Beyond Sleep by W F Hermans, trans Ina Rilke

Visions of a nerd in the North

Paul Binding
Friday 28 July 2006 00:00

His desire to make a geological discovery apart, 25-year-old Alfred Issendorf is an unlikely member of a scientific expedition in northern Norway. That this Dutch graduate knows no Norwegian is a minor problem; there's always English. His ignorance of this remote region is only to be expected. What hampers Alfred, who tells his own story, is the fact that, to a degree he hasn't yet appreciated, he is a nerd.

He can't ford streams without slipping in; he is daunted by the ravines to be scaled; he can't fish, he can't cook, he can't even help his mates to put up or dismantle the tent, but just hangs uselessly about instead. He hasn't anticipated the ferocity of the Arctic mosquitoes, or the intensity of the midnight sun in high summer, and therefore - one of the meanings of the title - he's unable adequately to sleep. Eventually, he will even lose his compass.

To compound all these failings, he has a flair for saying the wrong thing, for misplaced facetiousness or unwarranted digs at Norwegian scientists. And yet - a remarkable feature of this impressive, compelling novel - he is by no means unlikeable or unadmirable. Even at his most irritating, we identify with him.

What has brought Alfred up here to Finnmark are round rimmed holes in the terrain, which he believes have been caused by meteors. To back up this interpretation, he wants to find meteorites among the stones. In doing so he can at last live up to his dead scientist-explorer father.

This theory emanates from his professor in Amsterdam, Sibbelee, and is wholeheartedly opposed by the Norwegian academic in Oslo to whom, at the opening of the novel, Alfred has an introduction. Is hostility to Sibbelee the reason for this old man's not giving him indispensable maps? Does he want Alfred to fail?

The obstinate anti-human character of the land is marvellously caught, in a wealth of kinaesthetic detail, and yet there is beauty here: above all in the majestic cone of Mount Vuorje. Yet nature asserts itself, and cruelly: disaster happens.

W F Hermans (1921-1995) was for many years lecturer in physical geography at the University of Groningen: hence the authenticity of his scene. But his preoccupations are existentialist, pitting the received ideas by which we live against disquieting physical reality. In Ina Rilke's lively and graceful translation, his novel does what so few do: it makes one see and feel life afresh.

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