Friday 18 April 2014

Two sides to every story (also not an A to Z post)

Julie took me out for lunch and bought me a couple of books at the Oxfam bookshop for my birthday and 'Sweetness' by Torgny Lindgren was one of them.  I took it to work yesterday as I was doing an afternoon shift just dealing with returned packets, supervising the collections and locking up, so there was a bit of 'down' time. It is a brief 138 pages so I woke up this morning and finished it. It was an interesting contrast to 'The Luminaries' with its vast cast and complex interactions; 'Sweetness' has just Hadar and Olof, brothers, and an unnamed woman visitor. Hadar is dying of cancer, Olof is dying from heart disease, and each is determined to outlive the other. Their animosity seems to be rooted deep in their childhood and it has been the thing that sustained them through the years of their lives. 

When she finds herself briefly trapped by a snowfall the woman becomes a go between, caring for both brothers and gradually learning their story. On the first morning when she sees the smoke from Olof's cottage Hadar announces:

" 'My brother. Olof. If it weren't for him, I'd have been dead long ago.'
She glanced round at him quickly. What did he look like when he actually uttered a few words that on the face of it were full of warmth.
'I'm not going to make the bastard happy by dying before him,' he went on. 'That's what keeps me alive, and I'll never let him get the upper hand.'
There was quite a lot of smoke pouring out of the chimney down there, black smoke rising defiantly against the blinding snow." (p.15)

and this sets the tone for the entire book. They are the proverbial chalk and cheese; Hadar wasting away with his cancer and Olof grown grossly huge after a lifetime of consuming only sugar. They both look out of their windows at the other's cottage and wait for the smoke to cease. 

The whole book is beautifully written, spare and full of very black humour. The woman does not try to draw them out, she remains to a certain extend quite removed, her mind often occupied with thoughts about her own writing and her frequently repeated intention to leave soon. It is almost her indifference that makes them more forthcoming. They have lived inside their hatred for so long they both just assume she will take their part, but equally do not seem to resent her attentions to the other. It is a case of mutual hostility become the closest of interdependence. She does not appear to become fond of them, it is more a curious fascination that keeps her there. And I found myself more curious about her because we learn nothing much about her. 
There is not much in the way of lyrical descriptions of the environment or the snow or the coming spring, just the routines of survival, lighting the fire, eating, sleeping. In fact in places it is ... there must be a word for the opposite of lyrical, but I'm not sure what. I will avoid the description of pus extraction and give you this instead:

"But, when the day came, he would sit in the sauna that he had build with the wood dismantled from Olof's house and sweat out all the uncleanness and all the odours - that was the only natural and fitting way for a man, a man was made to sweat and as long as a man was doing heavy work and sweating he never needed to wash. If the sweat of his own life had been collected in a hollow in the ground, it would have made a sizeable lake - no, not a lake, a marsh, a muddy tarn, a bottomless quagmire. Because men's sweat, he would have her know, was not thin and watery; no - it was like gruel or limewash, it was strong and rich in ingredients; it did not run freely and easily but had to be squeezed out through the pores like mushy peas through a strainer." (p.48)

They settle into a routine together, occasionally she tries to instigate some kind of contact between them but they resist her. At other times she tells each of them what she knows they want to hear and allows them to play out their own version of events. The reader realises after a while that she won't leave before the end:

"She saw the snowplough drive past, but showed no sign of agitation. Having fetched the newspaper from the box at the roadside she sat down at the table to read it. When Hadar saw what she was doing, he said, 'No, we shouldn't read the paper, we should steer clear of disasters and distress. We should live as quiet a life as lichen. We can use the paper to light the stove.'" (p.54)

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