Man, lost, needs space.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin

Written in 2005 in Norwegian and newly available in translation, this novel had an irresistible title for me being a bit of fan of all things space related.  However, it’s not really about the Apollo space program, it concerns one man’s view on what happened next to the second man to walk on the moon.  It is well documented in Aldrin’s autobiography (link below), that he suffered terribly in two directions – always being in Armstrong’s shadow, but also wanting to melt into the background and not being allowed to. This led to a battle with the bottle and some bad years for him.

Mattias is thirty and works in a garden centre – a nice quiet job where he can quietly do what he’s good at, and have a nice quiet life, as he explains …

Some people like being the secretary who’s left outside when the doors close on the meeting room, some people want to drive the garbage truck, event during Easter, some people want to perform the autopsy on the fifteen-year-old who committed suicide early one January morning, and who’s found a week later in the lake, some people don’t want to be on TV, or the radio, or in the newspapers. Some people want to watch movies, not perform in them.
Some people want to be in the audience.
Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
Simple mathematics.
So here I was. Here. Here in the garden, and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.

Mattias lives his quiet life, always managing to keep out of the spotlight.  He does have a long-term girlfriend though but their relationship is getting very rickety. Helle’s career is developing, and she feels held back by Mattias’s passivity.

I’d been together with Helle for twelve and a half years. Four thousand and fifty-nine days,. 109,416 hours. Six and a half million minutes. 6,564,960 in figures. A long time. A very long time. In half a year we would enter the third decade in which I’d loved her. But she still didn’t want to get married. Didn’t believe it would work.

Mattias needs bringing out of his shell. Helle decides she’s not the girl to do it, and dumps him.  His job goes down the spout too due to the recession, so Mattias agrees to go to the Faroe Islands as the sound engineer to his friend Jørn’s band who have a gig there.  Jørn had at one time hoped to recruit Mattias as lead singer – he has a wonderful voice, but only sings in private (or when drunk), he’s that shy.

The next thing we know, Mattias wakes up soaked through in a bus shelter well outside the island’s main town and he’s in some mental distress.  A driver stops, and that is Mattias’s lucky day, for Havstein is a psychiatrist who runs a halfway house for patients who aren’t quite ready to make a go of it on their own in the world yet after institutionalisation.  The house is a converted factory in Gjógv, a small and increasingly isolated hamlet over an hour’s drive from the Faroese capital Tórshavn.

Havstein makes him welcome and Mattias feels strangely at home at the factory.  He is given time to sleep and calm down before meeting the others – Palli, Anna and Ennen.  Mattias is delighted to see himself fitting in, becoming a valued member of the group, the isolated position of the little community suits him just fine. Havstein is outwardly so laid back he’s practically horizontal but behind the scenes he works hard behind the scenes to make everything tick. When Mattias manages to miss his plane back to Norway for Christmas, left on his own, he starts reading Havstein’s files…

I’d read enough psychiatric files to last me a year or a lifetime now, but I stood there wondering for a moment if I should get on the bandwagon and write a book myself. Survival Strategies: Basic Model For a Long and Happy Life. A three-step program.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Repeat as required.

Mattias will bond with his new friends for life and go through many experiences with them, especially Ennen whom he becomes very close to. Ennen is obsessed by the Swedish band The Cardigans, and their songs pervade the pages once Mattias is in the Faroes; their album also form the section titles of the book. In fact, the whole book is infused with the spirit of grown-up rock – these are all guys and girls who like their music.

A lot more actually happens in this book than I’ve described, but really it’s about Mattias’s unconventional voyage back to full health from his crisis, and coming to terms with his life.  All the characters came to life well – from Mattias’s parents who were full of middle-aged restraint, to his co-patients full of little insecurities; only Havstein remains a real enigma, but eventually his layers get peeled away too.

It’s thoughtful and laid back in that cool Scandinavian way, but I always wanted to read more despite it being a bit long.  Rather good! (8.5/10)

* * * * *
My copy was supplied from a review list sent by Amazon Vine.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin, pub Seven Stories Press, Sept 2011, Hardback, 471 pages.
Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon by Buzz Aldrin
Best Of by the Cardigans (CD)

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