Naja Marie Aidt - Bulbjerg
Bulbjerg is a pleasant story that turns very dark very quickly. What initially appears a harmonious journey to the narrator's wife Anne's hometown of Bulbjerg soon becomes discordant, and it seems that, in a flash, a happy day turns sinister.
The story opens nicely enough. The narrator, their identity at first unclear, is astonished at the landscape he finds himself in:
We gasped for breath, joyfully, as if coming up for air after being too long under water. We stopped and looked around us, blinking our eyes that had been focused for so long on the gravel road in the darkness of the plantation. Even the smell was different here, salty and fresh, the sea had to be very close now.
The 'we' coalesces into the narrator, the husband; Anne, the somewhat high-strung wife whose hometown, Bulbjerg, they are visiting; and Sebastian, their adopted son, who is still quite young. The family is tired, but happily – it is the tiredness of a day spent hiking and wandering. But the brightest sunlight provides the darkest shadows, and it seems that something is not quite right. The narrator notes that he, “felt like I was being spied on”, and at one stage, “I open my eyes and you’re standing over me, looking at me with disgust.”
In only a few short paragraphs, Danish author Aidt has revealed a comfortable, ordinary feeling family, and then made us aware of the cracks. As the day progresses, and the afternoon sun becomes colder, so, too, do the interactions between the narrator and his wife. He begins to view her with clinical language, forgetting the joy from the beginning of the story. And his mind wanders, shifting from a 'we' that includes his family, to a 'you' that clearly does not:
We used to do it on that rug. We were here in the autumn, it was cold, and we lit a fire in the evenings. I slowly stripped off her clothes, and she looked fabulous on the red Persian rug in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, almost sorrowful eyes. Your sister’s cunt is tighter than yours. I wonder whether girls are born that way, or if it’s just because she’s so young.
The shift from an inclusive we – the narrator and his wife – to an exclusive she and you. As the story progresses, these shifts occur with greater frequency as the narrator distances himself from his family. The language shifts, too, becoming crude and sexual as he focuses more upon Tine, Anne's sister, and the narrator's mistress. He doesn't love her, but he appreciates the skills she can offer:
She gives good head. The roof of her mouth is warm and hard, and she really concentrates, making it into a real performance.
It's noteworthy, though not particularly surprising, that the language the narrator uses to describe his mistress is sexual, while the language for his wife, when he is feeling pleasantly toward her, has its roots in emotion and caring.
Anne and Sebastian feel this distancing from the narrator, and as the story progress, the unease and tension of the piece builds through the person of their adopted son, Sebastian. He cries, he rages, he is bitten by ants and he has an accident. Violence swirls around him, and the strain of it increases the strain of the narrator and his wife’s relationship. There is a strong sense that everything is balancing precariously, and that the slightest wind will cause it all to tumble – and Sebastian is that wind.
Bulbjerg is a town from Anne’s past, with the obvious correlation that it means far more to her than to him. He is frustrated and tired, while she is reliving memories. Anne's insistence on progressing forward conflicts with the narrator's longing for Tine, the other woman, who is clearly not in Bulbjerg and is back where he considers home. By desiring a return to Bulbjerg, Anne is stepping back through her life, while the narrator wishes to move forward.
He confesses to his adultery, and Anne's reaction is understandably angry and startlingly violent. Sebastian is shocked, and cannot understand why his mother would react so strongly to what his father has said. The malice of the afternoon becomes the catastrophe of dusk, and soon the narrator thinks,
I want to lie down and give in to the white light, close my eyes to it, only feel the wind in the grass, hear the particular whispering sounds that the summer wind calls out of the grass, and the hum of bees, and the grasshoppers close by, very close.
By the final pages, the story has become swamped with malice; Aidt’s sinister phrasing permeates every paragraph and most every sentence. The shift begins slowly, but ramps up in intensity quite rapidly. The point upon which everything pivots can be detected if you read carefully, and there’s a clearly delineated ‘before’ and ‘after’ feel to the story. In the ‘before’, there’s a chance, though small, that the encroaching darkness might be averted. In the ‘after’, there’s no chance at all. Aidt skillfully smooths the progression from daytime to almost night so that, by the time the characters realize how serious things have become, there’s no turning back. Misery begets misery.
Bulbjerg by Naja Marie Aidt is a short story from The Dalkey Archive Press’ publication, Best European Fiction 2010 (edited by Aleksander Hemon). This review is part of a series intending to examine each story from the collection, in an effort to broaden awareness of both the project itself, and the excellent array of authors contained within.
Other titles under review from the Best European Fiction 2010 anthology include:
---Belgium: Toussaint, Jean-Phillipe - Zidane's Melancholy
---Bosnian: Štiks, Igor - At the Sarajevo Market
---Bulgarian: Gospodinov, Georgi - And All Turned Moon
---Croatian: Ušumović, Neven – Vereš
---Estonian: Viiding, Elo - Foreign Women
---French: Montalbetti, Christine - Hotel Komaba Eminence (With Haruki Murakami)
---Hungarian: Konrád, György - Jeremiah's Terrible Tale
---Icelandic: Bragi, Steinar - The Sky Over Thingvellir
---Italian: Mozzi, Guilio - Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read
List of title published by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Links provided by The Dalkey Archive Press:
Bogens World (Paper World) (Danish only)
Danish Literary Magazine
Naja Marie Aidt's website
Nordic Voices in Translation