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Lars Mytting: Svøm med dem som drukner (The Sixteen Trees of the Somme)

Edvard Hirifjell, our hero/narrator, is a farmer, specifically a potato farmer, in rural Norway. He has been brought up by his grandfather, Sverre Hirifjell. His parents died when he was three and his grandmother, Alma, when he was twelve. Edvard did not do well at school but he was not concerned, as he was always going to take over the farm from his grandfather.

There are two mysteries in his life: the death of his parents and the death of his great-uncle, Einar, Sverre’s brother. As a child he knew his parents had died in France (his mother was French) in 1971, when he was three years old. Einar was apparently shot by the French Resistance in 1944. His grandfather promised to tell him later what really happened. However, as a boy, he visits a neighbouring farm. No-one is at home, so he looks around. He sees that they have bound volumes of newspaper clippings. Not surprisingly, he looks at the year 1971, the year his parents died, and finds a report of their death. The couple were visiting the war graves at Authuille, in France and were apparently poisoned by gas released from a shell. Their three year old son (Edvard) had disappeared and was later found 120 kilometres away. All this is news to him.

His grandfather, however, has a past. During the war, he fought for the Nazis on the Eastern front, while his brother, Einar, fought for the Norwegian resistance. He has been somewhat shunned because of this and his son, Walter, Edvard’s father, was very bitter about it, not least because he was continually bullied at school because of it. Sverre is still occasionally reproached for it. Indeed, when grandfather and grandson drive into the local town to do some shopping, they return to find a swastika painted on their car. Edvard soon catches the culprit – a local boy who has mental health issues – but Sverre is very upset about it and they immediately go home. Edvard prepares the meal as usual and then goes to bed, leaving his grandfather snoozing. When he comes down the next morning, the meal is still on the table and his grandfather still on the sofa. However, this time Sverre has died.

It is the local priest who fills him in on other details about his parents and Einar. His mother seemingly had no family in France. The priest assumed they had been killed in the war. Einar had been a successful cabinet maker. He went to France and had a successful career but then returned to the farm. Though Sverre had been running it, it belonged equally to both of them. However, Einar continued his cabinet work. Things were not always smooth between the two brothers. When the war came Sverre joined the German army, while Einar joined the Resistance, going first to the Shetlands and then to France. He was apparently shot in 1944, by his own side.

The priest, however, is aware of two further mysteries. After Sverre’s death, Edvard learns that there is a coffin already made for Sverre. It was made by Einar and delivered in 1979, thirty-five years after Einar’s death. Einar apparently died in Authuille, the same place as Edvard’s parents died.

The rest of the book tells of Edvard’s attempt to resolve these various mysteries. He actually finds more confusing clues, both in Sverre’s papers and with more information from the priest. His ex-girlfriend, Hanne, turns up shortly after Sverre’s death, indicating that she is ready to resume their relationship. Edvard is keen but, to her disgust, he wants to find out about his past. Her view is that the dead should bury the dead. His view is I would be someone that the dead could rely on. He has never travelled in his life before, never even been to Oslo, as Hanne is quick to remind him but, nevertheless he is off.

His travels take him first to the Shetlands, where he is pleasantly surprised to find a still strong Norwegian influence and where his knowledge of the lyrics of Shane McGowan and Joe Strummer help with his English. He has lived on a remote farm all his life but now not only does he go to a remote part of the world but a remote part of that world. Inevitably, what he finds makes things even more complicated, including, perhaps also inevitably, his love life. The key to the whole story is the eponymous Sixteen Trees of the Somme, so, of course, we are off to France and the World War I battlefields, where matters are more or less resolved.

Above all, Mytting tells a very good story. Both we and Edvard are all too often one step behind with events and, with a one-armed timber merchant, strange coffins and strange boats, a key World War I battlefield, potato blossom, a not very good economics student, a hairdresser in the Shetlands with an art deco hair salon and a very valuable shotgun things do at times get complicated. Interestingly, all the key characters seem to generally like solitude, not just Edvard and his grandfather, but also several of the other characters, and not surprisingly they tend to struggle with love when it comes to them. The Norwegian title means Swim With Those Who Drown which is certainly an interesting take on what this book is about.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 2017 by Maclehose Press
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett