Is humankind a species defined by memory, or by its capacity to deny memory? The greatest tragedies of history are those wherein a populace has willingly banished from their mind the pain and suffering of others. The political discussion of physician-assisted suicide is hampered by people who do not want to empathize—and thus meditate on—the experience of the dying; politicians have been given leeway in the so-called “war on terror” to torture or murder innocents simply because we can choose to ignore their plight, or more egregiously, because we fear those innocents’ fate; we shudder at the presumed horrors that await us if we refuse to placate the wealthy and powerful. Of course, this type of magical thinking—the willing into nonexistence of persons by simply ignoring their existence—is impossible. Human beings exist within the realm of fact rather than of idea; political discourse and language in general merely confuse these worlds. Although we need not empathize with an idea, we cannot help but empathize with a person: remove the person, and you remove the moral impetus to action. The tension of this paradox defines our culture much as organ failure spreads through a diseased body: there comes a time at which denial gives way to sheer reality, and we become victims of the same process we once mutely watched from a distance.
This paradox of memory and denial poses a unique problem to artists. They often explore regions of empathy avoided by other sectors of culture, and so they venture furthest into the capacity for empathy with those “forgotten” by society. As such, those artists may have the most profound influence on the moral understanding of our age. By this measure, Naja Marie Aidt undeniably approaches the realm of great artists. Her work, as demonstrated in the recent publication of her short-story collection Baboon, shows the author to be concerned primarily with the use of empathy in its most unromantic form: with people as they are rather than as we would wish them to be.
Born in Greenland in 1963 but raised in Copenhagen from the age of seven, Aidt is an accomplished writer who has published over 20 books since her debut nearly twenty-five years ago, with her work appearing in forms as diverse as poetry, children’s stories, lyrics for music, drama, and screenplay. She has been the recipient of many major prizes, with Baboon winning the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2008. Lovingly presented in this edition by Two Lines Press, the collection is a beautifully-written work that transcends art as entertainment; this is art that expresses how we perceive the world. The strength of Aidt and her admirable translator Denise Newman (who captures the pathos of Aidt’s words in beautiful flourishes of prose) comes through the book’s steadfast gaze into the shadows of life. The author unflinchingly depicts human life in all its vagaries and disappointments, and as such, the stories of Baboon become penetrating moment of self-criticism in which we as readers must reexamine our own decisions and values.
The positive results of characters’ behaviors in these stories, when they actually come, are hard-won and completely unsentimental. The more likely result, in Baboon, is for the book’s characters to be left devastated and scarred by their actions—or worse, random chance.
And yet, this “brutal realism” also makes its stories so moving. Aidt’s characters are extremely true to life, a force that is at times utterly random in its punishments or rewards. Indeed, delving into a side of society that is often passed over, Aidt explores existence in such a way as to allow us to empathize with others in the original, Greek sense of the word: her characters, with their emotions, their hopes, and their fears, are so well-expressed that they make it difficult to not grasp their worldview. This is true even when their intentions are at times bad and deplorably selfish; when they are meted out punishments without having acted in a particularly wrong way, meanwhile, we deeply feel the injustice of their fate. Such is the power of Aidt's ability to draw us into the emotional lives of her characters.
Early in the book, for example, we encounter a woman beating a child in the story “Torben and Maria.” Deplorable as her actions may be, there is a suggestion that Aidt wants us to understand what would motivate the mother to act in such an immoral and unethical fashion. Therefore, Aidt reveals through the action of the story that the woman’s behavior stems from how her young son reminds her of the repellent father. When she sees her child, she is not only reminded of the negative emotions she associates with the relationship, but literally sees in her male offspring the person she cannot bear. The mother also sees in her child her own faults—and in her attacks on the boy, seems to enact a desire to destroy not the child but herself.
Somehow Aidt manages to bring to the fore what the woman has experienced to drive her into this abusive state. Aidt does not sympathize with the woman; she merely shows us that such people exist, and that such people may have trauma that runs so deep that their behavior takes on a bizarre logic to them. Here she describes discovering a gift secretly given to her child by the child’s father: “Maria gives Bjørn a hard push when she passes him on her way out of the living room. She yanks the snow globe out of Torben’s hand, walks over to the window and opens it. The boy begins bawling. She throws it as hard as she can and watches the little globe smash to pieces when it hits the sidewalk.”
It is notable here that Aidt is able to condense so much information into such a brief and transparent passage. The snow globe, perhaps representing the possibility of the child’s and the father’s world together, is smashed in a wishful act of destruction. In doing so, the mother also in a sense smashes the possibility of her own world with her child. The imagery is at once poetic as well as deeply realistic: symbolic of the mother’s attempt to destroy a world of possibilities, evocative of a father pathetically giving his son a dime-store gift. The family’s poverty is contrasted against the richness of the subject matter, dignifying the drama of poverty and survival into something meaningful.
In another story, “Candy,” a codependent couple who get off on stealing and are caught and humiliated in a supermarket; by the end of the narrative, no one in the situation comes off as decisively good or bad. We do not sympathize with their decisions, but we can view them as human beings who have chosen to act on a particular worldview. Whether we would hope for them to change seems superfluous: the characters in the story stand in for the people in the world who elect to do wrong but who we cannot change. In this situation, we can only hope to understand.
These are people whose perspectives are often forgotten by polite society, and Aidt’s understanding of the psychology of children—often the least-heard members of society—is particularly insightful. Often they are people who willingly create abusive relationships or are too accustomed to such relationships to understand how debilitating they are. Sometimes they are people we might run into were we to spend a day in the divorce courts or the local jail in any town, often they are the strivers we see in middle-class neighborhoods attempting to cobble together some sort of identity in their unremarkable and pointless surroundings. The first are people who are rejected in the hypocritical environment of the middle class, but whose deepest ambition is perhaps to live a stable, middle-class existence; the second are the actual middle class, lost in the role they’re trying to play and immersed in a sense of regret they perhaps will never be free of. It is a credit to the author that she is able to understand the world around her in such a profound way and express that worldview through her art.
At times, the emotional honesty of the stories in Baboon can make them difficult to read. As some of Aidt’s characters feel little or no remorse, or even understanding of their motivations, the effect of reading the narratives in the collection is one of both sorrow and anxiety: courting destruction, it is easy to picture these characters spiraling out of control as we leave them at their story’s end. At the same time, it is because Aidt is so faithful to the reality of her characters that they can be difficult to encounter: perhaps they remind us too much of how people genuinely act when they feel no one is watching them. Aidt captures at once the constant anxiety of poverty, as well as the obsession with casual sex, soft drugs, and constant search for a functioning moral system that defines so many dissatisfied, highly-educated people. These are the worldviews that may be found in any cultured metropolis, for better or worse, and Aidt examines them without the saccharine quality that so many lesser authors resort to.
Sometimes the stories in Baboon are surreal: in the story “Mosquito Bite,” we encounter a man who thinks he has a mosquito bite, but has his life derailed when he develops a mysterious and life-threatening infection. Having been almost blithely dismissive of his life prior to his illness, the physical response of his body to the disease makes the illusion of a care-free existence shift away and reveal the precipice we all stand above in what is essentially at once a contemporary update of both The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Late in the stages of his disease, the man asks a nurse if he can see his reflection: “At night he asks for a mirror. The nurse holds it in front of him: His cheeks are sunken, his skin hangs in large gray folds, his eyes are yellow, he looks like someone about to die. A corpse.”
This passage, in a profound sense, expresses the conundrum of existence in the contemporary world: in the desert of life, we all collapse as though under the influence of a catastrophic disease; like Dorian Gray’s portrait rotting slowly out of view, however, we may simply not realize it in the present. Indeed, the physical decay of the character’s body mirrors the ugliness of the world that is always waiting beneath the surface of life, it takes the disease to make him realize the folly of his worldview.
The stories in Baboon are not always full of ugliness and decrepitude, but the beautiful moments are hard won by the book’s characters, and as in life, they are always clothed in ambiguity and confusion. The book’s most beautiful stories, “The Green Darkness of the Big Trees” and “The Car Trip,” are also its most affecting; both concern the desire for love in adulthood, the death of the romance of life even while lust and companionship spring up in the conflicts of day-to-day living. These stories are both brilliant exegeses on adult existence as it meanders into middle age: the first story of the two describes a person whose loneliness and anxiety are so paralyzing that they are unable to feel capable of receiving affection or love even when it presents itself. The character’s thoughts are so overwhelming that he can no longer form meaningful relationships with others, and Aidt allows us to understand the sorrow of his viewpoint as he comes to the brink of giving up on life. In the following passage, Aidt brilliantly draws together a portrait of the psychology of her character by describing his projection of his mental state onto the natural world around him as well as the symbolic pull away from death he experiences at the connection of a romantic interest:
One Wednesday at the end of October I gave up. The night frost had made the earth hard and cold, I lay on my back behind the ferns, hidden by the bushes, I lay looking up at the drifting clouds and the tops of the trees swaying quietly from side to side. The storm had shaken off the leaves. I was heavy in my heart, limp, and numb. Maybe now. If I lie here long enough. Maybe now it’ll end. But an almost tender joy sprung up in me: in that moment I was not afraid of death. Heavy and limp. Ready to give in. Then I heard crunching. Footsteps nearby. And suddenly you were standing over me, looking me in the eye for a second before breaking out in laughter.
The glimmer of hope that this character experiences in a chance encounter is captured wonderfully in the story, as is the symbiotic relationship the character views the trees surrounding him with; at once able to withstand the harshest storms, trees are also fated to spend their lives standing alone.
The tale’s dramatic tension comes from an encounter the character has with a woman he becomes close to but struggles to develop any sense of mental intimacy with. This is contemporary writing on par with the psychological explorations of Hemingway’s early short stories: what is left unsaid within the two characters’ lives is at once heartbreaking and profound. We follow the man’s thoughts as he comes to believe that he is not worthy of his love interest’s attention, to the point where he isolates himself in a veil of sadness, opting to remain like a tree holding his ground without the physical connection of another. The story is a remarkable feat of literary art; there are no grand gestures in its pages, merely an expression of intense longing that the reader feels deeply and meaningfully along with the protagonist.
“The Car Trip,” meanwhile, is a meditation on the complications of adulthood after having children, its casting into relief of all our faults as we struggle to assert boundaries and set an example for young ones: While a couple struggle to keep their sons and daughters under control at the beginning of a vacation, themes about the love, anxiety, and fear manifest themselves beneath the narrative action. These characters are, like most parents, simply overwhelmed with the great responsibility of their position, while trying to do what is right in a seemingly infinite number of daily tests. As elsewhere in the book, Aidt handles the subject matter beautifully, bringing a depth to her characters that is at once heartfelt and highly intelligent.
While Aidt’s work may not be well-known in English, it will hopefully be the case that Denise Newman’s beautiful translation will bring the author a wider audience. Undoubtedly one of the most intelligent writers of the contemporary literary world, Aidt is also clearly one of the most compassionate—and therefore one of the most important—voices in fiction. How she bears the weight of such empathic descriptions of her characters, who we feel for as though we had stumbled directly into their lives, is a credit to her brilliant insight into the human condition.
Jordan Anderson lives near Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in World Literature Today, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, The Quarterly Conversation, and the blog of The Coffin Factory Magazine.