The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen

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The Independent Culture

A rapturous fanfare announced The Half Brother's English publication. Reviewers have trumpeted unadulterated praise, and critical clichés such as "international bestseller" emblazon its cover. Lars Saabye Christensen, Norwegian author of the cult novel The Beatles, won the 2002 Nordic Prize for Literature for this modern-day saga, which sold well in his own country. The hype belies both the book's bulk and its grim vision of what it is to be human. Perhaps there is a correlation between the high rate of Scandinavian suicide and the native success of Christensen's work.

The Half Brother is a novel of misshapen men, midgets and misfits. Its narrator is a dwarfish and alcoholic scriptwriter with Tourette's syndrome called Barnum Nilsen, whose screenplays have not yielded a single frame on celluloid. Barnum tells the stories of his own, and his family's, upbringing in a depressed area of Oslo in the aftermath of the Second World War. Tristram Shandy-like, Barnum's birth is not formally announced until 200 pages have elapsed.

The novel proper begins with the rape of his mother, Vera, on VE-Day in the communal drying loft of her block. The resultant offspring is Fred, Barnum's moody bully-boy of an elder half-brother. The dysfunctional relationship between Barnum and Fred dominates. Fred's shadowy character is magnetic. As a baby, he clenches his fists like "red spheres" that prefigure the boxing he later takes up.

Fred's resentment towards Barnum's father, Arnold, is palpable. Arnold is a stunted shyster who seduces Vera by making her laugh. As Barnum later recognises though, "laughter is the voice of darkness"; like the other males linked with this family, Arnold is a wandering "night man" and con artist. Barnum inherits his father's lack of stature and his verbal facility. It's disturbing to have such a cracked voice for a narrator: although he decides to write, this is foremost a portrait of a young and gawky alcoholic, then of an artist. Christensen makes the darkness of his characters visible.

Surprisingly for such a wordy book, The Half Brother is obsessed by silence. Barnum's great-grandmother acted in silent movies, while Vera hacks at her tongue and Fred refuses to speak. It seems odd for a scriptwriter to be so fascinated with silence, but Christensen's triumph is to make his mute characters compelling. Barnum's flickering thoughts simultaneously bedevil and exhilarate himself and the reader; he is riddled with thought like an old table leg with worms. Like the "black holes" that drinking drills into his mindscape, silence offers Barnum a sleep in which all his dreams are extinguished. A study of memory and mental processes, The Half Brother is a gargantuan meditation on the pain of intellectual being.

This immense yarn about a "flyweight" character is also a heavyweight novel of ideas, full of authorial sleights of hand, occupying a curious cusp between laughter and tears. Like Fred the boxer, Christensen floats one moment before stinging his reader in the next. He darts across a full tonal spectrum, from the colours of comedy (the bleak plot is mitigated by Barnum's sarcastic wit) to tragedy's black.

Kenneth Steven should be applauded for embarking on this translator's marathon, although Christensen's prose has perhaps inevitably been compromised. The language can seem awkward, often lacking the necessary éclat and shine that characters such as Arnold require. Much like its alcoholic narrator secreting spirits behind his collected Ibsen, however, the reader becomes intoxicated by The Half Brother's heady fumes and gulps down Christensen's words by the end. He creates dependency in his audience: The Half Brother is a bittersweet addiction. There is as much a sense of relief as fulfilment to go cold-turkey and finally close its pages.