Thanatology Review

Electronic Journal


Volume 20

Number 4 · 2016

Book review


PhD docens


Death - My agony 1

Magvető Könyvkiadó, 2016. 435 o.

Karl Ove KnausgÅrd - Halál - Harcom 1. című könyvének fedlapja

Contemporary Norwegian literature can boast a sound success, reaching for Ibsenian heights: there have not been so high sales figures for a long time neither in Scandinavian nor in international terms, and this writing has been translated to 22 languages.

In the first volume of his biographic series, Karl Ove Knausgård focuses on a taboo subject: death. He does that with unvarnished honesty, with quasi-painful naturalism. He does not use euphemies, he does not want to be tactful, he brutally writes down how life gives our body over to death and how the former human body enters an eternal biological cycle. In medias res: to our heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later our heart naturally stops beating, our blood flows down to the lowest point of our body where, accumulating in a small basin, it leaves a damp spot on the gradually whitening skin while the body temperature decreases, limbs stiffen, and bowels are emptying. (p. 7) This kind of objective conceptualisation of the spread of decomposition bacteria and the formation of livor mortis, and this aching sincerity is inherent only to few literary works.

It is unusal that the first paragraph presents a rhetorical question about why we isolate our fellow human beings and our loved ones when they are dying, asking why a terminally ill patient is dehumanised, why the topics of death and dying are a conversational taboo. We veil death and dying people not only in the figurative sense but also in the real sense of the word, says the writer. He is asking an open-ended question about this: he wants to know why corpses are covered when they are being transfered in corridors in the basement, and he is also looking for the explanation of why chronic departments and pathological institutions are always in the basement. A childish question arises in the writer: why are lifeless bodies always transfered downwards in buildings, and why are we always restless until we can bury our loved ones underground.

This unusually objective language might seem rude, it can be shocking to many of us. The Hungarian translation conveys the sensitive, confessional ties with understanding. As we turn the pages, Knausgård’s confession, indicated in the title, gets clearer and clearer. This individual self-therapeutic method is reflected in the possessional form of the subtitle My agony 1. Analsysis, structural analyses of the relation of the author and his father and of their more than human conflicts, their common reflection.

The narrator who analyses the relations of living and dying/dead people, full of questions and doubts, takes a more and more personal tone. The recollections of personal stories and memories bring us at times to idyllic worlds, at other times to an ordinary childhood that is similar to ours. The story of father and son is infiltrated by the development of their relationship and by their adjustment to a father-son relationship they are both unfamiliar with.

Readers can realise that no matter how much they tried to keep the naturalism and objective factual description appearing at the beginning of the writing away from themselves, while reading the story, they can recognise their own problems and relive their old memories and feelings. The doubt caused by aching, and by a realism that might seem too rude, sinks into oblivion. I venture to believe that when turning back to the first chapters of the volume, more and more people reflect on the truth of the earlier clearly rejected thoughts and on the lines read with revulsion. Regardless of whether we talk about it or not, it is still an inevitable part of our life, an eternal law of biology.