrical vein for the paragraphs that have different animals as protagonists frequently interrupting the narrative – a way of emphasizing the ultimate pointlessness of human existence (with all its attending toil and strife) in the grand scheme of things. For those passages, he reveals a deeply sensitive, emotional understanding of nature, and a touching identification with non-human creatures. In fact, the story opens and closes with the appearance of the same animals, as if minimizing the true relevance of the human-centred narrative in comparison with the endless cycle of nature.
Even if Torodd Fuglesteg’s style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and his chosen subject matter is not always comfortable to read about, his genuine love of writing and storytelling shines out of every page. Moreover, his reluctance to patronize either the reader or his characters, together with his obvious empathy for the many failings of human nature, make his work likely to appeal to sensitive, insightful readers. At the moment, the author is already at work on his third novel, which he states will be shorter though considerably darker in tone. The official release is planned by the end of this year, or the early months of 2015.