Vigdis Hjorth: Leve posthornet! (Long Live the Post-Horn)
Our narrator is a thirty-five year old Norwegian woman, called Ellinor. She and her two colleagues – Dag and Rolf – own a PR firm called Kraft-Kom. Their slogan is Selling the Power of Thought. They had met while working for a newspaper.
When we first meet her, she is looking through her old 2000 diary which she has found by chance. It seemed she lived a fairly boring life – The names were interchangeable, as were the dates, there was no sense of progression, no coherence, no joy, only frustration; shopping, sunbathing, gossiping, eating. Her life does not seem to have improved much, though she is about to experience some changes.
First her sister seems to be pregnant but will later have a miscarriage. Her mother is about to be seventy. She has a fairly mundane relationship with Stein. The couple seem distant, somewhat like a married couple that take one another for granted. However, he does finally introduce her to his young son, from his previous relationship. All three find the meeting awkward.
More particularly, she and Rolf come to work one day, to find that Dag has suddenly left the company without warning. He left only a note for Rolf, referring to Ellinor as a spineless bitch. He is apparently off sailing. Rolf puts it down to his recent divorce. Dag will later write to Ellinor apologising for the comment. By the time she receives the letter, he is dead, his body found floating in a French harbour.
Dag was working on a contract for the Post Office union, It seems an EU directive will subject the Norwegian Postal Service to private sector competition. Not surprisingly, the union is not happy about this and have asked Kraft-Kom to help them develop a campaign to oppose it.
Ellinor is working on two other projects so, initially, she leaves the Post Office to Rolf. She struggles with the two projects, even though they are not inherently difficult. One of them is called The Real Thing, a US restaurant chain, and she tries to work out in her mind what is meant by real, in this case. She gets into a long discussion with herself about what is real and authentic. Does it mean old and traditional? Surely a shopping centre could be just as real and authentic as an old church?. Is it simply the opposite of fake? She moves on to people Was the man behind The Real Thing himself the real thing, I wondered? I googled him; he looked like every other capitalist.
All of this is part of Ellinor’s problem, namely she is slipping into what she describes as Sylvia Plath territory. This does not mean suicide but it does mean a detachment from the world, an inability to function properly, a sense that things are not working out well. It manifests itself in little ways, such as not being able to find her keys or a phone and then they turn up in what to her seem strange places. It is an inability to write her texts. Every time she reads the text, she finds numerous spelling mistakes. She corrects them and then finds a whole lot more. Moreover, when she read what she has written, it does not make sense.
All of this is exacerbated by Dag’s disappearance and then death and by her sister’s miscarriage. She is not helped by the fact that Stein seems to be going through something similar. They carry on a relationship and even go off skiing together but there is clearly no spark. When Stein tries to liven things up by buying her an electric dildo, it does nothing for her and is a huge embarrassment to both of them. I feel as if my life is too banal for my despair. That our relationship is too trivial and not passionate enough for our despair, she writes to him.
But there is a way out and, surprisingly, it is through the Norwegian Postal Service. She gets more and more involved in the postal service, not least because Rolf has health problems which limits his participation. Firstly, the key issue is to save jobs. Where this EU directive has been introduced in EU countries, specifically Germany and the Netherlands, postal workers have been paid less and have struggled to survive. As an EFTA country with formal links to the EU, the Norway is obliged to follow certain EU directives if they wish to keep up formal trade relations with the EU. However, these directives can be and, in this case, are opposed. Ellinor becomes very much involved in the project and it gives her new purpose.
More particularly, she sees how important the postal service is. We follow the story of a woman apparently living on a remote Norwegian offshore island. A former postman, now a union representative, tells the story of a letter that arrived addressed to her, with no address, only the name of the island. He knew everyone on the island but, as far as he was aware, there was no-one of that name. He does track her down and the whole importance of a proper postal service where the postal workers can track down the intended recipients of incorrectly addressed letters, particularly in a country like Norway, with very remote parts, is stressed. It is not just dead letters. In this day of emails, letters are still important. Both Ellinor and Stein send letters to themselves (all is explained). Clearly, an efficient, viable postal service is important.
Hjorth tells a superb story about a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and what this means for her and why it is happening. More particularly, the unexpected way out through the postal service is both a clever idea, merging the ideas of communication, particularly, in the case of Norway, communicating involving remote places, as well as giving Ellinor a cause to fight for which, unlike her other jobs, has some real meaning for her, especially when she meets those involved. And, of course, the book ends with her receiving an unexpected letter.
First published in 2012 by Cappelen Damm
First published in English in 2020 by Verso
Translated by Charlotte Barslund