Who was I? Everywhere I went, something broke or became distorted. What had I thought? That by travelling to somewhere else on the map I would arrive at some new place in myself? A place in me that was good and warm and worthy of love?
Set deep in the endless night of an Arctic winter, The Pastor by Norwegian writer, Hanne Ørstavik, is a novel that pushes into that darkness—on an emotional, spiritual, and historical level—in search of some glimmer of clarity, some sense of meaning in an uncertain, insensible world. Yet, rather than reaching any absolute truths, the internally focused narrative rides on a current of relentless speculation and questioning, becoming a melancholic testament to the inadequacy of language to isolate and contain our thoughts and feelings, and the barriers we often erect that keep us from being able to communicate what cannot be articulated in words. Yet out of this sombre landscape emerges a tale of quiet beauty.
The troubled narrator, Liv, is a theologian who has abruptly abandoned her PhD studies in Germany, following the tragic death of her friend, Kristiane, and accepted the position of adjunct pastor in a small town in the far north region of her native Norway. When we meet her, she has been in this new role for one year. She seems to have achieved a certain state of equilibrium with her skeptical parishioners, and a companionable relationship with the recently widowed woman she has invited to live on the main floor of the parsonage with her two daughters. As well, the relative proximity to the site of the 1852 Kautokeino Rebellion, the Sami uprising against Norwegian settlers, allows her to continue her longstanding academic investigations into the events and the role the understanding of Biblical language might have played in inspiring the Sami’s attack. But it has not been easy. Her brief friendship with Kristiane and the circumstances surrounding her suicide continue to haunt her while she worries that she will always be an outsider, emotionally distant from others and from God.
Unfolding over the course of one week, the novel opens with our unlikely pastor officiating communion. Her thoughts go back to Kristiane, to her decision to move, her hopes for her new home, and the very unfortunate first impression she made in the church. This continual cycling of memories, sometimes shifting from present to past and back in the same paragraph, drive the narrative forward, slowly filling in more of the details, discomforts, and unresolved doubts she carries. An imagining of the Sami rebellion, augmented with historical records, is also woven into the broader tapestry. In the present moment though, it is a call to attend to the parents of a suicide victim, a nineteen year-old girl who has hung herself from a fish drying structure out on a barren piece of land, that triggers Liv’s immediate crisis of identity and faith. By the end of the week, she will have been tested, or rather, will have tested herself against a variety of circumstances that she struggles to meet.
The challenges Liv faces all revolve around her inability to physically bridge the gap between herself and others—to reach out a hand to a grieving parent, respond to a man to whom she is attracted, recognize signs of depression in someone close to her—a skill she perhaps imagined the priesthood would magically confer upon her. She recognizes what she wants to do or say, imagines it, but fails to follow through. Again and again. Key to understanding her crippling inhibition, she believes, is her brief friendship with Kristiane. At forty-one, seven years her senior, the German woman was a puppeteer with her own workshop and theatre. A definite counterpoint to the serious theologian. Liv saw in Kristiane a lightness of spirit, and an apparent self-confidence that she craved. She seemed at ease in her body and her being, quick to laughter, her crooked teeth flashing—an image Liv cannot forget. They only knew each other for forty days, but Liv is obsessed by the fear that she failed her friend:
Weightless. I was so heavy myself, and all I saw in her was what I needed. Was that it? I didn’t realize that the light in her was turned up too bright, like a film going completely white until the image disappears. Was that the way it was?
If she was aware of an intrinsic “heaviness” before encountering Kristiane, her death untethers her completely. She carries this disconnect with her all the way back to Norway. Recollecting the long drive north she says:
I drove slowly. The flat, open vista seemed to make everything so plain, but still felt like I couldn’t get a hold on anything, as if I was so very far away. The road, stretching out in front of the car, the landscape, the steering wheel I gripped between my hands. My mind was a haze, as if there were no thoughts left to think. It was like I was driving over the back of some great beast that could get to its feet at any moment and shake me off. I wasn’t attached to anything, wasn’t a part of anything.
Liv is wounded. She is ever aware of her failure to connect, feeling outside, separate. She reminds herself that she is a pastor, that people depend on her for comfort, and then wonders again whatever possessed her to choose the ministry as a career when she herself is so uncertain, so ungrounded, so afraid that she will fall and that there will be nothing or none there to catch her. Isn’t that what everyone needs to have? Some kind of faith?
As it moves through the vast, eerily lit northern Norwegian landscape, The Pastor relies on the reader’s ability to connect with a protagonist so estranged from herself. Some might find Liv frustrating, but in its winding, lyrical passage, her narrative contains great depth and mounting tension. As someone who has experienced difficulties with mood regulation, I found Ørstavik’s portrait oddly familiar. I was not surprised to hear in an interview that the author was coming out of a serious depression when she wrote the book almost twenty years ago—she captures the disjointedness of thought so well. And it’s a sensation most people have probably known at some point or another. For example, when Liv is rushing back to town having learned of another tragic incident, this one much closer to home, her thoughts are suspended, frozen: “I tried to think about what I was thinking about. My thoughts wouldn’t think.”
Martin Aitken’s sensitive translation maintains an atmosphere of profound longing for connection and contact, for the touch to fill the unspeakable space, a gesture that can be so hard to give or accept. That is at the core of Liv (and her name means “life”)’s existential discontent. There are many unanswered questions in The Pastor, but small cracks appear and spread slowly, and there is the hope that what one tragedy broke open, a second tragic occurrence a year later might finally begin to heal.
The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and published by Archipelago Books.