Authors: Jens Christian Grondahl
JENS CHRISTIAN GRÃNDAHL is one of the most celebrated and widely read writers in Denmark today. Born in 1959, his literary work includes thirteen novels, essays and several plays.
Silence in October
, published recently by Canongate, is being translated into sixteen languages.
ANNE BORN has translated many works of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish literature, including
Letters from Africa
by Karen Blixen,
The Snake in Sydney
by Michael Larsen,
by Jostein Gaarder, and
by Per Petterson. She has published twelve collections of her own poetry, and many Scandinavian poets in translation.
Jens Christian GrÃ¸ndahl
Translated from Danish by Anne Born
First published in English in Great Britain in 2002
by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE
This new edition published in 2003
First published in Danish in 1998 by
This digital edition first published in 2015 by Canongate Books
Copyright Â© Jens Christian GrÃ¸ndahl, 1998 English translation copyright Â© Anne Born, 2002
The moral right of Jens Christian GrÃ¸ndahl and Anne Born to be identified as respectively the author and translator of the work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
The publisher gratefully acknowledges general subsidy from the Scottish Arts Council towards the Canongate International series
The English translation was supported by The Danish Literature Centre, Copenhagen.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN 1 84195 397 0
eISBN 978 1 78211 710 0
ne evening in April a thirty-two-year-old woman, unconscious and severely injured, was admitted to hospital in a provincial town south of Copenhagen. She had concussion and internal bleeding, her legs and arms were broken in several places, and she had deep lesions in her face. A petrol station attendant in a neighbouring village, beside the bridge over the motorway to Copenhagen, had seen her car take the wrong slip-road onto the carriageway and drive at high speed against the oncoming traffic. The first three approaching cars managed to manoeuvre around her, but about 200 metres after the junction she collided head-on with a truck.
The Dutch driver was admitted for observation but released the next day. According to his statement he started to brake a good 100 metres before the crash, while the car approaching him actually increased speed for the last stretch. The front of the vehicle was totally crushed, part of the radiator was stuck fast between the carriageway and the lorry's cow-catcher, and the woman had to be cut free. The spokesman for the emergency services said it was a miracle she had survived.
On arrival at hospital the woman was pronounced close to death, and it was 24 hours before she was out of danger although still critically ill. Her eyes were so badly damaged that she had lost her sight. Her name was Lucca. Lucca Montale.
Despite the name there was nothing particularly Italian about her appearance, from the photograph on her driving licence. She had auburn hair and green eyes in a narrow face with high cheek-bones. In build she was slim and fairly tall. It turned out she was Danish, born in Copenhagen.
Her husband, Andreas Bark, arrived with their small son while she was still on the operating table. The couple's home
was an old farmhouse in an isolated woodland setting seven kilometres from the site of the accident. Andreas Bark told the police he had tried to stop his wife from driving. He thought she had just gone out for a breath of air when he heard the car start. When he got outside he saw it disappearing along the road. She had been drinking quite a lot, he could not remember how much. They had had a marital disagreement. Those were the words he used, and he was not questioned further on that point.
Early in the morning, when Lucca Montale was moved from the operating theatre into intensive care, her husband still sat in the foyer with the sleeping boy's head on his lap. He was looking out at the sky and the dark trees when Robert sat down beside him. Andreas Bark merely went on staring into the grey morning light with an exhausted, absent gaze. He seemed to be slightly younger than Robert, in his late thirties. He had dark, wavy hair and a prominent chin, his eyes were narrow and deep-set, and he wore a shabby leather jacket.
Robert rested his hands on his knees in the green cotton trousers and looked down at the small perforations in the leather uppers of his white clogs. He realised he had forgotten to take off his plastic cap after the operation. The thin plastic crackled between his hands. The other man looked at him and Robert straightened up to meet his gaze. The boy woke up and asked where he was, bewildered. His father stroked his hair slowly, mechanically, as the doctor spoke.
When he got home Robert had a shower, poured himself a whisky and walked about the house for a while. Apart from a faint twittering, the only sounds were those he made himself, the parquet blocks creaking under his bare feet and the ice cubes clinking in his glass. He never went straight to bed when he came home after a night shift. He sat on the sofa as it grew light outside, listening to the new recording of Brahms's third symphony bought last time he was in Copenhagen. He gave in to fatigue and imagined he was floating on the peaceful, swelling waves of the strings, studied the palings of the fence at the end of the garden, the birch leaves fluttering in the breeze, and the hesitant little hops on both legs of the sparrows on the
cement paving stones, between the plastic garden furniture on the terrace outside the wide panorama window.
The house was actually too large. It was intended for a family with two or three children, but it had been going at a favourable price. Moreover, Lea came home every other weekend. He had furnished a room for her with everything she might need. She had gone to buy the furniture with him and chosen the colours herself. He had given her a bicycle too, which awaited her in the car port, and a ping pong table he had set up in what was intended as the dining room. He preferred to eat in the kitchen. Lea was becoming a dab hand at table tennis, she could beat him now every other time. She was just twelve.
He had become used to living alone. It wasn't as hard as he had feared, he worked long hours. He had moved out of Copenhagen two years ago, when he was divorced. At that time he and Lea's mother had worked at the same hospital. Six months after the divorce Monica moved in with the mutual colleague she had begun a relationship with while still married to Robert. He didn't like constantly coming across them in the corridors.
He had moved to this particular town by chance, never having envisaged taking a job at a provincial hospital, but he liked his work, and although the town depressed him with its red-brick suburban houses and provincial town properties with small bay windows and absurd zinc spires, after a time he learned to appreciate the qualities of the place. It boasted a white-washed medieval church, where organ recitals were given in summer, flanked by a couple of half-timbered merchants' houses, at the end of the main street, and there were the woods, the seashore and a bird reserve at the end of a peninsula past an area of half-flooded meadowland. He liked to take a walk out there, surrounded by the huge vault of sky above the tufts of grass in the smooth calm water reflecting the cloud masses and the wedge formations of migrating birds.
Now and then he would visit one of the couples among his colleagues. They were all married and most had children. As a newly-arrived singleton he was met with friendliness and
courtesy, but he always felt like a guest in their world, and he noticed that the women in particular confused his slightly reserved manner with arrogance. One woman had made a pass at him, she was a librarian and a few years younger than he was. He found her attractive and went out with her a few times, but when it came to the point he rebuffed her advances. It was not that he missed Monica. For the last year or two of their marriage they had lived silently side by side like two anonymous passengers, when the silence was not broken by sudden pointless quarrels.
Not that there was anything wrong with the librarian. She had a beautiful figure and a sense of humour. He actually made the initial moves himself when he went up to her one day to ask for a biography of Gustav Mahler. But he ended up by rejecting her. Naturally she was hurt, and since that episode he had stopped going to the library. It left him feeling chagrined, but he had been unable to explain either to her or himself why he had asked her to go, one evening after dinner when they had sat on his sofa listening to the adagio from Mahler's fifth symphony.
She was in a short low-necked dress and black stockings that night. She had taken off her shoes and drawn up her legs beneath her on the sofa, and she looked meaningfully at him out of her large, appealing eyes as they sipped their brandy. It was so obvious, everything seemed to have been arranged without a single word, and he lost the urge to have anything to do with her. After she had gone he told himself he could at least have gone to bed with her, as she had plainly offered, but when he woke up next morning, alone as usual, he was relieved. He ran into her in the street now and again, that was unavoidable in such a small town. They greeted each other politely and, as they passed each other, she tried to catch his eye.
Robert was responsible for Lucca Montale's treatment. It fell to him to tell her, a few days after the accident, that she was unlikely to see again. Her arms and legs were in plaster, and most of her head was covered with bandages, so only the lower part of her face was visible. She made no reply. For a moment he thought she had fallen asleep, then she moved her lips, but uttered no
sound. He sat down on the edge of the bed and asked what she wanted to say. The words came slowly, with difficulty. Her voice was faint and uncertain, it threatened to crack the whole time, and he had to bend over her to hear what she said.
She asked what the weather was like. He told her the day was grey but promised to clear up. He said it had rained. Yes, she replied, she had heard it. Had it rained in the morning or during the night? In the night, he said. For a time neither of them spoke. He would have liked to say something encouraging to her, but could not think of anything. Everything that occurred to him seemed either foolish or blatantly unsuitable.
She asked whether Andreas was there. She used his first name, as if assuming Robert would realise who she meant. He told her Andreas would probably come later in the day. It felt odd to mention her husband like that, as if he knew him. He said Andreas had been there several times with their son, while she was unconscious. The boy's name was Lauritz. She wanted to see him. Then she corrected herself. He must come. Robert suggested she should arrange it with her husband. The next thing she said was very surprising. She did not want Andreas to visit her. Only Lauritz. Could she rely on that being respected?
Robert did not know what to answer. He said yes without thinking. If that was what she wanted. It sounded very formal, almost solemn. He looked at the trees, just coming into leaf. She did not want anything. He looked at her again. Her voice was expressionless, without bitterness or self-pity. He stood up to go, she asked him to stay a little longer. He stayed by the window, waiting for her to say something more. Was it certain? He asked what she meant, feeling foolish. That she would never see again? He hesitated. As good as certain, he replied. He said he was sorry, at once regretting it. She said she would like to be alone.
He relayed Lucca Montale's wishes to the sister-in-charge and asked her to arrange with the husband to let their son visit her. A few hours later Andreas Bark was sitting in Robert's office. He was pale and unshaven, his dark hair tousled. He slouched in his chair with exhaustion and asked if he could smoke. Robert assented with a wave of his hand, which he placed on the pile of
case notes in front of him. Andreas Bark took a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, he smoked Gitanes. There was something aggressive about the spicy smell of dark tobacco. Andreas Bark looked out the window. It really was clearing up. Robert gazed at the silhouette of a gypsy woman twirling in a dance with a hand on one hip and a tambourine held above her head, through the sinuous veil of cigarette smoke.
He must apologise. Robert looked up, met the other's eyes and said there was nothing to apologise for. He understood. It was really the wrong thing to say, but now he had said it, and the other held onto his calm gaze with his tired eyes behind the eddying cigarette smoke. It struck Robert they must be about the same age. There was something in the other's expression which in a mute, acquiescent way was trying to remind him of it. As if, in some transferred sense, they were old schoolmates, who could rely on each other's sympathetic insight.
Had she explained why she did not want to see him? Robert cleared his throat and brushed a hair from his white coat. Whether his patient had said anything about it or not, as a doctor he could not permit himself to pass it on. But in fact she had not said anything that could explain her decision. Why should she confide in him, anyway? Robert immediately regretted his question. That was making too much of the point. The other man sank into his chair still further and again looked out the window, where the pale sun created a chiaroscuro of shine and shade, then shine again on the grass and the wings of the hospital as clouds kept passing over it. He pressed down the loose tobacco at the end of his cigarette with his finger. He could bring Lauritz to see her during afternoon visiting hours. Robert said he would have to arrange that with the sister in charge. But would he .Â .Â . Silence fell, and he was obliged to look the unhappy man in the face again. Yes? When he spoke to her, wouldn't he say that .Â .Â . Andreas Bark broke off and said it didn't matter. They shook hands. Then he left.
Robert did not go straight home in the afternoon. Instead he drove out to the beach, as he did occasionally when he needed
exercise. He parked in the fir plantation before the road got too sandy, and continued on foot through the dunes. The shore was deserted as usual. The sky was just as grey as the sand between the belts of dried seaweed with little air bubbles that Lea liked to crush between her fingers to make them crackle when they sat together on a Sunday looking out over the sea before he drove her to the station. The water was calm, it had a granulated surface in the offshore wind, and in the smooth, icy blue stretches the fishing stakes stood like trim markings from the coast and outwards towards the sharply defined horizon. Robert walked with long strides, head bent, absent-mindedly observing what passed through his field of vision, battered soaked herring boxes with rusty nails, crumpled starfish, milky jellyfish and empty white plastic bottles. Little waves lapped wearily at the edge of the water and made the silence seem deeper, more intimate.
He walked right out to the point where, in a gentle, indefinable transition, the beach gave way to sand spits, tussocks of grass, reed beds and narrow meadows stretching inland, everything separated by the bluish white mirror of the water. In one place a dinghy was moored to a pole in the midst of the folded calm of the water-mirror, merely a small silhouette against the emptiness of sea and sky. Robert had a definite objective, a rotting spar covered with little holes from ships' worms, where it was his habit to sit among the tall reeds to think, or just listen to birds' cries and the rhythmic, faintly whispering rush of wings, as he picked at the rotten wood.
He could well have been more sympathetic to the man in his office with his cigarette and his despair. He had felt really sorry for him. He caught sight of a bird sitting in among the reeds. It jerked its small head from side to side and forward and backwards with a mechanically ticking motion. He didn't know its name, he was not very good on birds. Several times he had thought of buying a bird book with coloured drawings which he could take on his walks, but the idea did seem a bit comical. Should he also get himself a pair of binoculars and some green wellies and tramp around like a typical enthusiast?