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Jon Fosse: Det er Ales (Aliss at the Fire)

The book opens in March 2002. Signe is, as she often does, standing at the window looking out over the fjord. She was married to Ales but he disappeared in the fjord in November 1997. Since then nothing is the same any more, she is just there without being there. There is an emptiness. So she stands at the window in the house that had belonged to Ales’ family and in which they lived. They had no children. She is waiting for him to return, knowing full well that he will not.

When Ales was still alive both Signe and Ales seemed to spend much time standing at the window looking out at the fjord. The fjord seemed to hold some attraction for him, so much so that he would often go rowing in the small boat specially built for him, even when the weather was rough.

But then why do you row out in your boat, you do it almost all the time, Signe says
I guess I just do it, Asle says
You just do it, Signe says

On that Tuesday in late November 1979, it was the same. He was looking at the fjord. While it was made clear that there were no problems between them and that they remained close Asle just wanted to go out. He abhorred company and, at least in this book, they do not have company, either friends or family. Initially he goes out walking, something he does not usually do. While out walking he sees a fire and he sees a woman – he recognises her as Aliss, holding a young child, the two year old Kristoffer. Kristoffer was his great-grandfather and Aliss his great-great-grandmother, in her early twenties. We soon learn that, in the book, time is conflated. In other words events that take place many years apart seem to happen during the same time period. Aliss seems to be burning sheep heads while Kristoffer is learning to walk.

He returns home after the walk but remains impatient and decides to go out and see if his boat is securely tied up and, perhaps, despite the stormy weather, go for a short boat ride, which he does with the consequences we know of.

We will see this time conflation later when Signe goes down to the dock to look for Ales on that fateful day in November 1979. She sees someone coming up the hill in the gloom and thinks it is Ales but it is, in fact, the long-since dead Brita carrying the body of the drowned seven-year old Asle, after whom Signe’s husband was named and who is the son of the aforementioned Kristoffer. We get the full story of the accident.

Since Asle’s disappearance – his boat was found but his body was not – Signe seems to watch herself looking out of the window but also watch Asle looking out of the window. If she does anything else, we do not learn about it. All she can do is look and wait. She thinks, and where is he? and his boat? she can’t see anything, but where is he? and why doesn’t he come back? doesn’t he want to be with her? is that why? and to think that anyone would want to be out on the fjord in weather like this, and in this darkness, no she just doesn’t understand.

Not much happens in this book apart, obviously, from the deaths of the two Asles. However, as in his other novels, there is a continual sense of foreboding and of gloom. For most foreigners, I imagine that the Norwegian fjords are as seen in travel brochures: beautiful mountains in the sun overlooking the sea. However, having recently been on a ship travelling through the fjords in bad weather, they can, as in this book, seem ominous and threatening. Signe fears them for Asle’s sake while for Asle they represent a sort of escape from the house in which he has spent all his life and a place where he can be alone with just the elements.

Fosse takes it one step further by giving specific dates for key events but, at the same time, making it seem as though these events took place at the same time, so that both Asle and Signe witness events that took place well before they were born, though presumably had heard about.

Above all Fosse paints a superb picture of a very closed-off family. Virtually the only mention of characters other than Signe, Asle and his family are references to the man who built Asle’s boat and the two young men who burnt it after Asle’s disappearance, with Signe’s permission. From what we see it is almost as though there were no other people in their lives, though clearly there is a village, other houses and a dock. This isolation makes the relationship between Signe and Ales more intense, as we see verything through their eyes, though the book is in the third person, and it is this intensity of feeling coupled with the time conflation and the gloomy, threatening fjord, that makes it another first-class addition to Fosse’s oeuvre.

First published 2004 by De Norske samlaget
First published in English in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Damion Searls