The Half Brother

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Publication Information:

The Half Brother
Lars Saabye Christensen
Arcade Publishing, New York
$27.00 (Norwegian title: Halvbroren)

Lars Saabye Christensen’s The Half Brother is an international bestseller not only because it illuminates the complex and compelling themes of post World War II Norway, sibling rivalry, family secrets, and the mystery of identity, but also because it is compulsively readable and irresistibly discussable. Norwegian chat-lists have been avidly dissecting this oceanic book’s many mysteries since Halvbroren’s debut in 2001, perhaps because Christensen’s four-generational family saga generates more questions than answers. Book groups selecting The Half Brother will not be able to stop talking about this accomplished and beautifully written Norwegian novel.

The Half Brother’s protagonist, Barnum Nilsen, has a peculiar father; a short, fat, dreamer from the far north who ran away and joined the circus because he was tired of being the laughing stock of his small fishing village in the Lofoten islands. Is it any wonder then, that Arnold Nilsen names his son “Barnum” after the famous American circus impresario? Barnum spends his youth defending both his odd name and his preternaturally short stature. Barnum’s tough half-brother Fred, who was conceived during a mysterious rape on the first day of the peace in Nazi-occupied Norway, has bouts of muteness brought on by trauma and guilt. Dyslexic and angry, he hates his stepfather, Arnold Nilsen, but is fiercely devoted to his mother Vera, grandmother Boletta and great-grandmother, The Old One, who is a former star of the silent movies. Each of the three has given birth out of wedlock and been abandoned by the father of her child; these missing fathers — the family calls them “night men” — may have physically vanished but they continue to loom large in the pages of the unspoken family history.

The book’s narrator, Barnum, has a lot to compensate for, growing up as he does with three women who are married to their painful pasts, with a father whose tendency to vanish resembles that of the “night men” so prevalent in the family line, and with his tough, troubled half-brother, who alternately protects and tyrannizes him. But Barnum ultimately survives the gauntlet of his painful youth with the help of two friends whose family lives are as troubled and twisted as his own. The overweight Peder has a crippled mother who paints naked men, and Vivian’s mother wears a veil to hide the damage inflicted on her by a terrible car accident. Refugees from the wreckage of their families, the three fast friends, who met when they were all thrown out of dancing school, are addicted to the movies, that magical world that allows them to forget their outcast status and stunted family lives.

While Fred becomes first a boxer and then a world wanderer, Barnum channels his anxieties and fears into precocious film scripts that replay his troubled past. Although the brothers appear to be polar opposites, one dyslexic and the other unusually facile with words, it eventually becomes apparent that Barnum shares his brother’s frustrated rage and self-destructive urges, and that Fred just might be a more imaginative storyteller than his literate younger brother.

Among the novel’s many themes are the complexity of family life, the sufferings of those who are physically different, the strength of women, the vulnerability of children, the power of the past, the difficulties and challenges of the creative life, and the ambivalent but enduring bond between siblings. Blocked creativity, self-destructiveness, alcohol addiction, rage, and abandonment, as well as fierce but flawed love plague these tormented characters, whose desire for connection seems thwarted as much by their shared history as by their own actions and impulses.

In sum, this tour de force, while wildly inventive and hilariously funny, is simultaneously steeped in a palpable grief born of loneliness, loss and failed connections. The author creates a fully realized world that will keep readers speculating about the fate of the book’s central characters, Barnum and Fred, long after they finish reading it. The Half Brother is a very moving, fully human story that will resonate with your own life. In fact, you are apt to find yourself rereading parts of it, avidly, as you continue to puzzle out the tantalizingly elusive details of this strange yet familiar family drama.

Why does Barnum’s half-brother, Fred, hate his stepfather, Arnold Nilsen so much?

Who is Fred’s father? Is there any evidence in the book to suggest the answer?

What is the significance of Arnold Nilsen’s mysterious accident with his hand?

Why is the Greenland letter from Fred’s great-grandfather so important to him?

How does Barnum feel about his half-brother Fred and how does Fred feel about Barnum? Discuss the complicated, ambivalent relationship between the two half-brothers.

What is the symbolic significance of the mysterious suitcase full of laughter, Barnum’s only paternal inheritance, and what light does it shed on Arnold Nilsen’s character?

How do the book’s circus metaphors help us understand the novel’s themes and plot?

Fred’s name means “peace” in Norwegian and yet he seems genetically prone to rage and violence. Is the name purely ironic or does Christensen intend to suggest that Fred does, in some ways, bring a measure of peace to his troubled family at long last?

What goes wrong between Barnum and Vivian, and who is the real father of Vivian’s child? What evidence do you find to support your theories about the child’s paternity? Is it Barnum? Peder? Fred? Other suspects?

How would you characterize the relationship between Peder and Barnum?

Alcoholism is a persistent theme in the book. The Old One keeps a bottle of Malaga hidden behind her books; her daughter, Boletta, frequents a bar called the North Pole, and Barnum often drinks himself into oblivion at great sacrifice to his artistic career and to his relationships with those who are closest to him. Why do Barnum, his grandmother, and his great grandmother struggle with addiction while Barnum’s mother and his destructive half-brother mostly appear to resist this temptation?

What accounts for the fact that Barnum repeatedly sabotages himself as a lover, a husband, a friend and a writer?

Consider the book’s last two sentences, spoken by the narrator, Barnum: “‘Why have you come back?’ I ask him. And I don’t know if it’s me or mom Fred is looking at when he says, ‘To tell you all this.'” All what? The quote implies that this is Fred’s story as much as it is Barnum’s. Discuss the implications of this surprising and mysterious ending.

Lars Saabye Christensen is one of Scandinavia’s leading contemporary writers. In 2001, he celebrated his twenty-fifth year of authorship with the release of the original Norwegian version of The Half Brother, entitled Halvbroren. Christensen has won many prizes for his work, which includes a dozen novels, numerous books of poetry, short fiction, and film scripts. Over the years he has won many literary prizes. These include The Tarjei Vesaas Prize for First Fiction, The Norwegian Critics’ Prize, the Brage Award, the Bookseller’s Prize, The Riverton Prize and the Cappelen Prize. Most recently he won the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize (2002) for Halvbroren. Although his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, The Half Brother is the first of his books to attract broad international acclaim. His latest novel, The Figwort Family (2003), has been judged by some Norwegian critics as his best novel to date, high praise indeed when one considers the literary and critical sensation generated by The Half Brother.

Scottish writer Kenneth C. Steven has been widely praised by reviewers, and deservedly so, for his translation of this volcanic, 682-page novel with its eccentric and mysterious characters and its sophisticated structure studded with numerous flashbacks. In Steven’s rendition, The Half Brother’s quirky narrator tells the same complex, nuanced story laced with the same brilliant blend of humor and pathos found in the original novel, Halvbroren. Perhaps the translation succeeds so well because Steven mastered both official Norwegian languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk, while a university student in Norway. Steven himself writes novels, poems, and children’s books, some of which have been nominated for British and Scottish literary prizes.

The Half Brother is the first of Christensen’s books to be widely distributed in English. Others have had small press runs in English translation but are, unfortunately, difficult to locate. According to his publisher, Christensen’s latest book, The Figwort Family (2003), has not yet been translated to English.

If you enjoyed this book, we suggest the following other Nordic writers available in English: Linn Ullmann’s Before You Sleep, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Herbjorg Wassmo’s Dina’s Book.

LINKS TO REVIEWS IN ENGLISH,12084,961313,00.html

This NORTANA Study guide was prepared by Elizabeth Blair, Associate Professor of English, Southwest Minnesota State University.