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Sunday 31 August 2014

Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrøm (translator Anne Bruce)

There is something quite arresting in the style of Days in the History of Silence. It has a particularly soft voice, a reflective tone, a sense of much unspoken, a kind of selfless absence. Yet it is a story all about the self, the loss of self, what makes the self, the point at which the self can become undone, from which it can never be rebuilt. It is a beautiful, sad novel which makes you think. 

The story is narrated by Eva, an older women whose husband, Simon, has stopped speaking. The source of his ‘silence’ is a question around which the story revolves. It is not clear, not ever made clear, if this is simply a matter of age, a deterioration of the brain, Altzheimers, perhaps, or a stroke, or a choice Simon has made to withdraw into silence. This is the question that occupies Eva throughout the novel.

In the course of exploring Simon’s silence we discover a history of silences, both Simon’s and Eva’s. These are silences which have dictated the course of their combined history. Simon’s silence centres around his childhood, as a Jewish child growing up during the war Simon (Shimon) was forced into hiding and silence in order to survive. Yet his silence about his past continued, shared only with Eva. His history, the fact of his Jewishness, is something about which neither of them speak even to their children. Having had silence imposed on him through hatred, Simon continues this silence to the point of extremity. Perhaps, then, it is the self-imposed silence which leads to his silence now?

Then there is Eva, her own silence generates from giving up her child, a son, that she had before she and Simon met, with whom she could not generate any kind of bond and who she gave up with apparent relief. When she told Simon about her son, Simon who had lost his own family in death camps and war, he is ashamed of her and encourages her to seek him out. Yet she does not. Even so, she tends the grave of a stranger in the local church and, at times, appears to desire to speak about the boy that she lost to the local pastor. Yet she does not. Silence is ingrained in both Eva and Simon to the point that not speaking becomes the norm.

The final core silence centres around their cleaner, Marija, an immigrant from Latvia who becomes central to their lives and yet they dismiss suddenly and with apparent ease. The reason for her dismissal is another secret, a source of silence. It is a silence heaped on other silences, the source of a gulf between Eva and Simon and their children.

What emerges from these silences is the consequence of keeping secrets, a history of silent shame centring around events that neither party could control or about which they should feel any shame. Yet once the secret, the silence, begins it becomes almost impossible to undo it. Both Eva and Simon make attempts, like here where Eva discovers a letter in a book that Simon gave to their daughter Helena:

“I think about this letter to his colleague now that I am reading what he has attempted to write to his daughters. For the letter is to them. I can see that he has tried, he has really tried to formulate something, and if they had opened it they would have seen his handwriting and these attempts to describe, to impart, to pass something on, to them. To Helena and her sisters. But he cannot. He has to give up, it is a long time since he was clever at that. It is only a rough draft, a sheet of paper he has left their all the same. Dear Helena, Greta and Kirsten, he writes, I have something I – He gives up. A fresh attempt, He is sorry that it has taken so long, he is sorry about it all. He writes that he first bought paper for a letter, that the storekeeper misunderstood, he got the wrong kind. Today the first signs of summer are here, he writes, the summer is going to be fine, I do think so. And I hope that you all manage to have a vacation. Mother and I both consider that you work too hard. But I have always worked too hard myself, so it is obviously hereditary, that kind of thing. Now I have decided to tell you something I have neglected to say for far too-

I can’t manage to interpret the continuation of the sentence, it is nearly rubbed out because of a faulty pen. But I believe the final word is long. Far too long. My girls, he continues, you have become so big. So grown up. He starts over again, trying to find an introduction.

I become angry. I become angry because he has decided to tell them on his own, without having talked to me about it first.”

There is a sense, here, that Eva is angry with Simon and yet also that she suspects Simon’s withdrawal is a sign of his anger towards her. That she has forced him to keep his secret, that their combined silence has prevented him from being honest about who he is. Yet at the same time, perhaps she is angry because Simon has withdrawn into his silence, accepted it, whereas Eva still desires to confess.

It is a complex, softly spoken and well crafted book. It leaves a lot unsaid, as the best fiction often does. Consequently, it is a book that stays with you, that leaves you to ruminate on it, secretly and in silence, for days afterwards.

Days in the History of Silence receives a secretive 9 out of 10 Bii’s. 

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