And I was not particularly surprised that this time there was a weary, vacant look in Henrik’s eyes. Time had clearly caught up with him. He had tried to stay ahead of it by rushing from one town to another, but though his simple cart had transformed into a carriage and screeching prostitutes had become bourgeois ladies from Stockholm, time had at last got the better of him and disclosed to him the permanence of his destiny, its inexorability: he was still the same man who had first been cheated of a horse and then of a woman.
In The Brothers, Finnish writer Asko Sahlberg conjures a nineteenth century drama that is as deftly modern as it is richly archaic. This, the first of the Peirene Press series of the Small Epic, measuring a mere 122 pages, is an epic indeed. Set on a farm in Finland, the return of one of the brothers gives rise to a hefty family dispute.
I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming. Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.
The story of two brothers, Henrik and Erik, is narrated through a series of monologues that unveil the events of the past and lead to the eventual dénouement. There are six voices: their own, and that of The Farmhand, the Old Mistress, Anna, Erik’s wife and Mauri, a relative, who fought with Erik in the war. These tongues rise from a land bereft of artifice. The backdrop, a wasted Scandinavian environment, is thick with snow in the depths of winter. This setting is intrinsic to the narrative: As the landscape is austere, so are the voices. Like the landscape, they are purged of artifice, unperturbed by superflu, startlingly direct. Although set in the nineteenth century, the narrative style is so paired down, so clean it feels immediately modern.
Yet, Sahlberg has set this tale in a land and age where the language of people and the earth can rise unperturbed by the chaos of the contemporary era. Modern, but also ancient, earthy. There is an overwhelming sense of engagement with the landscape: the characters are shapely as the land, their ‘speech tells you they have rough palms’, they are but playthings of the elements:
Nature toys with humans, pokes fun at us. It is a grim game in general, as when frost hits the fields, or a river floods, or a thunderbolt strikes a man dead. At times one feels as if the earth were waging a war against men, along with the sky, the winds and of course the snow. A human being puts up a fight as best he can, but he might as well throw himself down and wait for the axe to fall.
Nordic, flash with fights, with lust, with war, gaming debts and family secrets, The Brothers is made of dramatic and grandiose stuff. It is deserving of fringed velvet curtains, the clamour of crowds. Critics have swerved to the appellation “Shakespearian” when describing the book, I would instead invoke a comparison with the work of García Lorca. For like Lorca’s work, Sahlberg’s is rife with the effects of the landscape, thriving with blood feuds, ridden with characters earthy and raw. But, where Lorca is heavy with passion and bravado, Sahlberg’s tale has something of the quiet pastoral. Lorca’s plays take place in the insufferable Andalucían heat; Sahlberg’s epic stands therefore as their colder Scandinavian brother.
Told by six voices, in monologue, the book reads as a polyphony, a symphony of many voices, luring the reader. These voices create a chant, mnemonic, revealing and awakening memory. So that, while many-voices, these are also a coherent whole, each voice integral to the construction of the piece. Like the gathering of a crowd, the voices echo, closing in on the situation, gaining compunction as the tale unfurls, clutching tight around the final climactic scenes.
The tale has the elements of tragedy, set in one day, one place, all threads lead toward the final denouement. It is an art to construct a narrative that combines theatrical grandiloquence with quiet pastoral. Sahlberg does this by composing a tale that is rich with the ostentatious elements of epic, but also modest, using a simple directness of language and speech
This is my fence. It is beginning to rot, little by little. Futile, like everything I have ever done. If it is true that, after his death, a man is remembered by his achievements, I might as well refrain from kicking the bucket, because any memory of me will just spill out and trickle away.