The conversation we can’t have: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik

Loss and grief are experiences that inspire and drive so much literature. For a writer there seems to be a compelling need to try to sort out the complicated flood of emotions that the injury, illness or death of a loved one releases with the only tool that makes sense—the pen. But that response typically requires a certain degree of distance before the diaries and records can be weighed against whatever it is one feels at the time and in the aftermath. The exercise of writing immediate grief is much more difficult. In his memoir, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke seeks an element of closure by writing about his mother within two months of her death. He wants to honour her life without slipping into sentimentalism but discovers the peace he seeks is elusive, he cannot keep himself out of the story, and that is the best part of this raw, affecting meditation. More successful precisely because it was never intended for publication, is Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary. This collection of fragments, scribbled on scraps of paper during the first days, weeks and years following his beloved mother’s death is entirely unselfconscious, honest and stripped to the barest essential emotions. As such it is one of the very few books a recently bereaved person can turn to for company. There are no conclusions, no prescriptions, and many unanswerable questions.

One could say that Hanne Ørstavik’s Ti Amo is also an exercise is immediate grief writing, but she turns to fiction, choosing to hold close to the details of her own life, and at the time of writing—or at least beginning to write—her ailing husband is still alive. Her unnamed narrator, a Norwegian novelist, is living in Milan with her Italian husband who is dying of cancer. The work she is writing, addressed to the man she loves, is an attempt to put some kind of meaning to a time in which their relationship, and the expectations and dreams they once had, is shifting, losing direction. It is an effort to reach out across the space that has opened up between their respective realities:

Why can’t we speak the truth? Why can’t we say things the way they are? Why do they have to hide your death from you? Do you really not want to know, not be in contact with, not feel, the truth about yourself?

“Ti amo”—I love you—is the phrase that links the narrator and her husband, becoming in moments of physical and psychological distance, a mantra that reaches out through the fogginess of medication and the void created by that which is not being said. At the time when he first became ill, they were still in the early, heady years of a mid-life romance. He was her Italian publisher and, as their desire to be together intensified, she relocated from Norway to Milan, immersing herself in a foreign culture and language. Their lives were filled with travel, literary events, social engagements. When the first indications that something was wrong appeared, they both tried to imagine it was nothing but before long his symptoms could no longer be ignored. A diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy followed but the cancer is refuses to be stayed. In the present moment of the emerging text, it is early 2020. Their relationship goes back only four years and almost half of that time has unfolded under the shadow of serious illness. Even their marriage, the formal recognition of their partnership, was a response, at his insistence, to the suddenly altered circumstances.

Tracing the onset and progression of illness against an account of their lives before and after diagnosis, the narrator is continually seeking to understand what she feels and who she is in relation to a man who often seems so helplessly far away. Through the maze of appointments and tests and endless trips to the pharmacy in the hope that the prescribed pain meds have finally arrived, small things, the simple moments together—stopping for hot chocolate, buying suet for wild birds, tea in the morning—take on an added poignancy. The narrative is nonlinear but regularly circles back to January, 2020, as the last of the normal treatment options have been exhausted. And still, they are not together in accepting the one truth that hangs in the air.

Ti Amo is novel of passion, commitment and confusion. It is an open window into the complicated, often conflicted, emotions of caregiving without the numbing effects afforded by time and distance. Details of the ravages of an aggressive cancer are laid bare, woven into a story of two people brought together by a love of literature, art and travel. Two different natures, she reasons at one point, recalling that he always exhibited a certain degree of hesitancy while she always carried “a compulsion for truth that feels like my very life force itself.” Is that why they can’t approach the topic of death?

This is, of course, a one-sided story. The narrator’s husband is hostage to pain and its pacifiers, grasping at normal whenever he has the strength, and much of the time that entails going into the office. As if a semblance of work will keep him alive. But isn’t that what the narrator turns to as well? Her own work? “I write novels,” she says, “It’s my way of existing in the world…” If he will not or cannot ease her through her fear of bereavement by bravely accepting his own death (for is that not what lies behind her sense of loneliness?), she will turn their situation into a novelized love letter.

The resulting brief novella, written in just ten days, overflows with warmth, tenderness and  grief rendered in spare, poetic prose. Through her looping narrative style, Ørstavik allows emotional tension to build, in her protagonist and her reader, as a moment of reckoning dawns for the narrator and her husband in their separate but parallel journeys. However, the end, as such, lies outside the frame of the story. The author’s real-life husband, Italian publisher, translator and painter Luigi Spagnol, died on June 14, 2020. Ti Amo, in arising so directly from her experiences and emotions in his final months, is more than autobiographical fiction or memoir—it is also a deeply personal tribute to power of love.

Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik is translated by Martin Aitken and will be published by Archipelago Books in North America and And Other Stories in the UK in September.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

10 thoughts on “The conversation we can’t have: Ti Amo by Hanne Ørstavik”

  1. This sounds terribly sad… it reminds me of a book I read recently by a woman whose husband had a very serious illness and she had to try to prepare her two small children for his expected death. It’s written contemporaneous with events too, which made it very raw and confronting to read.

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    1. Strangely, it is not as sad as you might expect, as if the time for sadness has not yet come. Because she wrote is so quickly, as fiction, in second person, the subtext—the reality under the story—gives the novel an unusual quality. It is beautiful, messy and real.

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  2. This sounds very powerful and I imagine difficult to read in some ways. I found Mourning Diary to be something which could be a comfort, but although I salute her bravery in dealing with her pain in this way, I suspect it would be something not to be read too close to an illness or bereavement. Writing is definitely a way of helping to cope with illness – Celia Paul’s “Letter to Gwen John” incorporated her husband’s illness and he too died just after she’d completed the book…

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    1. I can imagine that for someone in a similar situation it would be difficult, but it is not heavy or sentimental and the narrator asks questions that anyone who has cared for a loved one through a difficult time can relate to.

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  3. This does sound very sad – it reminds me a little of Transfer Window by Maria Gerhardt .Probably not accurate to say I am looking forward to reading it but, from what you say, it will be well worth while.

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    1. She is such a wonderful writer with a spare, light style that it somehow less bleak than it might sound. It impressed me that she could find relief in fiction at such a painful time and still produce a work so touching and respectful.

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  4. Love your review of this, Joe. Such a thoughtful series of reflections on what sounds a remarkable book. Despite the gravity and rawness of the emotions Ørstavik is processing here, her lightness of touch really comes thorough from your review and subsequent comments. It looks like And Other Stories will be publishing it over here, so I’ll definitely keep it in mind.

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    1. I can’t help but wonder how much writing as fiction allows one to blur the edges a little and create one’s way through the more difficult emotions to produce a work that is closer to the truth than any memoir could be. It is a very special little book.

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