EDITOR’S NOTE by Becky McMullan
A master of the short story, Kjell Askildsen’s unadorned style is not so much concerned with the manipulation of plotlines as with the manipulation of the reader’s feelings and allegiances, with the presentation of characters as people, real people, people so like us that it’s creepy, uncanny. The reader should arrive at the last sentence feeling shocked, yes, but not because of some “twist in the tale” à la Roald Dahl. The shock is rather generated by the feeling of uneasiness at having finished the story without any sense of closure; shocked by the humanity of the characters, something seems off somehow. The reader is left behind, alone in “A Great Deserted Landscape.”
A not-so-traditional tale of sibling rivalry told from the brother’s perspective, “A Great Deserted Landscape” is a story about a brother, about a husband, a possible murderer, an incestuously minded creep, a self-centered jerk. It’s also about his sister, his dead wife, his mother, his adulterous father, but mostly just about him. At least that’s how he’d see it.
I hate this guy: he’s ambivalent towards the fact that his wife has just died in a car crash, an event that seems to have worked too much in his favor to have been an accident. He now gets to creep on his sister, who is waiting on him hand and foot in his incapacitated state; his mother fawns over her poor little boy, confining his sister to an undeserved second place in a rivalry that we can all identify with, from one side or the other; he seems almost proud of his cheating father for having affirmed his masculinity. I really hate him. He’s selfish, sexist, and self-righteous. And yet, I saw myself in him. I mean, I don’t want to bump off my boyfriend, I don’t have a crush on my brother, and if my mom or dad cheated I’d probably be pretty pissed, but we’re all guilty of something or other, we’re all selfish in our own way. So, now I’m alone in “A Great Deserted Landscape”: the story finished before the part where I got to feel better about myself. Askildsen really knows how to get under your skin. After all, how often have we all shared the protagonist’s final thought?: “If she [or he] only knew.”
Editor of Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
“A Great Deserted Landscape” by Kjell Askildsen
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I’d been helped out onto the veranda. My sister Sonja had placed cushions under my feet, and I was in hardly any pain. It was a warm day in August, my wife’s funeral was about to take place, and I was lying in the shade looking up at the pale blue sky. I was unaccustomed to such bright light, and on one of the occasions Sonja came to check on me, I had tears in my eyes. I asked her to fetch my sunglasses, I didn’t want her to misunderstand. She went to find them. It was only the two of us; the others were at the funeral service. She came back and put the sunglasses on me. I formed a kiss with my lips. She smiled. I thought: if she only knew. The sunglasses were so dark that I could look at her body without her noticing. When she was gone I looked up at the sky again. From somewhere quite far off I could hear the sound of hammering, it was reassuring, I never like when it’s completely silent. I once said that to Helen, my wife, and she replied that it was due to feelings of guilt. You couldn’t talk to her about that kind of thing, she’d immediately start prying.
When I’d been lying there for quite some time, and the blows of the hammer had long since ceased, it suddenly grew a lot darker around me, and before I realized that it was due to the combined effect of a cloud and the dark sunglasses, I was seized by an inexplicable feeling of anxiety. It passed almost immediately, but something remained, a feeling of emptiness or desolation, and when Sonja came out to check on me a little later, I asked for a pill. She said it was too early. I insisted, and she removed my sunglasses. Don’t do that, I said. I closed my eyes. She put them back on. Are you in a lot of pain? Yes, I said. She left. She returned soon after with a pill and a glass of water. Propping me up by my uninjured shoulder, she put the pill in my mouth and held the glass to my lips. I could smell her scent.
Not long after, my mother, my two brothers and my sister-in-law came back from the funeral. And Helen’s father, her two sisters, and an aunt I hardly knew, arrived a little after that. Everyone came over and said a few words to me. The pill was beginning to take effect, and I lay hidden behind the dark sunglasses feeling like a godfather. I didn’t feel it necessary to say too much, naturally enough everyone credited me with profound grief, there was no way they could know I was lying there feeling immense indifference. And when Helen’s father came up to me and said something or other, I felt something approaching satisfaction thinking about how, now that Helen was dead, he was no longer my father-in-law, and Helen’s sisters were no longer my in-laws either.
A little later my brother’s wife and Helen’s sisters began putting out plates and cutlery on the long garden bench below the veranda, and every time they went past me on the way into the living room, they nodded and smiled, even though I pretended not to see them. Then I must have dozed off, because the next thing I remember is the buzz of conversation down in the garden, and I could see their heads, nine heads hardly moving. It was a peaceful scene, those nine heads in the shade of the big birch tree, and at the end of the table, facing me: Sonja. After a while I raised my arm, to attract her attention, but she didn’t see me. Right after that my youngest brother stood up and made his way towards the veranda. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I heard him stop up for a moment as he passed me, and I thought: we are completely helpless.
Eventually they got up from the table, and the entire time they were all, with the exception of Mom and Sonja, getting ready to go, I lay with my eyes closed, pretending to sleep. Then Mom emerged from the living room and came over to me. I smiled at her, and she asked if I was hungry. I wasn’t. Are you in pain? she asked. No, I said. What about on the inside? she said. No, I said. Well, she said and fixed the sheet I had over me, even though it was straight. Would you sooner be off home? I asked. Why? she replied, do you not want me here? Of course, I said, I just thought you might miss Dad. She didn’t reply. She went over and sat on the wicker sofa. Just then Sonja appeared. I removed my sunglasses. She had a wine glass in her hand. She gave it to Mom. I’d like one as well, I said. Not with pills, she said. Don’t be silly, I said. Just one glass then, she said. She left. Mom sat looking out over the garden, the wine glass in her hand. Is this all yours now? she asked. Yes, I said, ownership by conveyance. There’ll be a lot of emptiness, she said. I didn’t reply, I wasn’t sure what she meant. Sonja came out with two glasses, she placed one down on the nest of tables beside Mom. She came over to me with the other, held me by the shoulder, and brought the glass to my lips. She bent over more than the last time, and I could glimpse her breasts. As she was taking the glass away, our eyes met, and I don’t know, maybe she saw something she hadn’t noticed before, because something flashed in her eyes, something resembling anger. Then she smiled and went over to sit beside Mom. Cheers, Mom, she said. Yes, said Mom. They drank. I put on my sunglasses. Nobody spoke. I didn’t find it a very comfortable silence, I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. There are no birds here, said Sonja. There are none around our place either, said Mom. Apart from seagulls. There used to be swallows, lots of swallows, but they’re gone now. That’s a pity, said Sonja. What’s that down to? That’s what no one can figure out, said Mom. Then they didn’t say anything else for a while. Now we can’t tell if it’s going to be nice or if it’s going to rain anymore, said Mom. You could just listen to the weather forecast, said Sonja. You can’t rely on them, said Mom. In the Mediterranean, swallows fly low even if it isn’t going to rain, said Sonja. Well then they must be a different type of swallow, said Mom. No, said Sonja, they’re the same type. That’s odd, said Mom. Sonja didn’t say anything else. She drank her wine. Is that true what Sonja’s saying? asked Mom. Yes, I said. Jesus, you never believe anything I say, said Sonja. I think it ought to be beneath your dignity to swear on a day like today, said Mom. Sonja drained her glass and stood up. You’re right, she said, I should wait until tomorrow. Now you’re being mean, said Mom. And to think I was such a good-natured child, said Sonja. She came over and helped me to more wine. She didn’t hold my head high enough, and some of it ran out of the corner of my mouth and down my chin. She wiped me rather roughly with a corner of the sheet, her lips were tightened in anger. Then she went into the living room. What’s got into her? said Mom. She’s an adult, Mom, I said, she doesn’t want to be told off. But I’m her mother, she said. I didn’t reply. I only want what’s best for her, she said. I didn’t reply. She started crying. What’s wrong, Mom? I said. Nothing’s the way it used to be, she said, everything is so… strange. Sonja came back out. I’m going for a walk, she said. I think she saw that Mom was crying, but I’m not sure. She left. She’s so pretty, I said. What good is that, said Mom. Oh, Mom, I said. You’re right, she said, I don’t know what I’m saying. It’s okay if you want to go home, I said, Sonja’s here after all. She started crying again, louder this time, and more uncontrollably. I let her cry for a while, long enough, I thought, then I said: Why are you crying? She didn’t reply. I started to get annoyed, I thought: what the fuck have you got to cry about? Then she said: Your father’s met someone. Met someone? I said. Dad? I wasn’t planning to tell you, she said. It’s not as if you don’t have enough sorrows of your own. I’ve no sorrows, I said. How can you say such a thing? she said. I didn’t reply. I lay there thinking about that skinny little man, my father, who at the age of sixty-three… a man I’d never credited with more libido than was strictly necessary to sire me and my siblings. An image of him, naked between a woman’s thighs, flashed before me. It was extremely unpleasant. Mom brought the empty glasses inside, but she soon came back, so I could tell she wanted to talk. She stood with her back to me looking out at the garden. What are you going to do? I asked. What can I do, she replied, he says I can do what I want, so there’s nothing I can do. You can stay here, I said. I could see by her back that she had started crying again, and perhaps because she didn’t want me to see her, she began walking down the veranda steps. She likely had tears in her eyes, and she must have stumbled, because she lost her balance and fell forwards, and disappeared from my view. I called out to her, but she didn’t answer. I called out several more times. I tried to get up but there was nothing I could hold on to. I turned over on my side and eased one leg, in plaster, out over the side of the lounger, supported myself by my elbow and managed to sit up. Then I saw her. She was lying face down in the gravel. I lifted my other leg, also in plaster, off the lounger. My shoulder and arm hurt most. I couldn’t walk with both legs in casts, so I slid down onto the floor. I inched my way over to the steps. There wasn’t a great deal I could do, but I couldn’t just leave her lying there. I edged my way down the steps and over to her. I tried to turn her over on her side, but wasn’t able. I slid my hand beneath her forehead. It was moist. The gravel cut into the back of my hand. I had no strength left. I lay down beside her. Then she moved a little. Mom, I said. She didn’t reply. Mom, I said. She groaned and turned her face to me, she was bleeding and looked frightened. Where does it hurt? I said. Oh no! she said. Just lie still, I said, but she rolled onto her back and sat up. She looked at her bloodied knees and began picking pebbles from the cuts. Oh no, oh no, she said, how did I… You fainted, I said. Yes, she said, everything went black. Then she turned and stared at me. William! she said. What have you done! Oh my dear, what have you done! There, there, I said. I was lying in a painful position, and with my one good arm I inched my way onto the lawn. I lay there on my back and closed my eyes. My shoulder ached, it felt as if the fracture had recurred. Mom was talking, but I didn’t have the energy to answer. I felt I’d done my bit. I heard her get to her feet. I didn’t want to open my eyes. She groaned. Come and sit on the grass, I said. What about you? she said. I’m fine, I said, come and sit down, Sonja’s bound to be back soon. I looked at her. She could hardly walk. She sat down gingerly beside me. I think I need to lie down a little, she said. We lay in the sun, it was hot. You mustn’t fall asleep, I said. No, I know that, she said. Then we didn’t say anything for a while. Don’t say anything to Sonja about Dad, she said. Why not? I asked. It’s so humiliating, she said. For you? I said, even though I knew that’s what she meant. Yes, she said. To be deceived by someone you’ve trusted for forty years. He’ll be back, I said. If he comes back, she said, he’ll be a different person. And he’ll come back to a different person. No, I said, but didn’t get any further. Sonja was standing in the doorway. She cried out my name. I closed my eyes, I’d no strength left, I wanted to be taken care of. Mom! she cried. When I heard her standing right next to me, I opened my eyes and smiled at her, then closed them again. Mom explained what had happened. I didn’t say anything, I wanted to be helpless, to be left in Sonja’s hands. She brought cushions and put them under my shoulders and head, and I asked if I could get a pill. She was gone a while, it must have been then that she rang for an ambulance, but she didn’t say anything about it when she came back out. She gave me the pill and asked how I was. Fine, I said, and even though it was true, I hadn’t intended her to believe it. I did have an ache in my shoulder, but I was fine. She looked at me for quite a while, then she went up to the veranda and carried down the lounger. But not for me. For Mom. When I thought about it, it seemed only right, but at the same time she could have asked, if only to have allowed me the opportunity to give it up. Mom protested, she wanted me to have it. No, said Sonja, you sit down there. I didn’t say anything. I thought: I told Sonja I was fine, that’s the reason. Sonja helped Mom onto the lounger, then went into the house. The lawn felt hard beneath me, I wondered how long Sonja was planning to leave me there, after all I didn’t know she’d rang the hospital. It was completely quiet, and I heard a car pull in front of the house and the doorbell ring. After a while, Sonja and two men in white came out onto the veranda and down the steps. They went straight to Mom. One of them spoke with her, the other one turned to me and stared at my leg. How long have you had that? he asked, pointing at the cast. A week, I said. Did you fall off the roof? he asked. Car crash, I said. I turned my face away. Is this really necessary, said Mom. Yes, Mom, said Sonja. The one who had spoken to me went to fetch a stretcher, the other one came over and asked how I was. Good, I said. Sonja must have told him about my shoulder, because he leaned over me and examined it. His assistant came with the stretcher, and they lifted me onto it. They carried me up the steps and into the bedroom. Sonja walked in front to show them the way. They lay me down on the bed, then left, Sonja too. She returned shortly afterwards. I’m going along to the hospital with Mom, she said. Okay, I said. Do you need anything? she asked. No, I said. She left. I hadn’t meant to be so short, not really, after all I realized Mom might also need her help.
After a while it was completely quiet in the house. My eyes slowly closed, and I saw that great deserted landscape, that’s painful to see, it’s far too big, and far too desolate, and in a way it’s both within me and around me. I opened my eyes to make it go away, but I was so tired, they closed by themselves. Probably due to the pills. I’m not afraid, I said out loud, just to say something. I said it a few times. Then I don’t remember any more.
I awoke in the half-light. The curtains were drawn, the alarm clock showed four-thirty. The bedroom door was ajar, and a thin strip of light fell in through the gap. There was a bottle of water on the nightstand, and the bedpan was within easy reach of my good hand. I had no excuse to wake Sonja. I switched on the light and began to read Maigret and the Dead Girl, which Sonja had had with her. After a while I noticed I was hungry, but it was too early to call Sonja. I continued reading. When the clock showed six-thirty I began to grow impatient and slightly irritated. I thought it very inconsiderate of Sonja not to have left some sandwiches for me, she should have realized I’d wake up during the night. I lay there listening for any sounds in the house, but it was utterly silent. I pictured Sonja, and a different appetite took hold. I saw her more clearly than I had ever seen her in reality, and I didn’t do anything to erase the image. I lay like that for a long time, until I heard an alarm clock ring. I picked up the book, but didn’t read it. I waited. Eventually I called out for her. Then she came. She was wearing a pink bathrobe. I lay with the book in my hand so she’d see I had been awake. I heard the alarm clock, I said. You were fast asleep, she said, I didn’t want to wake you. Are you in any pain? My shoulder hurts, I said. Will I get you a pill? she said. Yes, please, I said. She left. She was barefoot. Her heels didn’t touch the ground. I placed the book on the nightstand. She returned with the pill and a glass of water. She held me behind the shoulder. I could see one of her breasts. Then I asked her to put another pillow behind me. You look so pretty, I said. Are you more comfortable now? she asked. Yes, thanks, I said. I’ll make you breakfast soon, she said, I just need to get dressed. That’s not necessary, I said. Aren’t you hungry? she said. Oh yes, I said. She looked at me. I wasn’t able to interpret her look. Then she left. She was gone a long time.
When she brought me breakfast, she was dressed. She was wearing a loose-fitting blouse buttoned right up. She said I should try to sit up, and she fetched some cushions, which she put behind my back. She was different. She looked everywhere but at me. She placed the tray with sandwiches and coffee on the duvet in front of me. Shout if you need anything, she said, and left.
After I’d eaten, I made up my mind not to call her, she could come of her own accord. I put the cup and plate on the nightstand and let the tray drop onto the floor, I was pretty sure she’d hear it. I lay waiting, for a long time, but she didn’t come. I thought about how I’d forgotten to ask her how Mom was. Then I thought about how, when I was better, I’d be all on my own. I’d have the house all to myself, there would be no one who’d know when I was coming and going, and no one would know what I was up to. I wouldn’t need to hide.
At last she came. I’d been feeling the effects of the pill for quite some time, and I was considerably better disposed towards her. I asked how Mom was doing, and she said that she was just getting up. I thought she was in hospital, I said. No, she said, it was only cuts and bruises. I told her what Mom had said to me about Dad. At first she looked like she didn’t believe me, then it was like her whole body froze, her gaze too, and she said: That’s… that’s… disgusting! I was taken aback by her vehement reaction, after all she was a modern young woman. These things happen, I said. She stared at me as if I’d said something wrong. Oh, sure, yeah, she said, then picked the tray up off the floor and planted the cup and plate hard down on it. Don’t let Mom know I told you, I said. Why not? she said. She asked me not to, I said. So why did you then? she said. I thought you should know, I said. Why? she said. I didn’t reply, I was beginning to grow quite irritated, I certainly didn’t like being told off. So the two of us would have a little secret? she said, in a tone I wasn’t supposed to like. Yes, why not, I said. She looked at me, for quite a while, then she said: I think we both have different ideas about each other. That’s a pity, I said. I closed my eyes. I heard her leave and close the door behind her. It hadn’t been closed since I had come home from the hospital, and she knew I wanted it open. I was already angry, and that closed door didn’t serve to lessen my anger. I wanted her out of the house, I didn’t want to see her anymore. I wasn’t so helpless that I needed to put up with all this. I hadn’t done her any harm.
It took quite some time before I calmed down again. Then I thought about how the way she had behaved probably had more to do with Dad than with me, and once she had a chance to think it over, she’d see how unreasonable she had been.
But I couldn’t quite manage to relax, and I had to admit to myself that I was dreading her return. I kept thinking I heard footsteps outside the door, and I’d close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. And I was just as relieved each time when she didn’t come. Finally I lay there with my eyes closed just listening and waiting, and then I don’t remember anymore until I saw Mom at the end of the bed, standing looking at me, a gauze dressing on her forehead, and a kind of bonnet on her head. Were you having a bad dream? she said. Was I talking in my sleep? I said. No, she said, but you were making faces. Are you in pain? Yes, I said. I’ll go get you a pill, she said. She could hardly walk. I thought Sonja was probably embarrassed about having behaved in such an unreasonable manner, and that was why Mom had come instead of her, but when Mom came back with the pill, she said: Well, it’s just the two of us now. She said it as if I was already aware of it. I didn’t reply. She gave me the pill and offered to hold me up behind the shoulder, but I told her it wasn’t necessary. I put the pill in my mouth and drank from the bottle. She sat down on the chair by the window. She said: Sonja was worried it would be too much for me, but she really wanted to get back. I nodded. Yes, she said, she said that you understood why she had to leave. Yes, I said. She smiled at me, then she said: You don’t know how grateful I am. For what? I said, even though I knew what she meant. When I came around and saw you lying there beside me, she said, and I thought, at least William cares about me. Of course I do, I said. I closed my eyes. After a while I heard her get up and leave. I opened my eyes and thought: if she only knew.