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Hanne Ørstavik: Presten (The Pastor)

Our heroine/narrator is Liv, the eponymous pastor. She had been a pastor in the south of Germany, where she had been friendly with Kristiane who was a student of theology and a puppeteer. Kristiane had shot herself. They had only known one another a relatively short time. After Kristiane’s death, Liv decided to return to Norway, taking up a post in the far north of Norway, as assistant to the parish priest. She had found the job on the Internet only a week after Kristiane’s death and got the job as no-one else seemed to want it.

It does not start well. At her first service, she gives a sermon. She had been advised not to exceed twenty minutes and ideally, keep it under fifteen minutes. She rambles on for an hour about the prodigal son. People start walking out.

Part of the time she thinks back to her friend Kristiane in Germany. Kristiane seemed so full of self-confidence, as if there were some connection inside her that made the words she uttered indistinguishable from the meaning with which they were invested. Liv calls it weightlessness. As Liv says, Kristiane seemed in control of her life but she subsequently realised that it was just a strategy for survival. Indeed, Liv feels that she may have helped dragged Kristiane down.

Liv herself clearly lacks self-confidence. Indeed, she feels that her life is out of her control. Everything escaped me. Every time I held out my hands, something escaped me. Once Kristiane died a void had opened up into which I’d plunged, falling, plummeting, with nothing there that could stop me. It felt like I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t gulp in the air.

One key aspect of her life are the Sami people. There is a current dispute between the local Norwegians and the Sami, involving land and water rights. The Norwegians feel that the Sami are favoured over them and want this to change.

Liv’s doctoral thesis was on the Sami rebellion of 1852. It took place in this area. Indeed, she will visit the site of the rebellion when she attends a seminar there, the first time she had visited the place. We get the full story of the rebellion and to a great extent it concerns Christianity, the Sami having a more fervent brand of Christianity. What interests Liv is that the reports of the rebellion are written only by the winners, i.e. the Norwegians, especially the local pastor and the bishop. The Sami’s view is never given and she has tried to tease it out of the Norwegian accounts, finding out not so much what the accounts said but what they did not say.

Inevitably this leads to the issue of language and the fact that the Norwegians controlled the power as they controlled the language, including the language of the Bible. Once the Bible started to be translated into Sami, including religious concepts shared with the Norwegians, concepts such as sin and guilt, awakening, forgiveness, the Sami suddenly found admission into a common linguistic sphere.

Much of the novel is how Liv does not seem able to fit in. Initially, she had decided to study social economics but then switched to theology. I hadn’t even considered theology, it hadn’t been an option. Why did she switch? It is not clear. What is clear is that she is not a very good pastor. A nineteen-year old woman hangs herself. Liv tries to comfort the parents but is totally at a loss what to say. The husband of Nanna, the church attendant, dies in an accident. She cannot live in the house where she lived with him so Liv, who essentially lives in a two-apartment building, offers Nanna and her daughters (one from a previous relationship)one of the apartments. Maja, the eldest daughter, more than once seems to want to confide in Liv but Liv fails to spot the signals. She does manage to speak to Maja eventually but it may not be enough.

Of course there is one person whom she did connect with and that was Kristiane. She thought they were close friends, acting as a support to one another: there was a space that was ours, a place where we could be together, a bottom on which to stand, that would support us and then suddenly there wasn’t. Kristiane’s suicide, of course, clearly had a traumatic effect on her but it does seem that even before Kristiane she had few if any friends.

She does seem to make friends with a man she meets at a concert, a geologist, but she lies to him, telling him that she is a nurse and that does not go well even though both seem to want something to happen.

So she is left with her thesis on the Sami rebellion. It is about language and Christianity. But there was something else. Something about the rebellion itself, the wild and ungovernable element, the part of them inside that knew something true existed. Is this what she is looking for? And, if so, where can she find it?
And all the time she is struggling to cope. Why was everything so loose and disconnected? The ground on which I stood, that I believed in, had become displaced, its plates were shifting, and I fell through the gap in between.

And it is not only Liv. Virtually all the women characters in this book struggle: Liv, Kristiane, Hanna, Maja, the young women who hanged herself and her mother.

This is a sad book. Liv does not come across as a warm and caring person as a pastor perhaps should be, but you cannot help feel sorry for her and for the other women as life seems just to be too hard for them.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2021 by Archipelago Books
Translated by Martin Aitken