Stig Sæterbakken
Stokes Schwartz,

(Dalkey Archive)
Edwin Mortens is spending the last of his days in the bathroom in his apartment, where he chews gum, rocks back and forth, eats meatballs on occasion, and screams at his wife --- Erna --- asking what the hell she is doing and why she isn't taking better care of him.

Evidently Edwin retired to his rocking chair (and the bathroom) many years ago ... retired from life, as it were. All his needs are taken care of: besides his meatballs and packets of chewing gum, he has a catheter, a colostomy bag, and his thoughts, which do go on.

He had a radio for awhile, but Erna was afraid that he'd drop it into the toilet or in the tub and set the apartment on fire so she took it away from him. There is a maid named Sigri who comes once a week to shop and clean up a bit, but evidently she doesn't make it to the bathroom: the floor is knee-deep in chewing-gum wrappers and used chewing gum. At one point, Edwin tells Erna to look for a bug that is, he thinks, shuffling around on the floor, but she replies that he has to be patient. "It could take hours to find a little insect in all of the garbage that was on the floor around him, assuming it was even possible."

She cares for him, after a fashion, and we are treated to reports on picking his blackheads and his sores, the changing of the bags, the cutting of nosehairs ("they were stiff and hard"), cleaning the dead skin off his heels. "I even pressed on his stomach," she tells us, "to help him get the air out."

On top of his other troubles, Edwin has gone blind, so he never (apparently) leaves the rocking chair nor the bathroom. Further,

    His legs have swelled up so much they look like little tree stumps. They're covered with red marks, and his skin is cracked all over, as though it's become too tight to hold him in.

Then, Erna adds, "He never courted me. We just got married."

Despite this, in good Norwegian fashion,

    I insisted that he look presentable, even though no one, more or less, ever set eyes on him --- even though he sat there alone all the time.

§     §     §

You may have gathered that this is a rather odd little volume. It is. It is very odd ... and not a little grueling. The title explains all that has come to pass: Edwin and Erna are joined at the hips in their tiny apartment, their tiny lives, their massive disfunction. During the course of the book, scarcely anything happens ... outside of the two of them bedeviling each other. He hates her, she's a bitch, she never does anything for him; she cares for him selflessly, she's all he's got, why is she so good to him? ... The old Siamese Twins, joined at the hips of their psychopathology.

Every now and then we read in the newspaper of a couple who have lived together for fifty years, quietly, the neighbors hardly notice them, and then one day the husband brains his wife or she shoots him dead ... and people wonder how this could have come to pass with such a sweet couple. Siamese will make it perfectly clear. The running arguments that go on between the two of them: "You bitch" ... "Maybe if I don't take him his meatball" ... "You lie" ... "Maybe if I stay out of the room" ... "You are trying to kill me" --- are enough to drive the reader buggy too.

I was reading Siamese during a long week in which I was involved in "medical procedures" (anyone over seventy knows what I am talking about) and I was thinking that getting sick and dying were the ultimate dual tragedies and then I went through the day-to-day of Erna and Edwin and I began to think that the worse tragedy in the world may not be dying but to live on, getting older and older, to where life turns sordid, one becomes pissed-off and ruthless and conscienceless and I'm thinking that maybe the next time a doctor offers to do a "procedure" on me to presumably extend my days maybe I should just tell him to take his job and shove it.

Stig Sæterbakken is, the jacket tells us, "one of Norway's most acclaimed and controversial authors." He is, too, I want you to know, relentless and pitiless. The book is so relentless that I wanted to chuck it but then I had to know what happened to this hopeless, driven, deluded, doubly loony couple who do everything possible to drive each other bananas ... and beyond bananas. Siamese is a fiercesome, ghastly union of the best (and the worst) of Beckett's All That Fall, Sartre's Nausée, Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Visit and anything by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Edwin's bilious monologues even include Céline's famous three dots ... for instance, this memory his stint as managing director of "the fortress of suffering," the old peoples' home known as Kronsæther ...

    For them dignity was a quaint, outdated notion, nothing more than a word, the letters hard and matter-of-fact as fossils, hard like the desiccated little pellets that came out of them and that made them scream like they were being torn apart ... If it had been up to me, they would all have been smothered in their beds on their first night there ...
--- Jacques Lundqvist
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