Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2016

Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin #BookReview

Buzz AldrinBuzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion? was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award and was Johan Harstad’s debut novel.  Goodreads tells me that it was first published in Norwegian in 2005, and subsequently made into a TV series in 2009.  (You can watch episode I on YouTube, with subtitles)…

It seems a gimmicky title, but it’s surprisingly apt for a novel which is a kind of updated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Key Kesey’s 1962 novel (and the eventual film) was a manifesto for deinstitutionalisation of people with mental illness, changing the public perception of mental illness by questioning what we mean by ‘normal’. In Harsted’s novel, a man’s rejection of everyday life seems at times like a rational response to the madness of our contemporary world.  So it’s thought-provoking reading.

The story of Mattias’ long journey from pathological inertia to renewed engagement with life begins in Part I, ‘First Band on the Moon’ where things begin to unravel.  Thirtysomething when the story begins, he is working as a gardener, content to be a nobody in a world where – as he perceives it – everyone wants to be the best at something.  His role model is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon who – again as Mattias perceives it – sank into obscurity because he was second, not first on the moon.  From Mattias’ backstory the reader learns about his quiet, thoughtful parents, his schooldays and his teenage conclusion that it’s a mistake to raise his head above the parapet.  He has drifted into adulthood and a long-term relationship with his girlfriend Helle, but now the nursery is failing due to competition from supermarkets, and Helle has tired of him.  Like many of his generation Mattias is concerned about climate change and from his Scandinavian vantage point he is keenly aware of the impact on the planet.  He is anxious about his future, and the future of the world.

Mattias has a great singing voice, and his mate Jørn wants him to be in his band, but on what was to have been a gig with this band on the remote Faroe Islands, Mattias wakes up on a lonely road where the icy rain is bucketing down (as indeed it does for most of this novel because that’s what the climate is like on the Faroe Islands).  He has an injured hand, an envelope full of money, and no idea where he is.  He is thoroughly soaked and chilled to the bone when the psychiatrist Havstein finds him and takes him to the Factory, a kind of half-way house for people with mental illness.  And while Havstein heads back to Tórshaven to find out what’s happened from Jørn, Mattias has an epiphany:

… I couldn’t talk to them now, I didn’t know what to say, and Jørn would tell [Mother] she had to wait, that they’d all have to wait, because I’d come back, of course I would, I’d come back to them all, but I had to sort myself out first, I just needed some time to think, because things had happened so fast in the last months, the last year, things had wound fast forward on the video player and the tape had gotten completely stuck.  A tangle of tape.  There was no use pulling it out, taking hold and just pulling.  The entire machine needed to be opened up, carefully, and the tape needed to be wound out with a pen or a pencil, and then wound back into the cassette, put back in the machine and run again.  I needed a cassette cleaning kit, a complete overhaul.  (p.121)

At 471 pages, Buzz Aldrin is a long book, but it’s compelling.  The narrative voice of Mattias confiding his inner life amid his days in the Factory is vivid in this excellent translation.  In a sparse palette of characters, we meet the people who become his friends, Palli, Anna and Ennen – who turns out to be NN, an abbreviation for No Name.  We realise that Havstein is an unorthodox psychiatrist, perhaps with problems of his own.  There are moments of what Mattias calls Kodak moments of happiness when he builds a tentative friendship with a local boy called Sofus, and there are harrowing moments when we are confronted by the painting by Faroese painter Mikines that was the trigger for NN’s breakdown, and when Carl, an American rescued from the sea, tells the story of his PTSD to Mattias.

Despite its subject matter and the moments when Mattias’s tentative steps towards re-engagement falter, Buzz Aldrin is an optimistic tale.  This is partly because he never loses his belief that it will all be okay in the end, and also because the accepting environment of the Factory enables him to feel comfortable as he journeys towards his destination.  The concluding chapters are unexpected but surprisingly convincing.

Highly recommended.

Author: Johan Harsted
Title: Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia), 2011, first published in 2005
ISBN: 9781742582634
Review copy courtesy of UWAP

Available from Fishpond: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? or direct from UWAP.

 


Responses

  1. sounds fascinating, Lisa

  2. I think opting out of the everyday world is a rational response, but over the 471 pages you say Mattias re-engages. Does the world improve or does he just get a handle on his depression? (At 10.40 pm EST I’m depressed we don’t have a hung -ie. democratic – parliament)

    • At 11.50pm I’m not going to bed till I see Malcolm put his spin on things!


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