Sunday, 31 December 2017

Agnes Ravatn. The Bird Tribunal (Orenda Books, 2013)

The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribuanlet) was first published in Norway in 2013. It is the second novel by Agnes Ravatn (1983-). She is a journalist and a writer with an interest in the psychology of uncomfortable situations and relationships. Her first novel Veke 53 (Week 53), published in 2007, is a tale of a middle –aged man taking stock of his life in the run-up to Christmas. Her latest work Operation Self-Discipline (Operasjon Sjøldisiplin, 2015), is a self-help book to rid yourself of the need for instant gratification.

The Bird Tribunal was made into a play in 2015; it also reads very much like a play. The chapters are unnumbered, untitled and short, sometimes two pages or even less than a page long. The dialogue uses short sentences and quotation marks are not used. The characters do not explain or describe, rather they interrogate each other and give short evasive answers. This makes for an easy and quick read.

The plot is minimal. Television presenter Allis Hagthorn has escaped a sex scandal and a failed marriage and taken up a post as a gardener and housekeeper for mysterious, Rochester-like Sigurd Bagge, whose wife is “away” (pp2, 12). He lives in a cottage by the fjord in the middle of the woods and spends his days in a workroom: “You won’t see much of me and I’d like as few interruptions as possible.” (p4). There is not much for Allis to do: she works in the garden and she cooks. They drink a lot of wine (pp28, 35, 45, 50, 52, 53, 56, 66, 72, 140, 163).

The setting is the house and the garden, a few trips to the local shop, and a handful of scenes elsewhere: the beach, the boat, a petrol station and one street in town. Sigurd occasionally goes off stage on short trips. These absences add to his air of mystery. They give Allis the opportunity to explore the house alone and whip herself into a frenzy of melodramatic angst. We go along on Allis’s half-hearted attempts to escape, and see her always drawn back to Sigurd’s house. These movements lighten the claustrophobia of the closed setting, but it is not clear how Allis’s trip to town or to the petrol station contributes to the plot. They feel like distractions from the main objects of inquiry: Sigurd, his secret and what Allis will do about it.

Only three characters appear on stage: Allis Hagthorn, Sigurd Bagge and the unnamed woman who runs the local shop, who like a chorus in a Greek tragedy provides the local community’s view: “The grocery shop was my only contact with the outside world.” (p20) There are some extras: the bird tribunal (real or imagined), an old university friend and a woman Allis meets at the petrol station. There are also two significant characters that remain off stage: Baggis’s wife Nor and Allis’s husband John.

Against this quite bland backdrop, Allis’s interactions with Sigurd become the story; whenever the man emerges from his workroom, both Allis and the reader pay attention and strain to interpret his every move. Every time he speaks, Allis and the reader seek to analyze his mood and the workings of his mind.

Such a minimalist approach to a story is brave: it relies entirely on the power of the two main characters to engage the reader. This requires skill and imagination from the author. Ravatn does not quite succeed in this. She creates an ominous and claustrophobic atmosphere in the narrative, which is good. She creates characters that clearly have something to hide, which is also good. She creates a relationship between them that is riddled with tension and contradictions, which equally sounds good. Unfortunately, the characters do not develop. We end up with a series of see-sawing narrative movements of the characters getting along and getting into conflict. Naturally, when a man and woman spend a long time alone in such an apparently closed environment, two things are to be expected: sex and murder. The story does not disappoint on this score, but how we get there is muddled.

There is much symbolism, perhaps too much. Allis tells Sigurd the story of the Norse god Balder (pp46-48, 148-149, 170-171): “I was so obsessed with Balder when I was a girl. … He was my first love.” (p46). We are invited to find parallels between this story and that of Sigurd. Is he Balder or Loki? “It is easy to love Balder, everyone did. But imagine loving Loki,” Allis says (p149). The saga ends with Ragnarök and the creation of a new world, like the one Allis and Sigurd are fashioning for themselves (pp170. 185) at the remote house.

There is the garden with its cycle of life, death and rebirth, and the way Allis masters gardening (pp6, 14, 18, 86, 163). There is Allis’s cooking. At first Sigurd tells Allis not to sit at the table: “No, you eat afterwards.”(p4), then she finds his wife’s recipe book (p20) and mealtimes start to reflect their vacillating emotional distance (pp23, 101, 140, 161). There are Allis’s clothes that range from inappropriate ones when she arrives (p24) to dressing in clothes Sigurd provides (“I would be a miniature version of him.” [p26]) and finally to wearing Sigurd’s wife’s nightdress (p127) until she is “dressed as his wife” at the dinner table (p140). There is also some nakedness in the garden (p35). When Sigurd saves Allis from an adder, you wonder if this was Adam saving Eve from the serpent (p19). There is even some significance to be found in the hair of the two characters (pp 83, 142, 164, 185). And of course, there is meaning hidden in the eponymous bird tribunal and the symbolism of birds sitting in judgment (pp105-106, 146). For one interpretation of this scene and the title of the novel, see Leviticus 14, 4-7 and “The Judgment of the Birds” in The Immense Journey (1959) by Loren Eiseley.

All this detail pregnant with potential meaning adds another layer of detective work for the reader. It is too much of a good thing as this layer becomes too thick and the story is in danger of getting lost in the porridge of secondary meanings

Allis Hogarth is the first person narrator and the only point-of-view character in the story. Her self-confidence is fragile to an alarming degree. When she first arrives, Allis says: “I had to become a woman in possession of a firmer character.” (p11) This is a wish the reader comes to share as the story progresses. “No, a lost child , that’s what I am,” (p20) Allis says; she is “like a little girl” (p28). She seeks a new beginning, purity and atonement (pp15, 66). She dreams of transforming herself: “I could create a sense of self, mould a congruous identity in which none of the old parts of me could be found.” (p14) Allis’s sense of self-worth almost vanishes. On her birthday, “I was nothing and I have nothing.” (p60, also p53). A little later, alone in the house, Allis has an angst-filled night “Lying in my bed, I was gripped with an intense, inexplicable anguish.” (p77) She imagines unknown assailants were coming to get her: “naked and feeble, I cowered beneath the sheets, hoping they’d get it over with quickly, just shoot me in the head through my covers and be done with it.” (p78) In order to be re-born, you must die first. But Allis’s self-recriminations become tedious (pp10, 29, 32, 40, 47, 50, 60, 63, 70, 77, 98. 121, 122, 164). Any glimmer of warmth and attention from Sigurd transform’s Allis’s mood. An invitation to a fishing trip causes “a wave of elation” (p62) in her. When he returns after three days’ absence she “trembled with delight” (p80, also 125). Sigurd is truly a god in Allis’s new world. With Allis showing such tendencies for masochism, the reader is led to expect Sigurd to reveal his sadistic side (his Loki-side).

The last scene of the novel is effective. Despite all the preceding emotional roller-coasting, Ravatn’s narrative has engaged the reader and the last scene carries a punch.

Sigurd Bagge remains mysterious to the end. He lies, first he tells Allis that he has studied “law and order” (p55), later he tells her he is a joiner (p158). He keeps saying that his wife has gone away (pp2, 12), and only later admits that she is dead (pp 113, 130). Allis refers to him as a wolf (pp 70, 91, 102). He is exotic and alien to her, but also attractive and appealing. Allis seems to think him safe and comforting and dangerous and threatening at the same time. She feels inferior to him and constantly tries to make herself worthy of him. He makes her feel shame and desire in equal measure. She imagines they are married (p87) and that he is going to kill her (p101). From this morass of emotion, no firm image of the man is consolidated. At the denouement of the story he does reveal his true colours, or so it seems. But we do not understand Sigurd Bagge any better at the end than we did at the beginning. And yet he is the key to the mystery in the narrative, he is the character who is judged by the Bird Tribunal.