REVIEW: Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt

Most of the literary fiction I’ve encountered tries to steer clear of everything nauseating, unbelievably gritty, scatological, paltry or too physically violent in an effort to focus on feelings, atmosphere, the endless possibilities offered by semantics, and those emotional spaces that can only be explored through language. Acclaimed Danish poet and author Naja Marie Aidt’s Baboon does the opposite. It collects fifteen short narratives that run toward human ugliness, desire, heartbreak, physicality, and failure. With a prose that combines beauty and poetry with hostility and unpleasantness, Aidt dissects humanity in order to show how weird, wonderful, and downright atrocious it can be, and the result is one of the most outstanding collections I’ve read all year.

Aidt kicks things off with a story that’s slightly unsettling and ends with a few wounds, and it’s a story that helps her set the tone for the rest of the collection. From lost love, child abuse, and misogyny to sickness, desperation, and adultery, Baboon daringly tackles a plethora of themes that usually stand opposed to awe-inspiring fiction. While the fifteen tales are unique, elements like an obsession with the body, sexuality, and situations where control becomes impossible give the collection a sense of cohesion. These narratives are violent and ugly, but they brilliantly achieve that elusive goal that all exceptional fiction is known for: they make the reader feel something.

Offering a synopsis and analysis of each tale would require a huge word count, so instead I’ll offer a look at some of the narratives that left a lasting impression on me. The first is “Torben and Maria.” In this one, a mother physically abuses her 3-year old boy while her brother and the toddler’s father look on and do nothing. The narrative is disturbing and strongly critiques the way society condones abuse because it’s better not to get involved in other people’s affairs. In fact, even those who take care of Torben try their best to rationalize the physical signs of abuse:

“They’re beginning to wonder. Torben is so shy. But he’s also violent. He hits the other children when they come near him. He bites. And he often has bumps and bruises on his body and head. They’ve talked it over with each other. But on the other hand, Maria seems okay. You can’t be too quick to judge people. Children at that age are accident-prone, they’re always stumbling and falling and hurting themselves.”

Just like Torben and Maria could be the poster story for the collection, Starry Sky also delves into many of the uncomfortable grey spaces in which most of the narratives in Baboon reside. The tale follows a young couple that falls madly in love and lust with each other to the point that sex turns into something that consumes their existence. After they get married and have a child, the desire is still there and, for a brief moment, it seems like their life will never change. Then the husband takes a male lover. Surprisingly, he manages to keep his wife happy in the bedroom and suspicion at bay, but one day their young daughter sees her father passionately kissing a man in a passageway:

“…the child saw that it wasn’t a completely ordinary kiss, because her father and the man went on kissing, but the most disturbing part was that the man was holding the nape of her father’s neck as if he were pushing him down.”

The girl tells her mother what she saw, but the revelation has no effect on the relationship and the father goes on with his homosexual adventures without caring about what his daughter witnessed or how it might affect the way she looks at him.

While all I’ve said so far might lead readers to think Baboon is too weird and dark to be considered top-notch literary fiction, the opposite is true. This book, which won the Danish Critics Prize as well as the 2008 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, Scandinavia’s highest literary honor, is also very comfortable inhabiting those spaces were language is masterfully used to convey emotion. In The Green Darkness of the Big Trees, a man becomes obsessed with a woman to the point where he stops being himself and becomes a creature crippled by her absence:

“Maybe I had fallen down a crevasse. A sudden slide down an all-too slippery passageway. Maybe this is it. And in this chrysalis, in this recess, in this hole I’ve been waiting either for life to notice me again and pull me up, or death to force me down the last few feet and away. I don’t eat much. I don’t sleep much. Sometimes it’s as if I were possessed by a ghost, at other times it’s clear to me that I’ve created this non-existence that my life has turned into.”

Exceptional. Kafkaesque. Delightfully bizarre. There are many ways to describe Baboon, but full appreciation and understanding for the worlds Aidt’s created here and the multiplicity of ways in which she dismantles humanity to make her critiques obvious and sharp can only come from reading her narratives. Translator Denise Newman did a fantastic job and managed to maintain Aidt’s original tone, and for that she deserves kudos. The worse components of human nature are grim things to dwell upon, but these stories turn this unattractive examination into a pleasurable experience.

Baboon

by Naja Marie Aidt

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