In his previous book, Norwegian Wood (MacLehose Press, 2015), Lars Mytting composed an elegy to trees – not only as an elemental form of life, as symbols, and as the other, vital half of the animate cosmos, but also in their immutable relation to man. Artefact, building material, creative body, inspirational source, energy provider or civilising medium, or even as the wherewithal of devouring destruction, wood becomes in Mytting’s narrative evocative of stark simplicity and mesmeric complexity, the very stuff our lives are made of.
In The Sixteen Trees of the Somme Mytting returns to trees and wood, this time as the critical pivot of an eggshell-thin narrative of life that alone can keep the characters from hurtling themselves into a gaping abyss. A story of isolation and of the quest for community, a tale of fear and of the yearning for release, it is a narrative of reflection, memory failing, memory lost and memory regained.
A boy grows up in a fecund solitude that contains the sinister and the miraculous in almost equal measure, in a twentieth-century Heidi-like household in Norway that includes a darkly enigmatic, recluse grandfather and a farm, where life and death have always alternated in the midst of a natural landscape as dramatically beautiful as it is pregnant with tragedy. Screaming silence and healing Nordic stillness form the background, the frame of vision and analysis of single and multiple pasts, dreams and nightmares, singular and unexceptional lives. A camera, an M6 Leica with a full set of macro, telescopic, panoramic and fish-eye lenses, becomes the catalyst for tensions suffused with chilling mystery, tangential coherence, unsettling gaps in the continuum of life and understanding, which threaten the very possibility of existence.
Mytting contrasts the epic terror of World War I with the heinous Nazi atrocities of World War II, lethal green poison-gas mines and the Black Watch pitted against the Green Mina death trucks of Ravensbrück and the black SS uniforms. He writes with the unembellished exactness of coarse-grain film and the poetry of lost possibilities, combining the rhetoric of an earlier feel for language and literature with the need for images and words that will sustain continuity with a more contemporary reality. He is the artist, the writer-photographer who captures and interprets the past, the present moment and infinity: the intimation that “we are many who talk about heaven. But few who understand eternity” becomes the underlying drive behind the characters’ choices, in an attribution of meaning that oscillates audaciously between the absolute and the merely human.
The Sixteen Trees of the Somme conceals genuineness and purity of diction behind a story that intertwines the historical experience with the mysterious, the thrilling, the if-only fairy-tale romance, the whole spun together with a mythographer’s skill for creating symbols out of allegories, lore out of facts, experience out of events, wisdom out of fault and failure. Felling a tree or nurturing a wood, taking or leaving the Leica behind, opting between wellies and bespoke footwear, choosing the flawless fit of habit or the friction of a more potent union become the vocabulary of a “this side of language” that will finally weave together the severed strands of many lives, many episodes of history, into an anonymous vita beata.
Reviewed by Mika Provata-Carlone
THE SIXTEEN TREES OF THE SOMME
Written by Lars Mytting
Translated by Paul Russell Garrett
Published by Maclehose Press, 2017
Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London. bookanista.com
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