Spine of steel


FICTION: The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, By Kjersti A Skomsvold, translated by Kerri A Pierce Dalkey Archive Press, 147pp. £13.99

LIFE COULD HAVE gone better, concedes Mathea Martinsen. Unsurprisingly, she is not exactly optimistic about dying. Mathea, an elderly, self-marginalised widow, is aware that she has always resided on the outside of everything and that nothing really special ever happened to her. But, no: that’s wrong. There was one great event, although perhaps “great” is not quite the right word.

“It was a cloudless day. I was standing by myself in a corner of the school yard and trying to look busy counting rocks. You’re only fooling yourself if you think you can’t be lonely just because you’re busy, but the most important thing is that no one else thinks you’re lonely.”

While she was trying not to appear lonely, “dark clouds suddenly rushed in, the heavens opened up, and bolts of lightning struck me in the forehead twice”. Although she is now very old indeed, and notes that all of the obituaries she reads refer to people who are invariably younger than her, she remembers that one day on which she was special. “I heard sirens and opened my eyes and saw that the whole school had gathered around me . . . Two men in white jackets came into view, they put me on a stretcher and carefully lifted me into the ambulance, as if I was someone they cared about. Then we drove away, sirens blaring, and it was as beautiful as Beethoven’s Fifth.”

There are echoes of Beckett throughout Mathea’s jauntily mournful monologue. With its disarming humour and darts of savage perception, it could be read as a variation of Winnie’s story in Happy Days. She recalls lying in hospital and planning how she would, on her return to school, describe her adventure to her classmates, “who would surely flock around me when I came back”. She had her speech ready: “ ‘I’ve never experienced something so painful,’ I’d say. ‘The doctors said it’s a miracle I survived.’ ”

But it did not go as planned. Not only were her classmates no longer interested, but the teacher forgot to call her name, “like always”. This time Mathea, newly confident, raised her hand and announced that she had returned. Still, the fact that she had survived two bolts of lightning attracted the attention of a clever boy who prepared himself as if about to deliver a speech. “The chance of being struck by lightning twice on the same spot must be less than E, if E equals a microscopically small quantity.”

Despite the fact that Mathea moos in response to his observation, the pair team up and eventually marry. Neils, whom she calls Epsilon, seems to share her loneliness, because when she resumes counting stones in the school yard he can inform her, “If you count both big and small ones, there are three hundred and forty-five rocks here.”

For the reclusive Mathea, her husband remains alive even though it is obvious he has died.

This is a debut of alarming confidence, yet Kjersti A Skomsvold, winner of the 2009 Tarjei Vesaas prize for a first literary work, in Norway, never allows the intelligence to settle into the merely clever. She is also sufficiently confident to avoid the obvious. Her use of ambiguity is assured, at times inspired. It is very funny, desperately sad and very true.

Mathea is odd but far from stupid. She is also invisible and knows it. “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone remembered how pretty and smart and funny I was, maybe if I had children they would’ve inherited my talents, whatever those are, and my wisdom could’ve passed on to the next generation.”

Just when it appears that she is having her own little joke, she continues: “But nature only cares about preserving the species, it couldn’t care less about individuals, and the fact is that nature actually prefers for individuals to live as briefly as possible, so that new generations can take over faster and evolution can speed up.”

She has spent her life avoiding confrontation. When she recalls her dog Stein, a Beckettian sequence unfolds; she begins to sound like Malone. The dog, doomed to be the child she never had, is force-fed to fatness, and when he proves unwilling to swim for some watching children, Mathea pretends to throw his favourite treat into the river. The dog dives in and disappears.

Mathea refuses to make a fuss. Evasion is her preferred medium. She has taken to wearing her dead husband’s watch in the hope that someone might ask her to tell them the time.

Neils or Epsilon, a career statistician, is a quiet but important presence; it is the sense of his despair rather than that of the narrator that sustains this remarkable tale. If he had his temptations – and it seems he did – he forsook them in the name of honour.

Skomsvold’s delicate little book has a spine of steel. It has taken on a painful subject in loneliness, and, although it will make readers pause and think, it is no polemic. If Mathea appears to be debating the value of life, and deciding it is more endurance test than battle of wills, she never loses our sympathy. She inhabits the fantasy world that many choose as the best way of dealing with reality.

She takes to contacting the telephone exchange in order to have her number, and with it her existence, confirmed. It passes the time. Life is so dull she longs for another break-in, such as the one that occurred once while she and her husband were away on vacation, “out in the forest singing”. Yes, in common with Winnie, she shares a nice turn of phrase. “The robbery was nice. It was something to talk about. I myself talked about it for several years.”

After a life of passivity she sets out on a quest in which she gathers fragments of knowledge and eventually takes action.

This is a profound work, truthful, unsettling and oddly euphoric. Mathea, part Everywoman and Everyman, is wholly heroic. Her story, as well as Skomsvold’s offbeat, open-eyed vision, rings true, too true.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times