Sigurd Hoel: Møte ved Milepelen (Meeting at the Milestone)
Just as, some twenty-two years after this book was published, the film The Sorrow and the Pity had a huge impact in France, reawakening all the issues of French collaboration with the Nazis during the war, so this book, published soon after the war, had a considerable impact in Norway, not least because trials for treason during the war were still ongoing. It was soon published in several languages, including English. While it is still available in English, it is out of print and not as well known as it should be. It made quite an impact on me when I first read it some twenty years ago and still does when rereading it.
As usual our hero is not named, except, later in the book, when he refers to himself as N.N. He has a house in Oslo. He bought it in 1939, when he was forty. He lived there with his family and two maids. There was a separate, well-built house in the garden that had been for servants but, in this case, the maids slept in the house and he – a scientist – converted it into a laboratory. However, things went wrong. He lost his job, spent some time in prison and his wife and child died. He now lives there alone.
When the Nazis occupied Norway, they took over properties behind him and he can hear their noises. He thinks it may be people being tortured but then realises the noise is caused by the the spirit of Hitlerism. The Nazis looked at his house but were not interested. However, his friend Andreas is very much interested in using it as a safe house for the Resistance. The Resistance do it up, making an easy exit from the laboratory and linking up a warning system between the house and laboratory and installing a false floor. People come and go, often staying temporarily there before escaping to Sweden.
One day a man, Indregaard, is brought to the house. It is clear that he is disturbed. He is not so much in danger from the Nazis but from having a breakdown. He tells our hero that he had trained as a scientist but had become an insurance broker. This enables him to travel round the country, where he has the job of basically finding out what is going on in the different regions. People come and talk to him and he soon learns that a lot of people are collaborating, at least to a certain degree, to protect themselves. He has to reveal their names to the Resistance but does feel guilty about it.
However, our focus is on one man, Hans Berg. Both Indregaard and our narrator know the man. Our narrator had known him at school and, though Berg, was a year older, they had become close, even though our narrator had his doubts about him. Indregaard had known him later in life. Both had been teachers at a school in Oslo. One day, Indregaard had seen Berg holding hands with a pupil of theirs, a girl of around fifteen. He is shocked. He sees them again. He decides to confront both parties separately, which he does. Both agree to discontinue. However, the girl is distressed and her mother worms the truth out of her and her father reports it to the school. Berg is told he can leave without repercussion provided he does not teach again in Oslo. He moves to a small village.
In his travels during the war Indregaard comes to a village where Berg is teaching. They meet by chance. Berg blames Indregaard for his situation, feeling, incorrectly, that Indregaard reported him to the headmaster. More importantly. Berg is unhappy in his situation, unhappily married (not to the same girl) and a member of the Nazi party. Indregaard goes off to Sweden. Our narrator decides, after the war, to write about Norwegians who became Nazis and why they did. He tells us that he did not find any easy answers so stopped searching for them but he did find something quite different. The rest of the book is about what he finds.
He starts with Berg and we follow Berg’s story, at least what the narrator knows. There is one key event in his life which may be a factor. One day, a Sunday, he trips and swears. His father, a strict Christian, brutally beats him. The father then goes off to church with his wife and then returns and tells his son to apologise to Jesus. He refuses. His father again beats him. When the boy’s mother complains, she is locked up and the beating continues. The boy is badly injured and takes time to recover. He still bears the scars as an adult. We follow Berg’s story including his unhappy marriage and exile to the provinces where he is thoroughly miserable. I know that he hated himself with a dangerous hatred.
He starts off wondering why eight of his acquaintances (including Berg) out of about a hundred, turned out to be traitors while, he estimates, the percentage for the Norwegian population as a whole is around one. He examines the stories of the ones he knows to see if there is a common thread that drove them to treachery. Nearly all are from country districts, nearly all of them are poor and nearly all are lonely but this applies to virtually all of his acquaintances, including himself. Not only does he not find a common thread with the others, he concludes that it is quite possible that what motivated them is something he is completely unaware of.
He then tells his own story. He came from a poor family. His parents had eight children, six of whom survived and the father is working so hard to support them that he has no time to be a father. As an adult, the narrator feels alienated from his father and has nothing to say to him. Indeed, the only long conversation he remembers having with his father was the obligatory sex talk before he went off to Oslo. We follow our narrator’s messy romantic life, which will prove to have importance later on.
The final and key bit takes us back a bit. In this small town that Indregaard visited and where Berg lives, it seems that the Germans are able to spy on the Resistance group but no-one known how or why. There are four men running it. They are long-standing friends and have complete faith in one another. They have taken all appropriate steps to see that they are not followed and not spied on and yet the Germans and their supporters always seem to be one step ahead of them. Our hero is sent to investigate. Inevitably, it gets complicated, messy and involves people he knew in the past.
As I said above, I thought this was a very fine book when I read it many years ago and still do. It examines the issue of collaboration, if not dispassionately, at least very intelligently, without coming up with any black-and-white answers. In other words, as so often in life, the answer is complicated and there is not one simple answer.
The narrator concludes I have not succeeded nor had I ever any hope of success. I did not find the pattern in my own life, much less in the destiny of that group of human beings whose lives I have tried to depict as they were lived for a short time during a few years. Life is not always simple.
First published 1947 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 1951 by Secker & Warburg
Translated by Evelyn Ramsden (Secker & Warburg); Sverre Lyngstad (Green Integer)