Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sigurd Hoel | "The Idiot"

Sigurd Hoel
The Idiot
Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

Today I saw him again. I hadn't seen him for such a long time and had forgotten that he existed, but suddenly I saw him again. Today.

When you wander about with nothing to do and your thoughts go their own way, the minutest things can often awaken a memory, like a breath from times gone by.

That's probably why I cannot stop thinking about him after seeing him again today. Your thoughts go their own way and have nothing else to occupy themselves with, and so you walk around thinking about quite indifferent things.

He hadn't changed, it was as though time had passed him by. As though it hadn't concerned him. Anyway, why should it?

He was as he'd always been.

He stood where he'd always stood, before the gap in the old board fence. Today too, as always before, he stood there in that gray cap pushed down over his empty gray eyes, his gray face unchanged; the years had left no marks on it.

How strange. It's quite a number of years, after all, but otherwise everything is unchanged.

I remember the first time I saw him.

It was many years ago, and I can't recall it all very clearly, but it must have been in the spring. Yes, it was definitely in the spring. I can remember having just moved into a small furnished room, a shabby, well, wretched little room, with a table before the window and two chairs, one with a bum leg so it had to be stood up against the wall.

I had rented the room because it was cheap and because it faced the street. The street ran westward, and when I pressed my face against the windowpane I could see the sunset.

There wasn't much traffic on this street, it was only a side street; but all the same there were a few things to observe, and at that time I would take pleasure in the most trifling things.

There was almost never a carriage to be seen, but once in a while someone would be passing on the opposite sidewalk, at times a couple.

There was more traffic in the morning and evening, when people were going to and from work and the entrance door of the small dairy kitty-corner from my window incessantly opened and closed.

The weather was exceptionally beautiful that spring, and I enjoyed seeing people squinting at the sun in the morning when they walked east and in the evening when they walked west, the sun shining directly into their eyes and gilding their faces.

But I'm forgetting myself. This doesn't concern him; but it was then I saw him for the first time, and now I can clearly remember how it was.

When I wanted to go downtown from this little side street, I would cross an open space, actually an old pasture, but now the street went straight across it.

On one side, to the right walking down, the enclosed pasture was still unchanged, empty and water-logged, with a few poor trees along a fence some distance off, but on the other side houses had begun to crop up at the upper and lower end; there were stables and stacks of planks and hay, a few lots and a blacksmith's shop. A tall board fence ran in front of the whole area, with a gate to the street here and there.

Before the smallest of these gates, not much more than a hole in the fence, was where he stood. Back of the hole was a store selling coal and firewood, and hay for the horses in the neighborhood. A couple of sooty individuals were at work in there.

There he was, before that hole, small, thin and gray--rocking back and forth on his thin, pitiful legs in knee pants and all too large boots, and with a gray cap pushed down over his empty gray eyes.

It was those eyes that made me notice him. They were small and gray, with an uncanny lack of life. I remember having seen the same staring expression in the eyes of a dead dog. There was no life at all in those eyes; containing a world of emptiness, they were like two openings to nothingness. The gray freckled face was unpleasant to look at; he had a protruding jaw and moved his mouth slowly, as if he was thinking of food. He was knock-kneed to boot, with one pitiful skinny leg supporting the other at the knee. So there he stood, rocking back and forth before the hole in the fence. All around him was sunshine and spring--I remember the wagtails bobbing along the field on the other side of the street and a couple of children, a boy and a girl, playing over by the trees amid loud happy cries.

He himself stood empty and calm, save for rocking on his thin legs and moving his protruding jaw. He stood there like a gray spot in the sunshine.

This I can remember. Naturally, I didn't catch all the details of his appearance at the time. But though I only looked at him fleetingly, the sight of him had a depressing effect on me, like a piece of meaninglessness, and I hastened my steps toward the city. I couldn't have remembered him for very long, however, being more taken up with other things, most likely.

In the time that followed I saw him often, I dare say nearly every day, and I came to know his habits and his life.

He used to stand before this hole in the fence almost continuously, looking into space with his gray eyes and rocking back and forth on his thin legs. His protruding jaw was always moving. Now and then a horse would be waiting for the coachman outside the fence, keeping him company; but then the coachman came and the horse disappeared.

Off and on he would stir and walk. He would walk a short distance on those pitiful skinny legs that knocked each other at the knee, tip-tap at each step. He didn't go far, only a few steps, tap-tap-tap, down the street. There sat a store for groceries, fruit and meat, where he took up his position in front of the window, looking at all the good food while his protruding jaw worked more intensely than usual.

One day as he stood there, the owner of the store appeared on the front steps the moment I passed by. He was a fat man, looking like one of his own fatty meats. He had a bag in his hand. Inside the bag were some bread crumbs, which he strewed on the ground for some fat pigeons staying nearby. They came flying up and began to stuff themselves in honor of the storekeeper.

At that moment his eye caught the little gray figure who stood in front of the steps, staring at the pigeons.

Laughing, he called out a word I didn't catch; but it must have been an epithet, for I could see the gray figure give a start--suddenly he came alive, his face took on an expression, hatred and rage flashed from his eyes, an intense hatred without reason, a blind elemental rage.

He clenched his fists, gurgled incoherent sounds and trampled the street with his big boots. The storekeeper laughed and went in again, and he stood there alone among the pigeons, which pecked up their crumbs without taking notice of him. He stood for another brief moment with clenched fists, gurgling forth his sounds. Then he eased up, shook his head a little, like a hen emerging into the sunshine, and a moment later he was his old self—empty and gray. He turned and went, tap-tap-tap, down to his hole.

I saw him day after day, and little by little I came to feel indifferent toward him. I would pass him by without noticing him, and soon a time came when I no longer lived in that little side street and never crossed that godforsaken place.

Time went by, and then one day I saw him again. He was standing beside a motorcycle by the edge of the sidewalk; the owner was working on a mechanical problem and was done the very moment I caught sight of them. They mounted and drove past.

He rode pillion, holding on very tight, and once again his face showed a bit of life; one could see he was scared and thrilled at once, and the play of his features seemed to express these complex feelings. In all likelihood it was a family friend, a local salesman or a sportsman, who had taken pity on him and invited him along to show him a little more of the world. There he sat holding on, noticing how unexpectedly large and strange the world was. In a while he would again be set down at that fence of his, to discover that the hole was in the same place as before.

I stood there following him with my eyes as he became smaller and smaller over there in the street. His legs dangling hither and thither, he swayed helplessly to and fro, becoming a kind of ironic emblem of all humankind as it chases blindly and purposelessly forward only to end up at the starting point.

But, actually, this was not the image that occurred to me as I stood there staring at the disappearing figure; it was myself and my own situation I happened to think about. God knows why, there being no resemblance: I had been wonderfully fortunate during this period, one stroke of luck was followed by another, everything succeeded, new prospects were opening up.

Again, time went by. I didn't see him anymore, at least I can't recall seeing him for a long period. He was out of my mind and had been so for a long time when I again happened to come across him. It was on an afternoon during the summer. We came walking up through the old place, and when we passed the hole in the fence, there he stood. Those empty gray eyes were looking blankly into space as he kept shifting his weight from one leg to the other, from one thin, miserable leg to the other.

I had forgotten about him till the very moment I saw him, but in that moment I remembered him as naturally as the other things nearby: the factory pipe, the corner store, the trees in the distance. He belonged here, fitted in like a stone in the pavement, and if he hadn't stood there, I would have missed something, most likely without knowing what.

We were just talking about a revolver I'd bought that day, just by chance; I'd seen it in a display window and bought it, for no sensible reason. I now remember that it was quite expensive, it was a superb piece of weaponry.

Not a soul was to be seen in the street, so I took it out and showed it her; I thought it was nice to have a revolver.

She thought it was scary and couldn't grasp what I wanted it for; would I shoot someone with it, did I have an enemy, what if it went off, who did I want to shoot?

"Myself," I replied, "if everything goes badly for me and you leave me."

I couldn't imagine either of the two.

"But wouldn't you shoot me, then?" she asked, looking at me and laughing, but turning serious immediately.

At that moment we reached the hole in the fence, where he stood.

"Him, in any case, you could without any detriment—," I began.

"Pfui, pfui! The poor fellow!" she cried, scandalized, and I fell silent, ashamed and embarrassed by my stupid and childish words.

"Poor fellow," she repeated softly, and I turned around and gave him a long look. He was standing in front of that miserable hole in the fence, staring into vacancy and looking as though he was chewing.

For the first time I was struck by the awful poverty of his life. The very thought of him filled me with terror, mingled with pity. There he stood day after day, year after year, staring into space, moving his protruding jaw and turning those empty eyes in his head. What he saw of the world, what reached his semi-conscious mind, was that gray street, a few dusty blades of grass, and the water-logged trees far away. Day after day, year after year. What more? A poor mother who grieved over him and fed him, a storekeeper who teased him, and once a year a man who gave him a ride on his motorcycle.

Rather die tomorrow, I thought, than be like him.

We went on in silence.

When I walked down again it was late in the evening, and I was looking about me, curious to know if I would see him. It seemed to me I had to make up for an injustice, I was feeling guilty toward him without being able to explain why. Was I weighed down by my own happiness?

The hole in the fence was closed, it was quiet in the streets, not a soul to be seen. All the same I continued to wander about and look for him, without even knowing what I wanted with him. But I didn't come across him. Presumably he'd already been fed and put to bed. When he slept he had his best hours, then he was pretty much like the rest of us, I suppose.

Now there came a time once more when I saw him constantly, and one day there again happened something which gave me a better insight into his life.

I came walking down toward the site, it was in the morning. I heard screams and shouts of joy, and suddenly, turning a corner, I almost ran into him. He was standing before an open gate, and now he was very much alive. Gurgling, chewing and shaking his arms, he was in a furious rage. Inside the gate and in the yard were three or four small boys and they were pestering him; they were pelting him with pebbles, making sallies and poking him with sticks, and rushing off again before he could catch them. Then they started over again. Their joy grew as his rage increased. They were innocent boys around ten or twelve. I chased the small fry away and helped him back to his hole. I spoke to him, but he didn't answer. He had relapsed into his usual apathy.

That was the last time I saw him. She who was the reason why I'd walked that long way up there moved to another part of town.

But today I saw him once again, and I haven't been able to rid myself of the thought of him. Time seems to have treated him mercifully, these years have left no mark on him, he was just the same as ever.

As I walked past him, he looked so much like himself from the old days that for a brief, a quite brief, moment I could imagine myself carried back to the time when I lived in this furnished room for the first time. It was just a brief moment, a tiny dizzying second, because otherwise everything is changed.

To rent this room again, what an idea! Though why not? One place is just as good as another. Here, too, almost everything is unchanged, that is to say, the limping chair has disappeared and the table, too, is different, I believe. But the store kitty-corner across the street is the same, and perhaps also the people walking the street, I don't know, I can't see their faces for the umbrellas.

Strange how gently time deals with such as him. It must be because it doesn't bring them much of either grief or joy. It's the same thing day after day, year after year—the gray street, a few tufts of dusty blades of grass, some trees far off, a wagtail, a sparrow. The changing seasons, rain, snow. A strange life going nowhere in particular.

Is it that contemptible? Is it that much poorer than that of others? More monotonous, quieter, more peaceful and happier? I wonder. Nearer the goal, the great nothingness, the great happiness.

Sigurd Hoel (1890-1960) was one of the most influential literary figures in Norway between the wars. His scope was broad; besides being a major novelist, he was a subtle and incisive critic, a vigorous cultural commentator, and a distinguished editor. Sun & Moon Press published his novel, The Road to the World’s End and Green Integer published his important fiction concerning Nazi-occupied Norway during World War II and the effects of that period, Meeting at the Milestone.

English language copyright ©2006 by Sverre Lyngstad and Green Integer.

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