Monday, June 18, 2012

The Return of the Divine Mary - Chapter 3


Mary had been very successful in her studies and although she was only twenty-one she was putting the finishing touches to her doctoral dissertation, which was called, simply: “Love”.  She was revising the conclusion, “God is love and to be free is to be indebted to him”, when she suddenly felt a strange sense of dizziness. For a moment she thought she was going to pass out, everything flowed into a white blur and she could no longer make out the letters on the pages in front of her.
            ºI mustn’t lose consciousness.°
            As everything whirled before her eyes she closed them, then tried to breathe deeply. After a while she felt able to get to her feet, but she had to support herself against the walls and the furniture. This way she was able to grope her way into the bathroom, turn on the cold water in the shower and let it stream over her head.
            ‘O Lord, oh Lord,’ she groaned in her torment. Soon she felt a little better, turned off the shower and reached for a towel. Out of old habit she did not look in the mirror on her way. She dried her hair vigorously in order to get her circulation going, made tea, took it into her study and sat down at the writing desk.
            ºWell, whatever that was, I feel better now.º
            She picked up the dissertation, which was some three hundred pages long, and thumbed through it. She turned the pages faster and faster. They still seemed to be empty, as when she had been delirious. She looked around her.
            ºThis can’t be my dissertation, surely? º
            It seemed that it was. She opened the top drawer, which was full of notebooks, diaries and loose sheets of paper on which she had jotted down all kinds of comments and ideas. She gave a violent start. The drawer was full of empty sheets. She snatched up one diary after another and leafed through them, but they were all as empty as if they had never contained any writing or text.
            ºIs there something wrong with my eyesight, perhaps?º
            She went over to the bookcase, took down a pocket edition of the New Testament, opened it at random and read in small letters:
            ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.’
            Mary put the book back on the shelf and with dragging steps walked to the kitchen to look at the notice board where she had pinned up a lot of memos and comments interspersed with clippings from newspapers and magazines. All the sheets of paper on which she had written or typed were blank. She stared at the board for a long time, then went over to the kitchen table, lowered herself on to a chair and looked out of the window. The murmur of the river came to her ears and beyond the imposing buildings of the college she saw the spray of the waterfall rising above the treetops. A rainbow. Tears flowed down her cheeks and she whispered:
            She leaned forward on the table and cried herself to sleep.
            When she woke up, it was dark. She went into the study, turned on the computer and examined its contents. According to the index there was nothing on the hard disk and when she checked the floppies they were blank too. She went out into the passage, opened her handbag and took out her pocketbook. After she had blessed herself and said a short prayer, she opened it and took out her identity card. Everything that related to her had been deleted from it, her name, ID number, address. She put on her overcoat and shoes, and went out. She made a beeline for the lecturers’ quarters and knocked on Dr Peters’s door – Dr Peters was her teacher and a doctor of divinity. Dr Peters came to the door in his dressing gown. He had grown rather bent with age, but was still quite spry, and when he had put his pince-nez on his nose, he said:
            ‘Come in, Mary.’
            ‘I’m sorry, did I wake you?’
            ‘Yes, and I thank you for it, Mary. Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning.’
            ‘Is something the matter?’
            Mary said nothing, and lowered her head.
            ‘If there’s anything bothering you, Mary, just tell me what I can do for you.’
            ‘Thank you, Dr Peters, but though it’s late I want you to show me your copy of my dissertation, if you have it to hand.’
            ‘Of course. Take your coat off and sit down in the parlour. I’ll be back in a moment.’
            Mary went into the parlour without taking her coat off and sat down. She waited. The longer she sat waiting for Dr Peters to come back the more certain she was. After a long search he came back and muttered pensively:
            ‘That’s strange, I can’t find it. I don’t understand it. It was lying on my writing desk the last time I saw it.’
            Mary was silent.
            ‘I’m sorry, I’ll have to take a more thorough look.’
            No, it’s all right. Tell me, Dr Peters: you didn’t find a pile of blank papers on your desk that you didn’t recognize, did you?’
            ‘Er, yes, I did. But I don’t know what I can have done with your dissertation. Wait, I’ll go and have another look for it.’
            ‘No, there’s no need.’
            ‘But don’t you need to see it now?’
            ‘Come and sit down here, I’ve something to tell you.’
            Dr Peters perched on the armchair facing Mary.
            ‘What’s wrong, Mary, somehow you’re not your usual self today.’
            ‘I don’t think we’ll ever get the dissertation back.’
            ‘What nonsense, you’re just anxious about your doctoral defence this weekend. That’s normal, my best students are always anxious, let me tell you…’
            But Mary interrupted him and began to describe what had happened. She showed him her identity card that now lacked a name and a number and said she was afraid that all the examinations she had taken at the college were blank and that she was even afraid she wasn’t on the register of students any more.  Dr Peters looked at her in concern, and asked if she would like to lie down on the sofa. Mary said she would, if he would go over to the college office and come back with something that showed her suspicions were unfounded. Dr Peters asked her to try to relax, take a sleeping pill and think it all over in the morning. After much persuasion he did at last agree to look into the matter if she took a rest in the meantime, and they made a deal. While Mary lay on the sofa and waited, she thought:
             ºHe won’t find anything. I know it.º
            She turned out to be right. Dr Peters was taciturn when he came back, empty-handed, and sat down on his chair.
            ‘There must be some natural explanation for this. What do you think, Mary? Has anything like this happened to you before?’
            Mary remembered what she had promised her father, and said:
            ‘We must cancel my doctoral defence, my academic career is at an end.’
            ‘Now, now , Mary, we must keep calm and not make more of it than we need to. It must be possible to find some explanation for this.’
            ‘Do you think we can keep to our plan, then?’
            Mary looked at him with imploring eyes. Dr Peters was embarrassed, but said, all the same:
            ‘Yes, after all you’re considered to be the most promising student who has ever attended this college, and no one in the nation’s history has won so many study awards. And several teachers have already read your dissertation, so yes, as far as I can see we ought to try to keep to it.’
            Mary smiled shyly, went over to him and hugged him.
            ‘I’m sure everything will be all right,’ Dr Peters said, patting her on the back. ‘Well, do you want to lie down here or go home? You must be in good shape on Saturday.’
            ‘I’ll go home. Thank you for everything, Dr Peters, I think I feel better now.’
            By Saturday this strange news had spread all over the college and still absolutely nothing had been found of all that Mary, the renowned but mysterious student had written at the university. It had been decided that all the teachers and most promising students should be present at her doctoral defence, which would take two days, and as there was no proof that she had ever taken an exam at the university, she was to be examined orally from the whole syllabus. With one or two breaks she was asked questions from eight in the morning until ten at night, and no one succeeded in making a single hole in her grasp of knowledge. There were even professors whose classes she had never attended, who came to question her about their specialist fields and wrote down her answers and speculations as they went along. By evening Mary was naturally somewhat dazed, as her defence had been extended by six hours, and although there were breaks she had sat answering questions almost without interruption. At last Dr Peters went over to her and said she had acquitted herself better than anyone had dared to hope, and if she went on like this she need have no worries, even if her dissertation did not turn up immediately.
            The next morning even more people arrived in order to be present at Mary’s doctoral defence, and though the assembly hall seated five hundred, not everyone got in. Now among the guests there were also professors from other colleges and high-ranking officials from the educational authorities and the church, such as Bishop Jean Sebastian, the same man who had been in charge of the legal proceedings against grandfather. Mary’s defence went like a dream, and it seemed clear that she was going to complete her studies with distinction and have all roads open to her in the future. But towards the end the bishop stood up and asked to be allowed to speak. Tall and thin, dressed in black and round-shouldered, he looked like a gallows as he stood in the uppermost row of the spectators’ benches, looking down at the congregation with sunken eyes. He at once brought up the subject that no one had dared to discuss, namely that according to the college’s records Mary had never been enrolled there, never taken any exams, never handed in any essays, and in fact it was even doubtful whether she was this renowned student Mary at all, since she had no suitable document with which to prove her identity.
            ‘How is it that there is not so much as a cedilla in the college register to prove that the most promising student in the land has studied here? What do you think, Mary? Your name is Mary, isn’t it?’
            ‘Yes, my name’s Mary.’
            ‘How do you explain this disappearance of all proof of your identity and abilities?’
            ‘I don’t know.’
            ‘You don’t know.’
            ‘What has happened to Christ’s University when people start to praise the academic achievements of someone who cannot even be seen to have enrolled or taken a single examination there? Perhaps you are going to tell me that the said dissertation and scores of other said essays by the said person have simply vanished into thin air by some inexplicable miracle?’
            People exchanged embarrassed glances. Sebastian glared at Mary as though he wanted to swallow her with his eyes.
            ‘Perhaps that’s what it was, Mary, a miracle?’
            ‘I don’t know what it was.’
            ‘But in other words from your point of view it can’t be ruled out that it was a miracle?’
            Mary did not reply. A murmur passed round the hall as members of the audience put their heads together. After a minute, Sebastian slowly surveyed the gathering, and people fell silent. He continued, determinedly:
            ‘Are you familiar with the book The Return of the Divine Mary by Professor Johannes von Blomsterfeld who taught here at Christ’s University ten years ago?’
            ‘I have heard it mentioned, for Professor von Blomsterfeld and what he wrote were very controversial in his day. But as far as I know his book cannot be obtained anywhere.’
            ‘In other words you haven’t read it?’
            ‘In other words you are not familiar with the contents of the book?’
            The bishop snorted contemptuously and said:
            ‘I put it to you that you have read the book The Return of the Divine Mary by Professor Johannes von Blomsterfeld in secret and know its contents very well.’
            Mary was wide-eyed. Why was he talking about that book? Why was there this electric atmosphere in the hall? She wondered if she was to be failed for not having read a book there was no way to obtain. She sighed:
            ‘It’s possible that I know something of what is discussed in the book.’
            ‘So you are telling us that you do know what is in the book, The Return of the Divine Mary, even though you have never read it.’
            ‘No, sir, what I meant was that one reads so much…’
            ‘Next you’ll be trying to tell us that you’re the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary.’
            Mary smiled. But there was a deathly silence in the hall. She had expected general laughter. She looked at Dr Peters in the hope of finding understanding, but he was looking at her as expectantly as everyone else. She broke into a cold sweat. Why were these wise men, who had taught her so much and whom she loved and admired, suddenly staring at her as if she were some kind of a freak? She felt the tears welling up in the corners of her eyes, but decided to hold them in check. Then she felt it was all over, she did not care to take any more questions, give any more answers.  At the same time a great burden seemed to lift from her. She felt peace enter her heart, and she smiled ingenuously at everyone in the hall. Mary got up and said:
            ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to tell you a little story before I go.’
            She paused, unsure of what story to tell. Then she simply began:
            Once upon a time there was an owl that was the best versed in law of all the creatures of the forest. One day a little thrush came to it, wanting to become its pupil. Then the owl said:
            “I have to live, like you, which means that I need to work. For that reason you can’t learn from me unless you pay a fee.”
            “But I don’t have anything,” said the thrush, “the only thing I own is myself.”
            “But you want to acquire a share in my wisdom?’ asked the owl.
            “Yes, above all other things.”
            “Then we shall strike an agreement. I will teach you one truth, and then you will owe me some work that corresponds to my work in teaching you one truth. I will teach you two truths, and then you will owe me some work that will be equal in value to my work in teaching you two truths. When you have learnt all the truths that I can teach you, you shall work for me, and when you have worked for until the truths are paid for, you shall own those truths and may go on your way.”
            “That seems reasonable,” replied the thrush, “and I have no other choice if I want to educate myself, so I agree to your offer.”
            After that the thrush studied law with the owl for ten years, but then the owl said:
            “Now your studies are ended, now you must start work.”
            “But what am I to work at?” asked the thrush. “I only know what’s in your law books.”
            “That’s all right,” replied the owl, “for now you shall carry out all that is said in them.  Make the world friendlier to owls, work to make it always be night.”
            And for ten years the thrush worked on making the world dark. At the end of the ten years he came to the owl and asked:
            “Now I’ve worked for ten years at making the world friendlier to owls. What now?”
            “Now you may do what you want,” replied the owl.
            “But all I know is how to make the world darker,” said the thrush.
            “Do that then,” replied the owl. And the thrush did that until he died in a slightly darker world than the one it had been born in.”
            Mary stepped down from the rostrum and went straight to the emergency exit. There she entered a corridor where there were not many people, and got out of the building undisturbed. Her disappearance in such an unexpected manner caused a ripple of discontent in the hall. Sebastian sat smirking.
            When Mary got home she was very restless, paced to and fro in her apartment, then stormed up to the wardrobe, pulled out a pile of clothes and put them on the bed without knowing why. Then she went over the window and lost herself in contemplation of the spray from the waterfall above the treetops. Pearls of spray on the leaves glittered in the moonlight. She started violently when the telephone rang. It was Dr Peters.
            He said that after she left several teachers had stood up and spoken in the same vein as Sebastian. Some had started adding up all the study grants she had been awarded and were calling it one of the greatest frauds that had ever been known in the educational system. Several demanded that Mary should be taken to court.
            ‘I took the rostrum and defended you and those of us who have faith in you, but I was shouted down. Have you found your dissertation yet?’
            ‘No, it won’t ever be found.’
            ‘I just wanted to let you know that this will all blow over. People will stop behaving like this when the truth comes to light. You acquitted yourself splendidly. I was really proud of you.’
            ‘Thank you, Dr Peters.’
            ‘Are you all right? Is there anything you need?’
            ‘No, thank you, I have everything here with me.’
            ‘Just call me if there’s anything you need.’
            ‘Well, you could do with some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
            Mary did not reply. Dr Peters said again:
            ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
            ‘Many thanks for everything, Dr Peters, I’ll never forget your consideration and kindness.’
            ‘Oh, it was nothing.’
            ‘Goodbye, my child.’
            A moment after putting down the receiver she stood staring out into space. Then she looked at the clock.
            °It’s moonlight outside. If I take the path through the woods I should be able to catch the night train to the city.°
            She walked quickly into the bedroom and got out her suitcase.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Reputation

Icelandic National Radio: Víðsjá: 20 October 2011 | 16:05
Gauti Kristmannsson on

The Reputation
by Bjarni Bjarnason

Rhetorical questions generally have a single, obvious answer. Such a question is less important in and of itself than the response it implies. It is thus a worthy undertaking for a work of fiction to put forth just such a question and then provide quite a different answer – or even more than one answer. True, the question on the cover of this book is not entirely a rhetorical one. It simply asks: What is the cost of an unsullied reputation? Al the same, one naturally takes for granted that there can be no real answer to such a query. A price tag cannot be put on a person’s reputation – even if it might seem as if the value of a reputation and how it is judged vary greatly depending on the culture and the times. Horrific honour killings are, for example, attempts on the part of the perpetrators to save their own reputations. But we Westerners certainly don’t understand them that way, even though the men of the Western World were not so very long ago in the habit of settling disputes where their own reputations were at stake with a duel – ‘affairs of honour’, as they were called.
The question Bjarni Bjarnason poses in The Reputation is not how much a person’s reputation costs but rather whether it is possible to buy a reputation in the first place. Or whether one must buy something more. If it is possible, then the answer to the second question is yes. And this is what story is all about.

Coming three years after the bank crash, it’s not surprising that this book should deal with the crisis in some way. Storytelling is and will continue to be one of our nation’s most potent medicines in coping with the misfortune that has befallen the collective Icelandic consciousness. We will be reading many poems and novels in the future that reference this whole bloody mess, which in its way has already become a tiring subject for discussion. It hardly came as a shock to me that I could recognise some of the book’s characters right off the bat, and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was too soon to start dreading that this might prove to be a roman à clef about the big bad venture Vikings. The protagonist, Starkaður Leví, is unmistakably based on some of the figures who were most prominent in the years leading up to the crash.

My worries proved to be entirely without cause: Here, the author merely uses our general knowledge of people and events to construct a narrative that deals with other and more philosophical concerns. I felt, as I drew nearer to the end of the book, that I could classify it as philosophical realistic fantasy without being guilty of excessive hair-splitting – indeed, I suspect that the author is consciously working with this virtually threefold paradox. The big questions (and some of the small ones) are undeniably philosophical, existential; the narrative and presentation of places and events are perfectly realistic; and yet, at the same time, the actions and aims of the characters effectively enter the realm of fantasy.

One of the two main characters, the author Almar Logi, says at one point that “the tale of how the Devil comes to Iceland and profits by sacrificing the soul of an old man and then plans to sacrifice his own child to win God’s affection was a description of Iceland 2007 as he perceived it. It was not fantasy – it was realism, as would later become clear” – end of quote. This is also a sizeable nutshell into which to put the book we are reading and reading about, and in light of how the story ends, the irony is cold as nails.

The author weaves multiple literary threads into his well-crafted tapestry, the most obvious of which is perhaps the doppelgänger motif. One of two lookalikes is the disgraced entrepreneur, Starkaður Leví, a character whose name alone brings to mind both Einar Ben’s ‘omnipresent soul’  and Jewish history. The other is the poet Almar Logi. The two men share a common destiny, involving a bid by the former to buy the reputation of the latter.
In effect, what Starkaður buys is Almar Logi’s life, for which life he sacrifices his own worthless existence. This is ultimately one of the greatest ironies of the book and at the same time the answer to the question of whether it is possible to buy a reputation. No, a man’s reputation will forever be tied to his person and his name. He can only keep his reputation if he has it in the first place. Once lost, it can never be regained unless it can be proved that this was a case of wrongful dismissal.

These two very different characters, who start out on opposite ends of a swinging pendulum and end up identical twins, serve the author well as mouthpieces of the attitudes that are so incredibly dominant here in Iceland. One example of this is Almar Logi’s response in an interview: “There’s no such thing as intellectual life in Iceland. That is to say, there’s nobody who can read the existential significance of a literary work and put it into a cultural context” – end of quote. Perhaps one hears the author’s own complaint spoken here through the voice of his alter ego, giving the doppelgänger motif an entirely new dimension and infusing it with a still greater irony when one keeps in mind the diabolical pact that the writer enters into.
Like all better authors, Bjarni avoids the pitfall of making the bad guy a purely evil character. He is the protagonist of the book, and while no attempt is made to hide the fact that the man is by nature the kind of person who would have formerly been called a bastard and might today be described as a sociopath, the reader is always given the leeway to see – and perhaps understand – his egoism. Maybe a little too well. If anything, it demonstrates just how fine a line there is between healthy egoism and pathological egotism. What’s more, if that line is crossed, there’s no going back.

To be sure, Starkaður Leví does wish to repent, but only because he wants his former reputation and status back. He cannot genuinely repent. Although told in a traditional manner, the author’s delvings into the inner life and emotions of his characters greatly enrich the story. The author also knows how to wield the logic of realism effectively. Even in a book that is, in and of itself, a fantasy. One might compare the book to the movie Face off, where the rationale behind the doppelgänger is a simple surgical face-switch. Here, much deeper cuts are being made. What is being exchanged is, first and foremost, a soul – an inner life. The physical surgery is only a by-product, a part of the deception.

In the end, however, this is a story about sacrifice, as comes across loud and clear. Starkaður Leví and Almar Logi both sacrifice their lives, but one of them continues to live. The most chilling thing about it is that the one who lives is the man who least deserves it. The rapacious doppelgänger, this golem of sorts, picks up where his better left off – and can do nothing else. An example, maybe, of a happy ending and a horrible end. It’s not every day that one succeeds in answering the rhetorical questions of life in such a multifaceted and astute way.