I was not disappointed; I loved this book – which I felt I truly inhabited from the title to the final sentence; and which reminded me why I began my journey a decade ago…
In most of us there is the secret (or not so secret) desire for greatness, to be shortlisted for the Nobel or the Pulitzer, to be the latest Oscar winner. With the advent of YouTube, it seems any ten-year-old with a half-decent voice is on the fast track to virtual fame. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes, no matter how fleeting or ill-merited they are. Which is perhaps what makes the hero of Norwegian author Johan Harstad’s debut novel so refreshing and fascinating. He shies away from fame or recognition of any sort:
“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.” So begins Mattias’ musings in Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?
After losing his girlfriend and his job, first-person narrator and unassuming ex-gardener Mattias leaves his home in Stavanger, Norway to travel with a friend’s rock band to a concert on the remote lunar-like Faroe Islands, located halfway between Scotland and Iceland. It is notable that Mattias is a jaw-droppingly gifted singer but refuses to step into the limelight – opting as the band’s sound engineer. The link to the title is clear in the persona of Mattias: his idol is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, who has long gone unnoticed. So we follow this man who wishes not to be followed, tracing him through Harstad’s engagingly deadpan but nonetheless impactful prose.
“I’d decided I didn’t need to be the best, the most popular, or even liked, I just wanted to find myself a vacant space and stay there, do my thing, maybe I was just frightened of disrupting something, of knocking the world out of its delicate balance by being in the way, in the wrong place. If I was too visible, people tied to me.”
Following a series of events he can’t remember, waking up in the Faroe Islands in the middle of a remote rain-soaked road and inexplicably carrying a pocketful of cash, Mattias ends up living in a kind of commune for people existing somewhere between a mental institution and normal society. He is picked up by a man named Havstein, who runs this remote psychiatric half-way house in a small village north of the capital Torshavn. There, Mattias joins a quirky but lovable bunch who make wooden sheep to sell in tourist shops, get drunk and climb mountains, and listen to nothing but The Cardigans - their limited interaction with the world matches Mattias’s own desire to disappear.
Despite this isolation we do get insights into the wider Faroese society: with the group’s regular trips into Torshavn, the unique language, emigration due to dwindling job opportunities the annual whale hunt (graphically described in one scene) and of course the ever-present, treeless, and bleak lunar-like landscape… all filtered through the unique perspective of Mattias’ perception.
Buzz Aldrin is a long, rather picaresque novel crammed full of digressions and scenes that would seem superfluous but for Mattias engagingly deadpan dialogue. Near the novel’s end, Harstad introduces some plot elements (including an unlikely journey and some secret psychiatry files) that seem overly contrived. Nevertheless, these narrative flaws are more than made up for by this novel’s abundant charms. From the very beginning of Mattias’s story, I was hooked by his voice, a compelling mix of humility, melancholy, earnestness, and humour:
“It is a Tuesday. There can be no doubt about that. I see it in the light, the traffic outside the windows will continue to stream all day, slowly, disinterestedly, people driving back and forth out of habit rather than necessity. Tuesday. The week’s most superfluous day. A day that almost nobody notices among all the other days. I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that statistics showed there were 34 percent fewer appointments made on an average Tuesday than on any other day. On a worldwide basis. That’s how it is.”
Indeed, the prose occasionally borders on the surreal, reminiscent of Brian O'Nolan’s brilliant The Third Policeman. For example: “the café fell quiet as we talked, in the silence I could hear the other patrons’ eavesdropping ears climb down from their tables and scuttle across the linoleum floor to listen in on our conversation”.
For someone who wants no lasting evidence of his existence, Mattias is fascinated with what he calls “Kodak moments”, or mental snapshots. Harstad aptly captures our desperation to hold on to moments, especially through digital preservation. In a particularly poignant passage, Mattias listens to The Cardigans CDs over and over again, searching the audio tracks for anything to recall the presence of someone lost to him.
Ultimately, his fear of engaging with the world perhaps comes from his realisation of the inevitability of loss in the end, of nature’s temporary nature, where nothing can be fixed in time:
“The microscopic cells that formed your face in the photograph your parents have hanging in their living room are gone, exchanged for others. You’re no longer who you were. But I am still here, the atoms may swap their places, but nobody can control the dance of the quarks. And the same applies to the people you love. With almost stationary velocity they crumble in your arms, and you wish you could cling onto something permanent in them, their skeleton, their teeth, brain cells, but you can’t, because almost everything is water, impossible to grasp.”
Nonetheless, Buzz Aldrin is filled with an emotional exuberance that’s a rare and joyful reading experience and Deborah Dawkin’s translation preserves that exuberance along with the brisk pace of Mattias’s narration. Over the course of almost 500 pages, I became thoroughly immersed in Mattias’s world, and even though I finished reading Buzz Aldrin more than a week ago, the book has stayed with me. A fact that demonstrates what Mattias eventually realizes: “Even an invisible person will be seen in the end, as a white aura flickering through nature, and there are no places to hide.” I’m sure the irony of Buzz Aldrin – who eschewed recognition for his moonwalk – leaving his footprints for ever on the moon’s surface is not lost on Harstad.
My greatest wish for Mattias is that he be allowed to disappear into the inevitable obscurity of contentedness he so craves. I can give no better complement to Harstad than to conclude this is one of the best and most engaging books I have read in recent years and, for Mattias’ sake, I sincerely hope there is never a sequel…
So, reluctantly but inevitably, I leave the Faroe (or Faeroe, take your pick) Islands and head back to a very different Britain (or UK, take your pick) to the one I departed from back in 2009. My first port of call will be Scotland and Stonemouth (also the name of its setting a fictional seaport town north of Aberdeen.
There is no longer a ferry from Torshavn to Aberdeen which would have been ideal, so – with apologies to Greta Thunberg - from the capital I have to take a helicopter to the airport at Sorvagur then a 6 hour flight to Aberdeen via Copenhagen.
The fact that this was the penultimate novel by Iain Banks – a literary idol of mine in my teens through to 30s and taken too soon by cancer – means I should be in safe hands. Although not, I hope, too safe – at his finest Iain Banks’ writing is edgy and dark (The Wasp Factory, Walking on Glass, The Bridge), but later works have occasionally, seemed a bit too…easy. Let’s hope it’s the former. For now I’ll leave you with the publisher’s blurb as a taster.
“Stewart Gilmour is back in Stonemouth, Scotland.
“After five years in exile his presence is required at the funeral of local patriarch Joe Murston, even though the last time Stewart saw the Murstons he was running for his life. An estuary town north of Aberdeen, Stonemouth, with its five mile beach, can be beautiful on a sunny day. On a bleak one it can seem to offer little more than sea fog, gangsters, cheap drugs, and a suspension bridge irresistible to suicides.”
See you back in Blighty!