Johan Harstad: Buzz Aldrin, hvor ble det av deg i alt mylderet? (‘Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?)
Our hero is the twenty-nine year old gardener, Matthias. His hero, as the title tells us, is Buzz Aldrin. However old (or young) you are, you will recall Neil Armstrong’s famous line That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind when, on 20 July 1969, he became the first human to walk on the moon. Unless you are really into space exploration, you are unlikely to be familiar with the line Magnificent. Magnificent desolation, uttered by the second human to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. But Matthias knows them.
Matthias has selected Buzz Aldrin as his hero just because he was not the first man to walk on the Moon, but the second. Matthias’ view of life or, more particularly, of his life, is that he wants to be second, not first. Some people don’t want to be on TV, or the radio, or in the newspapers. Some people want to watch movies, not perform in them. Some people want to be in the audience. Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
Matthias is very happy in his job and very happy with life. But what did I want? This was what I wanted To be: a smooth running cog in the world. To do the right thing Nothing more. He was, as he says, the kid you see in your old school photo and whose name you cannot remember even if you ever knew it.
He has two friends – Jørn and Jørn ‘s friend Roar. Jørn is a Neil Armstrong man. Neil Armstrong was, as several people point out to Matthias in the book, the first. Jørn wants to be out front like Armstrong. Roar just wants to get the girls.
Matthias gets another friend. He sees Helle – who joins their class a year later – and is attracted to her but, of course, too shy to approach her. However, the class has a fancy dress ball and Mathias of course, goes as Buzz Aldrin. He wants to change at school but has to sneak in the back way and manages to get into the girls’ changing room, where he changes. And then Helle arrives. They talk. At the ball there is a band but the singer storms off for some reason and they call for a volunteer from the audience. For the first (and last) time in his life Matthias volunteers. he gives a great performance and, briefly and to his horror, he becomes a star among his class mates. Helle is also impressed and gradually they become a couple.
Moving forward to the present day, i.e. when he is twenty-nine, they are still together – just. They moved in together. He is a gardener and she, though she studied law, is in advertising. However, recently, they hardly ever see each other. She is out or busy and she is still asleep when he leaves in the morning. More particularly, when he proposes, she tells him to try again later, which he does, with the same result.
Jørn and Roar are off to the Faroe Islands with the band for a concert and they want him along. Jørn would prefer him to be the singer but he still refuses so he is to go as the sound man, at which he is very good. Helle may even come along.
Everything seems fine. He is with Helle. He has a job he enjoys. He is going with his friends to a music festival. But then it falls apart. Suddenly he is in a halfway house for those with mental problems in the back end of the Faroe Islands.
Much of the book is about his time there, in a place called the Factory because it used to be a factory. It is run by a man called Havstein and funded by the Danish government (the Faroe Islands are Danish). The others – there are initially only three others till they are joined by an American called Carl they fish out of the sea – all have issues like Matthias. They all work – Matthias eventually gets a job as a gardener. It is not straightforward. They have their ups and downs and their various issues;
The Factory is located in Gjógv, a small village in the North, with a population of forty-six and it is very remote. People leave, not least because employment opportunities are limited. Matthias and, indeed, the others, try to put themselves back together. We learn of the problems of the others as well as Matthias’ issues.
Life is never smooth. Only later in the book do we learn that, despite his successful career, Buzz Aldrin had a host of problems in his life. A lot had gone wrong for Buzz Aldrin too. Things had gone downhill quickly and in the end his was a steeper decline than anyone could have dreamed. Is he the right role model for Matthias?
Harstad delves deep into the soul of Matthias and, to a certain degree, the souls of the other characters who have their problems. Part of Matthias’ problems are that he does not really know himself and tries to hide away in his own little world, thinking that he will remain protected there. That works when things go well but when they do not, he has no resources to fall back on. Part of his problem is that he does not realise some people do care for him and therefore finds it hard to reciprocate and reach out when he needs to reach out.
Can he be healed? Can the other characters, who suffer similar problems be healed? The answers, says Harstad, are simple. Firstly, you need friends to help you make it through the night and, secondly, you need to try and create harmony. And who can argue with that?
First published in 2005 byGyldendal
First published in English in 2011 by Seven Stories Press
Translated by Deborah Dawkin