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Knut Faldbakken: Aftenlandet (Twilight Country)
This book was published in 1974, but could have been written today (2022). It is set in the fictitious town of Sweetwater, located in an unspecified modern, industrial country. Given that the urban area has a population of six-eight million, we must assume that it is not Norway. The name Sweetwater is used in the original Norwegian so we can perhaps assume an English-speaking country was intended.
Things are not going well. The city had expanded, the economy stagnated and all public services had been curtailed. Crime, unemployment and supply chain issues are on the rise. Nevertheless, some people – the rich, of course – seem to be managing and the motorway remains busy.
Allan Ung comes from a working class background but became an architect. He hated the job. He had wasted four years of his life designing refrigeration units for large warehouses, multi-storey car parks and ventilation systems for commercial premises.None of them ever got further than the drawing board. He quit and followed his dream, to work at a petrol station. The petrol station had been doing well but then they built the motorway and traffic was diverted from it. Now it is doing less well.
One day, in a café, he met a girl. They started talking. She was looking for a place to stay and he offered her a place in his small flat. One thing led to another… Only later do he and we find out that she was thirteen. She is now eighteen and the couple have a four year old son, called Boy. Their flat is horrible. There is no garden, it is small and unhealthy. By chance, following an accident, Allan is asked to dispose of an old camper van. He decides that they could live in it in the Dump. The Dump was an area that was to be developed for expansion of the Sweetwater port but the idea was abandoned and it is now a dump, both official and unofficial. The van is towed there, they pack up and move to the Dump.
Allan will continue working weekends at the petrol station so they have some money but they will try to survive by scavenging. Initially, all three, but Boy in particular, find it liberating. Restaurants and supermarkets dump food much of which is still edible. Lisa finds new boots and they find other useful materials. We follow their problems in getting adequate water but they manage.
They gradually realise they are not alone. Slowly but surely, they meet their neighbours, including a doctor, Anton Fischer, who had been disbarred for providing abortions for homeless young women, and his not very happy wife, Marta, two illegal immigrants and others, including the corpse of a police officer.
In many dystopian novels, there is a major event that sets things off: a pandemic, a war, a natural disaster, an alien invasion. Nothing like that happens here. It is all very gradual. The population of the Dump barely increases during the course of the book. We do get issues which were important then but are more important now. Climate change occurs, with intense heat and a drought, followed by torrential rain. The population is increasing rapidly, as are crime, the black market, the loss of control by the authorities, the police taking the law into their own hands, illegal distilling, prostitution, theft, receiving stolen property, abuse of the many different social services and resistance to antibiotics.
All this occurs more or less in the background, as we follow the story of the Dump and its inhabitants. Boy gets wilder and will not or cannot learn to read. Mary Diamond, a prostitute, and Smiley, her pimp, arrive. The men manage to adapt the women less so. Allan realises that the veneer of civilisation he had is gradually slipping away, as he is no longer averse to both criminal and immoral acts. He felt decay to be a process threatening him physically and mentally. He could feel the dissolution of society threatening the very nerve of his life. However, he seems to cope and almost enjoy trying to cope. Lisa, Marta and Mary, however, are not faring well.
We learn little of the outside world. The traffic continues on the motorway. Lay-bys become black market stalls. The petrol station has to close. However, beyond Sweetwater, we have no idea if the same thing is happening.
As far as dystopian novels go, this is very low key. Yes, there is some violence but not a great deal and very small-scale. Yes, there is climate change as well as other environmental degradation. Yes, the system is slowly but surely falling apart but what we we see here is surely no worse than what is happening today in some parts of the world. Of course, this is an industrial country, where it has not happened yet, and Faldbakken is showing that it is likely to be gradual rather than dramatic. To quote T S Eliot This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.
First published in 1974 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 1993 by Peter Owen
Translated by Joan Tate