Thursday, 8 November 2012

Tracks in the Snow

Today's book is by Swiss writer Peter Stamm, who some of you may know from his novel Sieben Jahre (Seven Years).  However, the bus won't be heading to Switzerland on today's trip; instead, we're off to the frozen north.  Make sure you're wearing your thermals...

Ungefähre Landschaft (Unformed Landscape) takes the reader to a small village in the north of Norway, where we meet Kathrine, a customs officer who inspects Russian fishing vessels to check for contraband vodka.  She has lived in the village for most of her life, and (as we are later to discover) has never been south of the Arctic Circle.  Divorced with a child, she drifts along in a happy but monotonous existence, until she meets Thomas - who decides that she is the woman for him.

In less than a year, the two of them are married, and Kathrine's new husband, an intense, single-minded man, begins to form his new life the way he wants it, shaping Kathrine in his own image as he does so.  She goes along with things for a while, but on discovering that her new marriage is all based on lies, she decides to leave, finally getting out of the small village which has been her whole world for so long.

Stamm's novel is about a woman who has been sleep-walking her way through life, burning through two marriages, and bringing up a child, without ever really being aware of what she has been doing.  Her travels in the south (although pretty much anywhere is south when you start off in Norway...) serve as a kind of wake-up call, and a voyage of discovery for a fairly naive young woman.  As she catches train after train, heading through Europe by day and by night, she sees different places and meets new people, even though none of it really makes an impression at first.  By the end of the story though, her experiences have given her the strength she needs to make a new life for herself.

There are several similarities with Sieben Jahre, not the least of which is the simple, almost colourless prose.  Stamm's style is deliberately slight and pared-back, simple sentences following one after another, falling into place like snowflakes onto the page.  The thing with snowflakes though is that enough of them together can turn into a suffocating layer of snow, and the first twenty or thirty pages give the feeling of Kathrine being being slowly suffocated by the minutiae of dull, everyday life.

Another similarity with Sieben Jahre is the idea of a character with an unswerving obsession.  In that book, it is Iwona, the Polish student, who sets her sights on the hero and simply won't let go.  In Ungefähre Landschaft, this role is played by Thomas, a man who is trying to change the world around him to suit his desires, carefully removing any signs of Kathrine's individuality.  He even attempts to alter reality, twisting facts to show himself in a better light - and Kathrine struggles to do anything about it...

The reason for this is that Kathrine, despite being in her late-twenties, has yet to really mature because she hasn't experienced life.  When Thomas bursts onto the scene:
"Sein Leben war ein Strich durch die ungefähre Landschaft ihres Lebens."
p.31 (Fischer Verlag, 2011)
"His life was a line through the unformed landscape of her life."
(my translation)
By the end of the novel, thanks to her journey out of her comfort zone, Kathrine finally finds the strength to stand on her own two feet and decide what it is she wants from life.  Nothing earth-shattering happens, but that's not the point.  Ungefähre Landschaft is a modern Bildungsroman for a woman who learns that there's more to life than an unhappy marriage in a Norwegian fishing town...