A brutally comic portrait of marriage, taken to extremes reminiscent of the work of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard.
The New York Times
Stavanger Evening Post
Read an Excerpt
By Stig Sæterbakken
DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESSCopyright © 1997 J.W. Cappelens Forlag AS
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe fluorescent tube in the bathroom light was burned out when I went in to see him that morning. Naturally, he hadn't noticed anything. When I opened the door, he was sitting in the pitch-dark and chewing gum as usual. The light from the hallway fell diagonally into the room, cutting him in two-I could see the back of his chair and the back of his head, nothing else. The heap of foil gum wrappers on the floor glittered and looked as though it was swirling, a lethargic whirlpool.
"You again?" he asked. I thought at first that I should mention the light, but let it go. It would just be bothering him unnecessarily.
"Do you realize what you've done?" he roared. "What you've ruined?" Then I heard him shout something about his concentration, but by then I was on my way out of the bathroom to call the super. I left the door open, I don't know why-or maybe I do. It's because I can't get used to acting as though he isn't there. I tell myself that it doesn't make any difference, but this never helps. I always feel like it would be worse than burying him alive if I switched off the light whenever I left the bathroom. I don't know. Maybe I'm just superstitious, but I worry he would probably drop dead if I left him sitting in the dark for too long.
I dialed the number that Edwin had once written ona slip of paper and pinned to the wall above the telephone. We have a new building superintendent, but the number's still the same. He answered after a single ring, and I was glad to hear that his voice was clear and distinct. I didn't need to ask him to repeat anything he said. At first, I wasn't sure what I should tell him. I'd called without thinking of anything beforehand, but I finally managed to spit it out, what the problem was. He said that he would come up right away, and I said back that it would be terrific if he could. But I regretted this as soon as I hung up. It occurred to me that I'd absolutely never expected him to come so quickly. I'd actually hoped for a little time to straighten up the apartment and take care of a few things before he arrived. But it was too late to think about that now. It didn't really matter. Surely he wouldn't care what the apartment looked like. For him this would be just another little job to take care of. Surely changing a bulb in a bathroom only takes a couple of seconds. Hopefully. For Edwin's sake. I can never decide what the best course of action is-whether I should ignore him, act like he isn't even there, or try to include him in what's going on. And then I always end up feeling ridiculous for having worried about the question in the first place. That it was ever a problem for me.
Is it too cold in there for Edwin, still just wearing his jogging suit?
The super was younger than I expected. Much younger. I was a little confused when I opened the door. I hesitated a bit before I let him in. It was the first time I'd seen him up close. He had on a blue windbreaker and glasses. A couple of white paint flecks on his eyeglass frames gave him a slightly disheveled look-that was my first impression of him-though his glasses were otherwise well maintained and, for all I knew, even rather expensive. He didn't say anything, and he didn't introduce himself, which disappointed me. I'd been looking forward to hearing his high, clear voice again.
"It's in here," I said and showed him the way. I could tell that he wanted to get right to work without any small talk. A faint smell hung in the air behind him, aftershave or deodorant. A clean smell. I pushed open the bathroom door for him, and he opened a yellow banana-shaped bag and pulled out a flashlight. He turned it on and shined it into the room without going in. Like he thought he was standing on the edge of a cliff. The light fell on Edwin, who had turned himself away from the door-he hadn't known anyone was coming-and his neck looked like a dried root. The super looked at me, and I didn't know what I should say. So I went into the bathroom with him. He pointed his light up toward the fixture in the ceiling, which was full of tiny, black shadows on the inside. Edwin belched then, and this startled the custodian, who dropped his flashlight. It fell to the floor with a bang and the darkness came back, covering us like a heavy curtain-I'd closed the door behind us without thinking. Edwin belched again-I was a little startled myself-and started to give out a stink. Then the flashlight came on again, right in Edwin's face, but he didn't even blink. His eyes looked like they were made of plastic. The super found a place to set down his flashlight, angling it in such a way that he was able to direct as much light as possible up toward the ceiling. I said that I would leave the rest to him, knowing that I would only be in the way if I stayed in the bathroom. I mentioned that there was a step stool in the hall if he needed something to stand on. I left the door open on my way out, thinking that maybe this would be best for the young man, since it was his first time in our bathroom. I could only imagine what he was thinking.
I hurried to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee, extra strong, like I thought he would prefer it, found some Christmas cake in the bread box, cut several pieces, and put them on the dish with the little blue stem. I took the dish into the living room and set out cups on the coffee table that had been left to us by Edwin's mother. I had to dust the cups a bit with a dish towel first. I smoothed out the tablecloth and lit some candles. The wax was thick around the wicks, so I had to be careful lighting them without burning my fingers. I peeked into the bathroom. The super had taken the step stool from the hall and he was standing on it with his arms outstretched, either screwing the old bulb out or the new bulb in. The shadows on the bathroom walls stretched up, coming to a point, looking ominous. I thought I heard voices. Were the super and Edwin talking? Edwin had been quiet while I was in the bathroom, which was what I expected. I had difficulty believing that he would have struck up a conversation with this young man. Most likely, Edwin just wanted to be left alone again as soon as possible. I went back out to the kitchen and got the coffee-I listened but didn't hear anything-put the coffeepot on a tray, took it to the table, and then went back to the bathroom. The super was just climbing down from the step stool and moving to the light switch by the door. A couple of seconds later, everything was in order again. I clapped my hands several times to let him know that I thought he had done a wonderful job. I went over to Edwin, who was sitting exactly as before, face turned away, neck bent, and touched him on the shoulder. The slick material of his jogging suit felt like silk.
"So, my dear," I said, "now you've got light in your room again." The super had gathered up his things and was standing there with his bag in his hand, looking a bit lost. "Good work," I said to him, "really good work." And it really was-it made everything brighter in there. The faucets shined like candelabras. "Imagine having such talent at such a young age," I said, partly to myself, but mostly for his benefit. I shook my head to show how impressed I was.
He indicated that he had to leave. "Hey," I said to him, "there's something else I'd like to ask you to have a look at ... while you're here." I wanted to make it seem as though this really was the most convenient time for it. I walked ahead, out to the kitchen, so he would follow me. He seemed like a considerate man. I asked him to open the refrigerator door, which he did. It was completely dark inside. He understood at once what the problem was-I didn't need to explain anything. He opened his bag again-clearly it held everything a man could possibly need-and mumbled something that I couldn't quite understand. Did he only speak clearly on the telephone? And while I stood and waited, he changed the little bulb. He pressed the little button next to it several times to demonstrate that everything was working now, exactly as it should. Before he shut the door, he stuck his hand into the freezer. Was that to check the temperature? I don't know, but it was a good thing he did, because then he took the time to adjust the thermostat.
"My goodness!" I said. I like it when people do a little bit more than they've been asked to. He smiled ... broadly? "Do you have a little time for a cup of coffee before you go?" I asked, and it seemed to me-though I can't be sure-that the question came as a complete surprise to him. Surely he'd noticed the set table on our way to the kitchen?
I poured some coffee into a cup and offered him some Christmas cake. The super ate like he'd been starving-and then it occurred to me that the slices I'd cut were perhaps unnecessarily thin: a good slice of cake can be a good meal-and he emptied his coffee cup in two gulps, though that's really nothing to complain about, since our white cups don't hold very much. He didn't say a thing. He hadn't said anything, in fact, since we'd sat down at the table, only eaten and drank. But now he was refusing more cake and just sitting there. This puzzled me. If I hadn't known any better, I would have thought that he was waiting to be paid. But maybe this behavior was typical of supers? I wanted to think of something to ask him that would keep him here for a bit longer. I knew that he painted a bit in addition to his professional duties. He had a room in the basement that he had converted into a studio. According to Finborud, who lives right over the basement, the whole place smells like turpentine whenever the super is down there painting. In addition, there had been complaints from the other tenants to the effect that our super seemed to be taking too much advantage of his position. They felt that being able to live here rent-free and not have to pay a telephone bill ought to be enough to satisfy anyone. But he was a nice guy, and it seemed the tenants were more or less pleased with him. Although he'd only been here a short time, the super was always eager to help, and almost always home when you called. But he also seemed-I don't know why-like a rather lonely person. Last summer he wore a multicolored sun hat and mowed the lawn with a gasoline-powered riding mower, which you drive like a car. It was obvious that he thought it was fun. He seemed extremely content. He took his time doing it.
"So, you're also a painter," I said. He nodded, a bit sadly-perhaps because he didn't have enough time for painting, thanks to his responsibilities; or maybe it was because he wasn't happy with what he'd achieved up to this point? Who knows. I'd had to say something. Maybe I should have said something else. "Well, is painting pictures any harder than painting staircases?" I tried to make this sound like an invitation, so that he would feel like talking a bit about his work. It's hard to show interest in a subject you know next to nothing about. But he just smiled. Was there also a hint of disdain? I wasn't sure. I sat and waited for him to say something. I couldn't look away. But now it didn't seem like he'd meant to be unkind. I wondered how old he was. There was something simultaneously adult and quite childish about him, as if he knew exactly what he needed to know, but not any more than that.
"Of course it takes time," I said. I couldn't come up with anything better. Then he looked up at me, as if asking a question, but I didn't hear what he said-if he said anything. I wasn't entirely sure. Was he mumbling on purpose? "What?" I asked, in a deliberate ambiguous tone. "With your job I mean," I added. Perhaps that's what he needed. A clarification. I thought later that what had seemed so youthful about him was the fact that he sat there kind of defiantly, even though we didn't know each other, waiting until something got said that actually interested him before bothering to answer. He set down his cup, took out a pack of cigarettes, helped himself to one, and lit it without asking permission. This was fine. The unfamiliar scent of tobacco that filled the room was refreshing. He watched the orange glow that followed every drag. It seemed he would be content to do this for hours. He went on sitting silently, a bit hunched in his jacket, which was a little too big for him, and which had dark brown buttons that looked like snail shells-small, silent conquerors of the shiny surrounding material.
Then he spoke, and his voice was just as clear and distinct as it had been on the telephone: "I'm going to paint a picture of a dog for Mrs. Gustafsen."
"Really?" I said, and for one reason or another, I could immediately see the picture he would paint in my mind.
"Yes, she's given me a photo, so I have something to base it off of." I wondered whether I should ask him if it was difficult to paint pictures that really looked like their subjects, but I wasn't sure if this was the right thing to say. I felt like anything I could say might somehow offend him.
"She said that she'd pay me well," he added and shrugged his shoulders like it didn't really mean very much to him-the money, not the picture. It was possible that he saw the assignment as something that was beneath him, but at the same time it was clear that he was pleased someone had asked him for a painting. I could imagine, since he had mentioned it, that he didn't get requests like this very often, although he tried to pretend that it was something he was used to. He put out his cigarette in his coffee cup, but that was my fault. I hadn't thought to put out an ashtray. We stayed seated for a moment, neither of us saying anything. Then a scream, like a scream of fear, came from the bathroom. The young man jumped a little but tried to act nonchalant. It was quiet for a moment, but then another scream followed. It sounded like someone was trying to pull Edwin's tongue out. The super looked up at me, our eyes met-equally wide-and what I saw in them was despair, a deep despair. I was sure of it. So much despair it made him feel helpless. So helpless he couldn't hide his despair.
What was it about his misery that made me feel so cheerful? Because that's what I was, all of the sudden-cheerful-I can't find any other word for it; a happiness, a sudden trembling happiness flowed through me, even bringing tears to my eyes. I looked at the young man with gratitude-I didn't know what to say. Surely he would have liked to stand up and leave, but it seemed like he couldn't. There was something preventing him.
Finally he asked, "How can he just sit in there all the time?" He looked away as he said this, but it was clear his question had been meant for me. I smiled. Of course, I had expected that he would ask something like that-my voice quavered as I replied that Edwin was an old man, and that it's different for an old man, as opposed to someone as young as himself. The super nodded, a wrinkle forming between his eyebrows. I noticed that he had scars from chicken pox-surely not a recent outbreak?-but it seemed like the young man was, if not especially interested, then curious at least, in a strange and somewhat reluctant way.
"It's not easy taking care of my husband all the time," I volunteered, a bit unsure about how much I should say. The super didn't answer-but I hadn't thought he would: it wasn't so important what he said, or if he didn't say anything at all, just so long as he didn't see things in a negative light, in case I did decide to confide in him.
"No," I said, "it's not very easy." But I didn't say anything else. I worried that if I started telling him about how it is, I wouldn't be able to stop, and what might come out wouldn't necessarily be good. I also knew that I'd regret most of what I said, so it was probably best not to say anything ... I don't know ...
Edwin's voice came from the bathroom.
It sounded mournful, wasn't the screech that he'd let out earlier, wasn't even loud enough that I couldn't have avoided hearing it entirely if I'd been in the kitchen busy with something else. So I chose not to hear him. But it puzzled me that he'd called. Did he think the young man had left?
Excerpted from SIAMESE by Stig Sæterbakken Copyright © 1997 by J.W. Cappelens Forlag AS. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Stig Saeterbakken (1966 2012) was one of Norway s most acclaimed contemporary writers. His novels include Through the Night and Siamese (also published by Dalkey Archive).
Stokes Schwartz's translation work includes technical, historical, and literary pieces. He studied Scandinavian languages and literature-with a concentration in Norwegian-at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Minnesota, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
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Edwin lives in his bathroom. A rocking chair placed within is his world, and a nearby dresser holds his cups of flat soda and boxes of Orbit gum. The floor is wrinkled with wrappers, and while he's blind, an overhead fluorescent light illuminates his miserable existence. Once an exacting businessman, overseeing a convalescent home of deteriorating elderly people, he now sits in his own waste, deteriorating slowly as he chews gum and has conversations with Death. Screaming at Elna, his wife, is his only source of distraction from his roving thoughts. Siamese examines the inner thoughts and outer actions of this strange pair, in the most intimate of ways. Elna is so involved in Edwin's death (as it is he is more dead than alive) that she lacks the most basic grasp of common sense, unless it comes to deceiving Edwin. Edwin glories in his demise, cataloguing each symptom and detail with relish. It's almost as if his decay proves that he existed in the first place, because in his constant reminiscing he often tries to analyze if he really did live. His thoughts are random, vulgar, and filled with hate. He asks himself: "Where is this road heading? What will become of everything? Will the future be like what's already going on in my head? No, the world's still out there. Nothing ever goes away, it just accumulates. Especially for me, who can't see worth a damn, yes, I just sit here with a head full of stupid pictures." It's clear that even in younger days, Edwin was far from kindly. He treated the patients in the rest home with distant efficiency but secretly thought they should be suffocated in their beds. He loses his job just as his sanity lapses: he attacks a nurse. From then on his busy career fades into the small, smelly room where he ruminates about prior patients and coworkers and pleads for Death to arrive soon to release him from his thoughts: "Take it all, I mean it, don't leave so much as a bedroom slipper behind, annihilate me, smash me into kindling, into dust, then vacuum me up, leave no evidence, I don't want to be remembered for anything.I long for you to come and beat my thoughts into submission.they've plagued me long enough, do nothing but torment me,.all they can think about, all they remember, is themselves.But I don't want to think about them anymore.letting them have their way with me is a worse defeat than death." Elna, for her part, remains distant from Edwin, as his still breathing corpse is no company and company is what she craves. A broken light bulb, necessitating a visit from the building's young superintendent, finally gives Elna a chance. And the malevolent force that enters their miserable life changes everything. Siamese is not a mystery novel, but at times I had to remind myself to breathe as the suspense built. A character study of two deeply connected but polarized individuals, it is fascinating to read and see how their actions push each other into reactions that are both ugly and frightening. It's also terribly frightening: the helplessness and lack of contact along with the certainty of impending death gave me chills. The novel was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Stokes Schwartz.