Ingvar Ambjørnsen: Brødre i blodet (UK: Beyond the Great Indoors; US: Elling)
Our narrator is Elling, a thirty-five year Norwegian man who seems to be on the autistic spectrum. He is intelligent but afraid of social interaction, often sees things in black and white and likes a certain order in his life. He has spent his entire life living first with his mother and then in the Brøynes Rehabilitation Centre. Now, for the first time, he is trying to live a reasonably normal life, sharing a flat with Kjell Bjarne, provided by the Oslo City Council. Kjell is simple-minded, likes sex and food and does not believe in changing his underwear. He has clearly had issues with his parents, whom he hates, Despite the differences, the two men get on well and, though there is a spare room, they even sleep in the same bedroom (but not the same bed).
There are now six books in the Elling series (this is the only one available in English) so there are obviously certain details that we do now know. (Some of the other books deal with the period before the events in this book.) However, it seems that neither man has ever held a job, never had a girlfriend and possibly never had a friend, apart from one another.
Living together is complicated, though they are under the supervision of Frank, a social worker. First is the money. They are given a certain sum of money, with which they have to manage their household. The first month they blow most of their budget on phone sex, with Kjell being particularly enthusiastic. When Elling sees the phone bill, he remarks that was when it first dawned on me how disgusting and degrading it was to women.
Kjell does the cooking while Elling manages the money. Initially Elling wanted orange walls and had bought orange paint but Frank vetoes it and made them replace it with white paint.
Gradually they settle into a routine. Frank wants them to go out, make friends but they are reluctant. We were more the anxious type. Loud, noisy places frightened us. We felt safest at home. Was there anything wrong with that? Elling is frightened even of using the phone. He can only speak to someone he can see and, in his younger days, his mother was the only one to use the phone.
However, they make a first foray when they are given permission to get a cat. They go to a woman’s house and get two small male kittens and even have coffee and cake with the owner. Frank is glad about this because it means they are going to have take responsibility for something other than themselves, something they have been unable to do up to now.
While this can be seen as a sad but perhaps brave tale of two men with mental health issues – and to a certain degree the book is like that – Ambjørnsen’s skill is in making it a very funny one. He mildly (but only mildly) mocks the two men and their behaviour. An example can be seen above with Elling’s comments on phone sex. Because his portrayal of them is sympathetic, the mockery does not come across as cruel, even if some of the things they do or say, those of us who consider ourselves more or less normal might find funny.
Not only do we find several of their actions and comments amusing, we also see the world through Elling’s eyes. Yes, at times he is frightened of the world. Oslo, like any other city, has a certain degree of crime and violence and Elling is worried about it But he can also see through modern-day pretentiousness. For example he has vague dreams of becoming a poet so he goes to a poetry reading. Cecilie Kornes is reading poems about her twisted intestinal obstructions while Haakon Willum is reading poems about graphic gay sex. The audience is in raptures, except for one person. Elling cannot understand why anyone sees any worth whatsoever in these poems.We have other examples of where Elling disagrees with the majority view but this does not, of course mean he is wrong.
However, above all, he does not fit in. He cites Edvard Munch’s painting Evening on Karl Johan Street. If you look at the painting in the link, you will see a solitary man walking away from the approaching crowd. That, he says, is him. He comments on this issue frequently. Sometimes I could quite simply doubt my own existence or to be more precise I felt that I was disappearing. I was dissolving. Kjell is more at ease with the outside world. We had always agreed that the world was menacing; that was why we stuck together but Kjell finds it less menacing. It is Kjell who pursues the purchase of the cats and Kjell who persuades Elling to go out for a meal.
Many books about people with mental health issues are about how they slowly sink down into the abyss. This book is just the opposite. Gradually, sometimes very gradually, Elling and Kjell are trying and often succeeding to join the human race and become reasonably normal people. They are helped by the pregnant lady who lives upstairs from them, by Frank and by a poet Elling meets, but they are also helped by themselves as, despite their views and condition, they make an effort to reconnect with life.
I have to say that that I found this a very enjoyable book, well-written, sympathetic to the plight of our two heroes, and often very funny. It is a pity that the other Elling books, which have been very successful in Norway, have not been translated into English.
First published in 1996 by Tiden Norsk Forlag
First published in English in 2005 by Black Swan (UK), MacAdam/Cage (US)
Translated by Don Bartlett and Kari Dickson