Towards the end of this novel, which is set in a remote fictional island called Barrøy, located somewhere on the seas lining Norway, a haar or sea fog slowly creeps inland, covering the inhabitants in a freezing grey blanket. It calls up the night in the middle of the day and the islanders—who make up the novel’s cast—give themselves a break from their relentless work.
“They put down their tools in silence and wrap themselves up in warmer clothes, sit on a rock and let their thoughts roam free, illuminated by an inner light—just as the blind look inwards because they have no alternative”. This vision—of a curtain falling to shut out vision, of the waning of light that makes darkness visible—is central to the novel, which, with its sea-washed, snow-striped, windswept landscape, plays out in the head like a black-and-white movie.
The Unseen constantly reminded me of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly— its unsettling chiaroscuro and its setting in an island of the light nights.
As in the movie, so in this novel the backdrop of the island serves as a pointer to our essential isolation and the philosophical implications of this loneliness.
But the islanders in Barrøy wouldn’t be caught dead pondering existential questions, at least consciously, simply because they cannot afford to. Life on Barrøy is hard, with the unpredictable sea giving as much as it takes, throwing up treasures of fish and jetsam and rising up like an implacable giant to batter the islanders from time to time. For the latter, even god is, if not a luxury, then a useful fiction, which is insubstantial against the might of the sea. In this, there is a bit of J.M. Synge and his bleak Aran islands in The Unseen .
The title seems to allude to fate, which is akin to the sea in its blindness to human happiness or misery. The island itself is fate too, because, we are told, “[n]obody can leave an island.”
Anyone who has loved Barrøy, spurs and all, must pay the wages of that devotion by staying back in its rough embrace. Yet the novel is also about leaving, or about the necessity of leaving, even if it is only to come back.
What must be left behind is not just a landscape but also a time, of the grandfather and the father, so that the new generation can take over. While rooted to the island, the last ones in the line of the Barrøy family—which gives the island its name—show a willingness to step out and become part of the larger world.
They accept the changes necessitated by modern life that the older people had resisted. The younger generation in The Unseen is curiously marked by the absence of a father. When Hans Barrøy dies suddenly, his sole offspring, young Ingrid, becomes the uncrowned queen of the island.
Ingrid’s cousin, Lars, her trusted lieutenant, is the child of a single mother, Barbro, Hans’s ‘simple’ sister. After Hans’s death, Lars too grows up almost overnight. As he bargains expertly with a trader for getting the best price for the island’s produce, and the trader asks him to send his father, Lars checks himself on the verge of uttering, “’A am my father.”’
Sentences such as these seem to discard the concept of a metaphysical (male) god, who has been judged, and found wanting, in the context of real life on Barrøy. Pastor Johannes Malmberget is a figure of fun, scared as he is of the sea, which runs like blood in the veins of the islanders. Ingrid, on the other hand, is a “daughter of the sea”, and the sea, as a nurturer, seems more likely to be a mother, albeit a difficult one, than a father .
The older generations are put behind with a calm matter-of-factness. The scenes following the funeral of Martin, Hans’s father, are a masterpiece of naturalistic narration. The death of “Grandad” becomes an occasion for a family gathering, as the married daughters and the son, who have migrated from Barrøy, return briefly. Ingrid feels sad, missing Grandad’s comforting “teddy bear” hands, but she too is soon “enveloped in the buzz of voices and laughter and everything that belongs to life and not to death”.
Ingrid’s mother, Maria, is left bereft after her husband’s untimely death. Life reclaims her slowly even as Ingrid discovers that she has inherited a burden of bad debts from her father.
A brown-furred animal
But hurdles are there to be crossed and Ingrid has been trained in the business of living by the capricious sea. She is competent enough to retain the Barrøy family’s independent ways while accepting the practical changes that Hans had resented.
Bergman was sometimes accused of being a “gloomy Swede”: Jacobsen’s imagination too often wears a blue-black filter, but it is perhaps the freezing climes of Norway that inspire it.
The descriptions of Barrøy have a stark simplicity that can be breathtaking: “...there are not many trees on the island but there are plenty of fruit bushes and dwarf birches and sallows—whose leaves in the course of late summer turn yellow, then brown and red at varying speeds—making the island, on some days in September, resemble a rainbow on earth.
‘And so it looks until a sudden storm is unleashed upon them, sweeping the colours into the sea, transforming Barrøy into a whimpering, brown-furred animal, which it will remain until next spring...” The translators have expertly captured the nuances of the original, which made it to the Booker shortlist.
They tackle the difficult job of conveying the islanders’ dialect by making them speak a tongue that sounds like rustic English of the sort found in, say, Hardy’s novels. The Unseen ’s central themes—the decay of an older, agricultural way of life, and the approach of modernity with its comforts and the concomitant pain of separation from nature—would be close to Hardy’s heart.
So much so that one wonders about the time when the events of the novel take place. Since Jacobsen gives no pointer to that, you have to assume that it is the turn of the 19th century.
The Unseen reads like a tribute to that era’s realist novel, which tried to confer meaning to a fast-changing way of life by recording in detail its huge blows and small mercies, before the 20th century’s meaninglessness took over.
The Unseen; Roy Jacobsen, trs Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Maclehose Press, ₹599.