Cover Image: The Pastor

The Pastor

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I fear this didn't manage to pull me in. I felt rather indifferent towards the main character, despite the tragedies happening around her. Liv is in her mid-30s and has suddenly up and left Germany to work as a pastor in the remote north of Norway. 

There are no chapters, there is a lot of moving back and forth in time and there is not really a central plot - all of which did not really help in keeping my attention. All the while we are in Liv's head, who is telling us how she ended up where she is and what is happening around her. The setting is special and the sections on the Sami are interesting, but as a novel to get immersed in it didn't work for me.
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A thoughtful, quiet and atmospheric novel about a woman pastor who moves to a remote village in the far north of Norway, where she has to confront not only the bleak landscape but her own doubts and uncertainties. As she becomes acquainted with the villagers she is faced with some devastating events which bring back the earlier loss of a friend, the main reason she fled to this fishing village in the first place. There’s much angst and troubled reflection here as we see everything through Liv’s thoughts and feelings, thoughts that she isn’t often articulate enough to express. The past mingles with the present as she tries to carry out her role, but it’s a role that seems to constantly elude her. There was much I enjoyed about the book. The style is elegiac, the story moving, and Liv herself is an intriguing character. But I never felt fully engaged with her, and so overall the book didn’t quite work for me and I found its constant introspection hard to relate to.
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My full review of this excellent novel can be found here:
https://heavyfeatherreview.org/2021/10/19/the-pastor/
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!Studying the conflict was like circling tentatively around a sphere of densely compacted meaning. And in a way, exploring the impact the language of Christianity had on the Sami people then was no different from investigating its impact on us now, in our present day. Or its impact on me. How much can our language contain, and how much can it bear? What do our words carry inside them? How do they work? How is it that we communicate with each other using words? How come they couldn’t get through to each other?!

Aitken is an exceptional translator from both Danish and Norwegian. This is the sixth translation of his I've read, and all highly distinctive. Aside from the two Ørstavik novels, the others are Bjørn Rasmussen's The Skin Is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body, Kim Leine's The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, half of the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgård monumental My Struggle: Book 6 and Olga Ravn's The Employees. He has also translated, amongst others, Peter Høeg, Dorthe Nors and Pia Juul. He has described translation as like interpreting a piano piece on violin, requiring a creative space far beyond formal dictation ("som at tolke et klaverstykke på violin eller omvendt – det kreative råderum, det kræver, rækker så langt ud over det formelles diktat."

Liv, our first person narrator, is in her mid 30s as the novel opens. She is now a Pastor at a remote church in northern social economics but she had switched to systemic theology. Her attraction to social economics had been to understand the “the overarching systems, the logic of them” by which the capitalist economy worked, but she felt “there were too many cracks” in the explanations it purported to provide, whereas theology gave her a sense that there was something beyond our explanations.

Her doctoral research specifically focused on the 1852 Sami revolt looking at the events from the, undocumented, perspective of the Sami people:

"The story we had came from one side only. But there was another version, from the other side, that hadn’t been written down and remained undocumented. It was there somewhere, submerged in the accounts of the pastor and the bishop, and the only access I had to this other version was from reading into those accounts, making out a kind of impression existing only in its absence. In that way, reading the documents became a matter of reading different layers of the story at the same time, like strata in an archaeological cross-section. I had to read what the pastor had written, and at the same time peer through it, to read what he hadn’t written, the things he’d left out. I had to read his way of writing, his choice of words, the values they carried, the narrative they presupposed and entailed. The narrative that appeared on the surface, and the other narrative, that was concealed by the language, concealed by what he said and did not say, and how he did so."

Further while historians had looked at the revolt as a socio-economic event, Liv believed it was about the Bible, and in particularly that the Sami people, having been given bibles translated into their language, did not feel inclined to integrate with the Norwegian society, as the authorities had supposed, but rather to demand the justice that scripture promised them:

"And not until a year later, on the night of November 8, 1852, did that same group of individuals leave their exile there, harnessing the reindeer to their sleds, the justice given to them in the words of the Bible, the language they had been accorded, being their swords and shields. For does it not say there that faith can move a mountain? Does it not say that the last shall be first? Does it not say that he who prays will be saved? That for he who knocks, the door will be opened? And wasn’t that what they wanted, that the door be opened for them? That what the Bible said should come true, and come true for them too. For it says there that everyone is equal before God."

If this makes the novel sound rather theological, it is actually one instead dominated by much personal tragedy. In Germany, Liv had formed a brief, but strong, bond with Kristiane, aged 41 years, a puppeteer, but after 4 months of their acquaintance the two had become estranged, and 2 weeks later Kristiane shot herself.

This event was behind Liv’s sudden decision to return to Norway for a pastoral role. There she ends up sharing a house with the church attendant, Nanna. The father of Nanna’s first child left her just before the birth of her daughter. She married and had a second daughter with a local fisherman, but he was killed, a few months before the novel begins, in an accident at the processing plant (view spoiler).

And, as the novel opens, news comes of another suicide, of a young girl, the novel set in the week leading up to the funeral which Liv will conduct.

The scenery acts as another strong presence in the novel, one which fits Liv’s contemplative mood and desire to know what lies beyond:

"There wasn’t much in the room. I’d put two armchairs in the corner over by the bookshelves, to the left of where I stood, and Kristiane’s doll hung from the wall next to the door. The best thing about the room was the view from the window, the light. It was as if it spoke to me, or with me, every time I walked in. At night, whenever I woke up, I’d come in here and stand by the window to look at the lights outside, all the lights that led down the gentle slope of the road to the fjord, the island out there, I could see the tip of it from the window, the bit where the bridge started. All the lights, the colors in them, I would think to myself. Threads of light, joined together in a web, each twinkling on its own, and yet they were connected in all manner of ways. I would sink into the thought of such a web, standing there in the living room in winter, looking at the lights winding their way down the road. And at the bottom was the fjord, and total darkness."

This was a novel I admired but ultimately didn’t really connect with. The sections on the Sami were fascinating and I'd have liked to see more of this. But the misery in the present day felt laid on a bit thick, and I struggled with the character of Liv. With so much obvious tragedy around her, it was less clear to me what was behind her own trauma and sense of displacement:

"Why did it have to be that way? Why was everything so loose and disconnected? The ground on which I stood, that I believed in, had become displaced, its plates were shifting, and I fell through the gap in between."

And her despair was rather explained for me by her lack of religious belief. From what we can see she believes in the Bible, but not in the existence of God, or rather not in a living, present God with whom she can have a relationship.

"For God? Well, if I had to use that word, then I suppose it was, yes. Though not in the form of some remote aesthetic, more as a commitment, a place to stand in life. A space I wanted to be open in my encounters with others, a space that would allow people in, and be open to all. God understood as a binding commitment to humanity. If there was something I was going to call God that would be it. But the word God didn’t enter my mind when I thought about it quietly on my own."

Overall, a novel I appreciated but which didn’t really draw me in.
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My thank to NetGallery and Archipelago Books for an advanced copy of this Norwegian novel.

The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is a novel that makes the reader slow down. No matter what is happening outside so much is discussed and shared by the narrator, so eloquently, and sometimes painfully that you have to slow down to take it in. That and descriptive passages about snow, people, teeth, and loved ones. The is no skimming in this book, this is a very immersive experience. The book is sad, but very beautiful, full of meaning and pain. 

Liv is a young theologian who takes a job far in the north of Norway in a small village as an assistant pastor. Liv is mourning the loss of her very good friend, whose presence haunts the book. Liv is not happy, and not very good at her job, at least not yet, but she is trying. As she learns about the people around her, the burdens they carry, their emotions and biases she finds herself trying to change, even if those around her are very resistant. 

The book is about loss. Losing someone, surviving loss, losing culture, losing religion, losing yourself in others. I have not read anything else by this author. This translation seems to have used the perfect word everytime, making certain phrases that will stay with the reader well after finishing. I do wish I read Norwegian just to see the text as Ms. Ørstavik originally wrote it. Not a story for everyone, but definitely for people who like to try new writers, or who enjoy storytellers from outside of their worldview. A very good story.
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A melancholy and strange reading experience. Conjures a time and place remote from my own. Would like to see more translations from this author.
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