When the German occupation of Norway ended in May 1945, those who had quietly profiteered from the miseries of war began the process of burying the previous five years. As King Haakon of Norway returned from his London exile and was greeted by jubilant, flag-waving crowds, it could seem as though no “good” Norwegian had ever collaborated with the occupying powers. This effort to block out the past is central to Roy Jacobsen’s Eyes of the Rigel, his third book about Ingrid Barrøy. The series, which began in 2013 with The Unseen and whose fourth instalment, Bare en mor (Just a Mother), will be published in Norwegian in October, takes the reader back to the Helgeland coast, the setting of Jacobsen’s breakthrough novel The Conquerors (1991).
In The Unseen Jacobsen introduced us to the Barrøys, a self-reliant family of five living on a fictitious island bearing their name off the coast of Helgeland in northern Norway, where Jacobsen’s mother grew up and he spent his childhood summers. In the 1910s Hans Barrøy was the island’s patriarch. Together with his wife Maria, his father Martin and sister Barbro, he taught his only child Ingrid everything she needed to know to survive on Barrøy. With farmhouses and wharf buildings vulnerable to salty winds and the thrashings of the sea, the family’s livelihood was forever at the mercy of the weather. “Every season has its worries, even the summer”, Barbro notes in Eyes of the Rigel, for in the summer “it can rain for months on end”. The Unseen spanned fifteen years of winter storms and meticulously detailed manual labour, and depicted the young Ingrid growing into a responsible owner of the family’s weatherworn microcosm.
White Shadow situated Ingrid on Barrøy in 1944, now in her mid-thirties, with her parents both gone, her adopted children grown up, and Barbro hospitalized. After a ship carrying thousands of Eastern European prisoners was bombed by Allied forces not far from the island, a young Russian man, Alexander, washed up on its lonely shore, emaciated and badly scorched from the burning remains of the MS Rigel. (The real ship was bombed by the British just off the coast of Norland, killing more than 2,500 Russian, Serbian and Polish POWs. For many years, only its rusty bow was visible above the North Sea waves, and when it was finally raised in 1971, over a thousand human skulls were discovered in its hull.) Alexander went on to become Ingrid’s lover. When his burnt hands had sufficiently healed for him to grip a pair of oars, he resumed his flight from the Germans, Ingrid by then pregnant with their child.
Eyes of the Rigel opens in the summer of 1946, when Ingrid sets out to find Alexander, their baby daughter Kaja strapped to her belly. What ensues is a road trip on foot through “the bewildering battlefield of peacetime”. Travelling in her lover’s footsteps through the tree-clad Norwegian inlands, Ingrid encounters people and landscapes marked by war. New buildings are erected on the ruins of old ones, and Ingrid talks to people whose words are “like rocks in a dam which on no account could be allowed to burst”. Some have fallen out of favour for trading with the Germans, others are haunted by memories of the refugees they helped to escape. Ingrid enquires after Alexander, but while the strangers seem happy to house her and Kaja, they are reluctant to cast their minds back to the days of occupation.
Ingrid travels south in search of the truth but quickly learns that “truth is the first casualty of peace”. Her passionate memories of Alexander make her dredge up the war at a time when most are training themselves to forget it. Up and down the long, narrow country, people are washing their hands of the German occupation – “it was as though a major cleaning-up operation was going on … and everyone was involved” – and the presence of a woman clutching the illegitimate child of a Russian POW sullies this purification act. “Clocks move forwards, what has been lost cannot be retrieved”, Ingrid is told, but she remains steadfast.
The two features that made The Unseen so hypnotic – its treatment of the slow passage of time and detailed descriptions of subsistence living – are absent from this third volume. Away from Barrøy, the narrative feels both rushed and meandering, while the people Ingrid encounters on her journey, though arresting – whether shifty collaborators or scarred resisters – feel less tangible than her relatives back home. And yet Eyes of the Rigel remains a fascinating study of the complex reality of postwar society, a time “when people were coming apart at the seams”. The novel also shimmers with characteristically striking imagery. It seems that Jacobsen can make just about anything catch the light, even a displaced person’s camp, whose sodden tracks the white Nordic sun is “striving to transform from mud to dust”. From Barrøy, the sea is like “a grey stone floor” on the horizon, while the foreign landscape Ingrid passes through lies “like an open wound ahead”.
Don Bartlett and Don Shaw’s translation of The Unseen put Jacobsen on the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Local dialects are among the most challenging literary features to translate, but Bartlett and Shaw have created a superbly inventive vernacular that retains Norwegian sounds and even spellings (“Hva does tha mean?”). Eyes of the Rigel may not be the best book in the series so far, but it still helps to cement Roy Jacobsen’s position as one of Norway’s greatest writers on the working class, describing a way of life now almost completely forgotten.
This review was first published in the TLS