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Laila Stien: Vekselsang (Antiphony)

The Sami people (we used to call them the Lapps) live in the northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. This novel takes place among the Norwegian Sami.

Neither the narrator nor any of the other characters is named. The narrator had been working for a newspaper in Oslo when a colleague/friend said that she lacked initiative. She was so upset by this that she quit her job and went North to write a book about the Sami. The story is divided into three parts called respectively The Blue Room, The Yellow One and And Red one. If the colours are significant, I missed it. In each section she meets a woman, all three being of different generations, starting with the oldest. She talks to them and learns about their issues but her book makes little progress. Just as with the personal names, virtually no place names (apart from a mention of Oslo) are given.

In the first story, we start off with the funeral of a man who has been well respected in the community. His widow is not well and our narrator spends time with her in the hospital, hearing her story. By this time, the narrator, who had planned to stay for two months, has been there five months. After four weeks I knew everything, discerned everything. Then I began to understand less. Now I know nothing.

The widow seems to be dying. We do not know why, only that she is on pain-killers. I am assuming cancer. Her story shows that she and her husband had a generally a good life. He did well so they had, by Sami standards, a good standard of living. However, she only got pregnant when she was older. They had a daughter who was a joy to them, till tragedy struck. Now she is dying alone, with only a stranger – the narrator – to comfort her. Not only does she say the time for my passing is at hand but also comments this landscape is out of time. In short – and this is a key theme of this book – things are changing for the Sami people and their culture. Indeed, they are showing Pulp Fiction at the local cinema.

Our narrator’s next stop is with the niece of the dying woman. She, too, is alone. Her mother has recently died. Her sons have gone off to the South and she does not hear from them. Two of her daughters are still around but have their own lives, while the third rarely appears. She does have a husband and he is around but communication between husband and wife is minimal. He had been a hired hand when she fell for him, as did other women. He got two of them pregnant but married this one. He now drinks, while she sews. She is very good at sewing and teaches the narrator to sew and gets her to help.

Like her aunt, she bemoans the changes. There is another sort of weariness now. It goes right into the bone. She admits life has got easier with electricity, motorised snow ploughs keeping the roads open all year and, of course, TV but, as she says, life isn’t sugar . The community spirit is no longer what it was. The children move away. When the children are small they trample on your lap. When they get bigger, they trample on your heart .

In the third place she visits, she meets a younger woman. You do know we are the world’s most written about people, she says when she learns our narrator is writing a book about the Sami. Indeed, this woman, a niece of the previous one, is much more forthright in her views. When talking about our narrator’s book she comments You can just make copies of what’s been done. There’s a bunch about lice and filth, trash and whores and drinking and destruction. She is still at school and planning on going to university and when the narrator suggests she study Norwegian culture, she comments The essence of Norwegian culture: the first is snow shovelling, the second is eating potatoes, and the third is the perpetual complaining about the economy.

The two women, who are obviously closer in age than the narrator was with the two previous women, do get on, even if the young Sami woman very much speaks her mind: Just admit it-you don’t understand anything. So you’ve hid under the comforter.

Her brothers have also drifted away and they have little contact. She feels that she does not fit it. In that she is matched by the narrator. The narrator is here for Christmas and her family had offered to fly her back to Oslo for Christmas but she declined.

The key theme is the change to the Sami culture. It is clear the old ways are disappearing, the young people are moving South and new, outside influences are appearing, Pulp Fiction is very remote from Sami culture.

But there is also the issue of fitting in. The narrator has realised that she does not fit in at the newspaper where she worked but it also becomes apparent she does not fit in with her family. The final of the three women she talks to also says that she does not fit in and we also see many of the young people, particularly the men, moving away and rejecting their native culture.

Stien tells her story well and shows a considerable fondness for traditional Sami culture and sadness that it is being swallowed up by the modern, external world. It seems clear that young men will no longer become reindeer herders but will move out to find conventional jobs elsewhere in Norway,

Publishing history

First published in 1997 by Tiden Norsk Forlag
First published in English in 2006 by Nordic Studies Press
Translated by John Weinstock