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Siamese (Norwegian Literature) Paperback – January 1, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
A tenderly contentious marriage of many decades forms the tragic-comic snarl in this lively novel. Edwin and Erna Mortens have grown so familiar and repugnant to each other that death would be a blessed release. The novel is told in alternate first-person chapters—first wife, then husband—and each voice is wonderfully energetic and emotionally charged. Edwin is a former director of a retirement home (his job was to oversee the process of death) whose gradual loss of sight robbed him of his job and his sense of self-worth; powerless to do anything without his wife's help (he calls her Sweetie and his prison warden), and deteriorating rapidly, Edwin rails against his imminent death and Erna's perceived duplicity. Erna, meanwhile, is losing her hearing, and though dutiful and long-suffering, she is also mischievous, offering Edwin's old room to their building's young super. Saeterbakken skillfully creates a delightful, solipsistic tension between the querulous old couple. Their kinship is a lovely, bitter riot. (Jan.)
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“One of the most interesting contemporary authors in Europe: always controversial and never uncomplicated, he forces the reader to confront the less flattering sides of both self and society.” (Eurozine)
“Stig Saeterbakken deserves one thing only: to be read!” (Leif Hoghaug - Stavanger Evening Post)
“A perfect novel. Edwin Mortens must hereafter be reckoned as one of the great, monstrous inventions in literature. Stig Saeterbakken has, in his plain, precise and economical language accomplished a complex portrayal of a tragicomical downfall.” (Karsten Sand Iversen - Standart)
“Siamese is a difficult and brilliant book, like one of those skulls inscribed 'As I am now, so shall you be' that a death-besotted Romantic might have kept by his bedside.” (Jim Krusoe - The New York Times)
“Siamese is a mini-masterpiece of post-Beckett and post-Bernhard prose, a domestic grand guignol that oozes from the page with its obsession with body parts, bodily fluids, and human emissions.” (Steve Finbow - 3AM Magazine)
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The book cover implies the introduction of the building superintendent who embroils the couple "in a new and vicious struggle for power." This is misleading. There is little drama here - the story is narrated by Edwin and Erna in alternating chapters who share their thoughts with us about their current hopeless existence - both tied in a form of Gordian Knot. Both have settled into a routine -- Edwin dependent on Erna - and Erna seemingly chained to Edwin and his slide towards a certain ending - bound together in a dismal and desperate existence.
Edwin is a character - not all that likable or charming but one that keeps you fully engaged. He has dark humor spewing out of his mouth and mind as he stews in his hopelessness - drowning himself in a sea of complaints. Death - the discussion of it - the pending gloom and doom of it - is pervasive. The plot line here rides a plow horse to a slow painful ending.
The book is like rubbernecking on the freeway. You feel and know that it is bad. It is disturbing. Yet you find yourself unable to turn away. It is so dark, offers so little hope, so few memories of anything good in Edwin and Erna's lives - and the book ends on the same note. I had hoped to find a glimmer of light (Disney like perhaps) as I approached the end of this 164 page novella - yet no enlightenment surfaced - just the portrayal of fury and frustration over the conditions right until the turn of the last page. This is not a feel good book, but it is exceptionally well written and alternatively very funny, sad and disturbing. I'm certain I'll remember this book for some time.
Some of my favorite passages:
"The only thing left to do is keep my mind active. Until it's all over. If things come to a dead stop there, like they have everywhere else, then I'm finished. But it's a nightmare, keeping my thoughts straight."
"I'm no thinker, but I think all the time. It's the only thing I can't stop doing. Completely natural, but unbearable nevertheless. Every thought raises another, and they all resemble one another, so that each child bears the mark of its forefathers."
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.