This is the story of an author who is looking back and assessing his life through a series of lesson, or parables, he has learned which have particularly shaped his spiritual life. The author’s name is Perola and his life appears to have an uncanny resemblance to that of Enquist’s himself. When the book begins Perola is lamenting the speech he delivered at his mother’s funeral and decides he wants to write a better one to hand out to his relatives. He reminisces about his childhood with his mother who was his only parent for most of his life.
One of the few possessions Perola has left of his father is a notebook full of poetry and personal reflections. But the notebook was half-burned because his mother threw it into the fire and decided to save it at the last minute. This notebook is also missing nine pages which his mother tore out. The author spends a great part of the book comtemplating why his other decided to save the notebook at the last minute and what might have been contained in those missing nine pages.
Perola is brought up in a very religious environment and he is even on track to study religion and become a reverend. Since Perola is now an old man who is sick with a bad stomach and heart, he contemplates the parables he learned that changed the course of his life. One of his earliest memories is of a sickly Aunt Valborg who is asked by an uncle why she doesn’t pray or go to church anymore. Aunt Valborg’s answer is simple yet has a profound effect on Perola’s life and is something he remembers until his dying days. She says, ” I know for certain there is nothing there.” Aunt Valborg had prayed to The Saviour and her only answer was a resounding silence and at that point she no longer regarded herself a believer. This simple statement that he overhears his aunt say is the first crack in the surface a foundation of religion that Perola’s mother tried to establish. It shocks him because he never realized that not to believe was even an option.
The pivotal point of the book during which time Perola knows that a devout, religions life is not the correct path for him is when he has his first sexual encounter with a much older woman. Perola is fifteen and he visits a fifty-one year old woman who is renting a cottage in the village. Perola is at first nervous to be around her but he is put at ease when they discuss books and have lemonade. And she very slowly and tenderly introduces him to the world of sexual intimacy.
This scene in the book is not salacious or inappropriate; the woman and Perola both serve a need for each other and this experience further shapes his non-religious awakening. Perola describes this sexual experience in religious terms during which he has a epiphany. But this moment of clarity actually turns him away from religion instead of driving him toward it. According to the beliefs he is taught, he should feel guilty about what has happened between himself and the woman on the knot free pine floor. But instead he feels like his experience has invited him to step inside what he calls “the innermost room” and begin to experience the meaning of life.
This is a truly literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side.
For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.
About the Author:
After a degree in History of literature at Uppsala University he worked as a newspaper columnist and TV debate moderator from 1965 to 1976. Because of his work he soon became an influential figure on the Swedish literary scene. From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in Berlin on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been working as an independent writer since 1977.
Enquist’s works are characterized by a chronic pessimistic view of the world. They always describe the restrictions imposed by the pietistical way of living, especially in March of the Musicians (1978) and Lewi’s Journey (2001). He gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician (1999) where he tells the story of Struensee, the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII. Many of Enquist’s works have been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally.