With German Literature Month over (and the World Cup having finally run out of four-game days), it’s time to get back to a normal reading schedule, so December will see me sorting through my shelves and seeing what appeals. That begins today with a look at a short work by a writer whose books I’ve enjoyed several times in the past. It’s not the cheeriest of works, admittedly, but it’s a short, excellent read, and also a moving tribute to the man it’s written to.
Hanne Ørstavik’s Ti Amo (translated by Martin Aitken, review copy courtesy of Archipelago Books) is a short novel written from the perspective of a woman watching the unthinkable unfold. After several bouts of illness, and an operation, her husband is diagnosed with terminal cancer, so she does what she does best, writing a book that acts as both a diary and a retrospective. It’s a story of their final year together, commenting on what’s happening now and telling how it got to this point.
The novel is especially poignant when you learn that it’s based on events in the writer’s life, with Ørstavik’s own husband passing away at a relatively young age. Her grief is evident in the book as she allows an unnamed woman to work through her impending loss. For the writer, it’s one that has already happened…
The diary, then, recounts the couple’s final days together:
I write these words, until you die, and I start to cry, and I don’t know where I am either. I wander through the days, knowing that you’re dying, only somehow I can’t feel it. It’s ungraspable, that you’re going to die. I don’t know what it is. How it is. I don’t know.
p.71 (Archipelago Books, 2022)
It alternates between describing their trips together, as well as the move to Italy, and the realities of everyday life for a terminal patient, such as the frequent hospital visits and waiting anxiously for his morphine to arrive at the pharmacy. There are also some very frank descriptions of uncomfortable and unfortunate incidents as the disease progresses, so consider yourselves warned…
As you’d expect, events don’t always move in a gentle downward progression. The husband swings between apathy and a lust for life (depending on how well the pills are working), and his wife senses some denial in his refusal to discuss his impending death. One of the more stressful situations comes when the invalid insists on having a New Year’s Party, inviting people over at the last minute for a dinner that will exhaust the pair of them.
Ti Amo also sees the narrator reflecting on the couple’s life together, and on their very different characters. She shows her husband to be reserved and hesitant to open up, while seeing herself as outgoing, with an almost pathological need for truth and happiness, a trait that makes it difficult for her to adapt to her new home:
It’s hard living in Milan, really hard, and I’ve no idea why it has to be like that, I still don’t understand it, how being so clammed up and unapproachable apparently can give them such a feeling of satisfaction in life. Because to them it’s cultivated, a sign of dignity, not to show their emotions. (p.83)
It might seem like a little thing, but these petty frustrations build and add to the pressures already felt from dealing with the major issue there’s no escaping from.
Unsurprisingly, she turns to writing to cope, unable to find any other way to help her deal with the situation:
I finish writing that novel there, and it’s always dark, dark when I go there, dark when I go home again, dark in the apartment when I get back. You’re in pain. You’re unsteady on your feet and nauseous, and it hurts for you to move. I finish writing that novel because it’s the only thing I can do. I can’t do anything to help you. I can’t do anything for myself, either, apart from that, finish the novel. Because it’s what I do. I write novels. It’s my way of existing in the world, I make a space for myself, or the novel makes a space for me, we do it together, and that’s where I can be, inside the novel. (pp.19/20)
Here’s she’s talking about her previous novel, but the idea also holds true for this diary – at least, if we take her at face value. Cleverly, as we inch closer to the end, it becomes clear that there’s another reason for her writing. As it turns out, after describing herself as one who yearns for truth, for honesty, it appears that there’s something she hasn’t been telling us…
Ørstavik is an excellent writer, and just as in novels like The Blue Room, Love and The Pastor, she’s able to drag us into her world. The writing often consists of run-on sentences flowing out of her, reflecting the fictionalised narrator’s need to unburden herself of her feelings. There’s a realisation that her life as she knows it is over, and she fears never being happy again. Again, the second half of the book leaves us wondering whether that’s the whole truth or a bit of a front.
A book that can be read in an hour or so, Ti Amo, as the title suggests, is a letter to a lost love, a story told directly to her husband, but also an absorbing, fictionalised account of the final days of a marriage. There are times when it’s tempting to confuse the writer and the narrator (and I hope there are substantial fictional elements to the book), but despite the events behind the novel, it’s important to remember that it is fiction. Nevertheless, I suspect most readers will sense the pain of loss underpinning Ørstavik’s work, and recognise the difficulty she, and her alter-ego, face in moving on.