Jens Bjørneboe: Frihetens øyeblikk (Moment of Freedom)
If you are the sort of reader who considers Kafka to be too light-hearted and easy-going, this may be the book for you. In recent months I have tended to use the word grim in a lot of reviews and this book certainly qualifies for that epithet. It is the first in a trilogy called The History of Bestiality which may give you more of an idea of what is going on.
We have an unnamed narrator but not only do we not know his name, it appears that he does not know it or, rather, has forgotten it. He may be called Christophoros or may be called Ivan but he is not sure. He is currently known only by a nickname which he knows but we never learn. I shall therefore call him Ivan. He is only forty-six and seems to be mentally competent.
We know that he was born in 1920. His father had had financial troubles and only managed to pay off his debts shortly before he died in 1920. The father was in some ways strict but when Ivan is arrested for importuning a minor and, later, for drunkenness, the father does not seem to care. Interestingly, Ivan has several siblings but, though we learn there are several, we never meet them individually. More particularly, his mother is never mentioned. As we see, Ivan was not well-behaved and more than once was thrown out of school. By the time of writing this book, he seems to have acquired a host of physical injuries.
The father loathed the Teutons with an almost pathological, inborn repugnance.
(though more for their greed than their atrocities) so it was perhaps a good thing he died in 1940, before the Nazi invasion of Norway. The Nazi invasion confirmed the greed of the Germans for Ivan – in a few hours they ate up all the cake, all the butter, all the chocolate, and all the pork in the city. Pork was their greatest joy on earth.
It seems that Ivan dislikes the Germans (but not just them – he says, of the Germans, You can hardly find any other people, with the possible exception of the Americans, who admire wealth and money so violently.) As we shall see he has ambiguous feelings towards them. After the Nazi invasion, he flees to Sweden.
He lives in Stockholm with other similar exiles. They are joined by an Estonian, Otto. They all suspect him of being SS. When Ivan challenges him, he readily admits it. All decent and patriotic men did it. The Germans saved us and freed us, and it would be a terrible shame if we did not help them against the Bolsheviks in return. And they were our only friends. We soon learn of he horrors committed by the Russian and the Germans. We are not spared the details.
He drifts around, going to the US and spending some time in a remote non-touristy Italian town, called Praiano. By now he is an artist and he travels round Italy, telling us such useful pieces of information that Leonardo, Castagno and del Sarto all painted executions, as did Jacques Callot, another painter he admires. He also lived in the Roman catacombs for a while.
He cannot recall what led him to Heiligenberg, which he calls an Alpine German principality, even though it is clearly part of the post-war Federal Republic of Germany. However, it does seem to have some sort of independent status. He still is critical of them , of course. When they read, it isn’t the Kabbala or the Vedas or the Psalms they study. They read their bankbooks. Or if need be their laws — to find out what they can allow themselves to do to their neighbours. He goes on They cheat me on everything…They’ve been known to kill people by choice and painful methods, just to amuse themselves and pass the time. But their own courts acquit them.
And what is he doing there? Not, it would seem, painting but two other things. He calls himself a Servant of Justice but points out that he is no lawyer, merely the servant – taking care of the judge’s robes, sweeping up, carrying messages and doing other menial tasks. He is also (secretly) writing A History of Bestiality.
He does, of course, follow the court cases. El momento de la verdad is the most important turning point in all court cases—the moment which unmasks the true character of the fight: that it’s ultimately a struggle of life and death. It also shows the true face of the court: in the course of the trial’s phases the truth becomes clear step by step. El momento de la verdad , as he explains, comes from bullfighting and he compares bullfighting with court cases: The bullfighter and the judge, the arena and the courtroom— this temple to the necessary injustice in the world!
However, what is clear that, while on the surface he people here are ordinary decent bourgeois people, they really are not. There is the kind-hearted butcher who hacks his wife, daughter and shop assistant to death. He was sentenced to manslaughter and is now back in his shop and remarried. Indeed, there seem to be mass murders galore in this sleepy little town.
And not just murders. During one trial an unfortunate man received a sentence way beyond what he should have done, merely because the judge was not paying attention. Only our hero knew why. The judge was engrossed in reading something during the trial. Ivan breaks into the locker and finds what he judge was reading. Even he is shocked and horrified at what this reveals about the people of the town.
Perhaps it is not hard to understand why he is so cynical. It’s evil, criminal, stupid and harmful to speak the truth, he maintains, as he writes his History of Bestiality, from which we get some gruesome details. He discusses the death of children, suicides, Russia, Germany and the Belgian Congo and the horrors associated with those countries. He even cynically calculates the value of soldiers by age, rank, nationality not as a fighting force but as compost, i.e. how much their bodies enhanced the soil in which they were buried. I write a little almost every day, but it doesn’t help much, because I carefully avoid writing a single word which has anything to do with the truth.
Bjørneboe, as we know, suffered from depression. He later killed himself. It is therefore not entirely surprising that he should write such a grim and cynical book, showing the total depravity of man. There is little redeeming here. Even those who seem, on the face of it, to be fairly decent, turn out not to be. From my life I can hardly remember anything but murder, war, concentration camps, torture, slavery, executions, bombed-out cities, and the half-burned bodies of children he tells us and that is what we get.
First published in 1966 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 1975 by W W Norton
Translated by Esther Greenleaf