Book Review: En av oss—en fortelling om Norge
John Erik Stacy
Norwegian American Weekly
“En av oss—en fortelling om Norge” is the title Åsne Seierstad gave her book about the tragedy of July 22, 2011. Seierstad introduces us to young people who would lose their lives to—or in some cases survive—the terror bombing of Oslo and the massacre of young campers on Utøya. Their lives are cast on the background of world events and Norwegian national politics. The book is extremely well written, as it must be to sustain interest for more than 500 pages. An English translation is expected this coming spring.
The title can be translated to “One of us—a narrative about Norway,” and sets the direction for the book. “En av oss” is provocative in many ways. Knowing that Anders Behring Breivik is a seemingly normal, blond, blue-eyed Norwegian, my first thought on reading the title was that this mass-murderer is “one of us”—a notion that is both horrible and undeniably true. In an interview with Danish TV, the author explains that she chose the title because of its complex implications. Each victim in the violence perpetrated by Breivik is also “one of us.” At another plane, “one of us” conjures the “us or them” desire for tribal belonging at the core of Breivik’s psyche.
The author was careful to avoid making the book a justification for the twisted actions of the terrorist. The introduction to the book is an imagining of the thoughts and words of a small group of victims who attempted to “play dead” as they were systematically murdered. The description is based on the forensic data gathered from the scene, and is extremely disturbing in its vivid images of horror.
But a book about July 22 has to address the monster that did the deed, and Anders Behring Breivik does occupy a very large portion of the book. The book suggests that his relationship with his parents set the tone of rejection in his life. His early childhood was marked by interventions from “barnevernet” (child protection). In his teen years he was repeatedly arrested for spray-painting graffiti in Oslo, and was all but disowned by his father. Anders did achieve some success in his own business, albeit a business of less than sterling character (he sold imitation degree diplomas via the internet). He also became active in “Fremskritsparti” (“Progress Party”) and was initiated as a Free Mason. After a few years living on his own, he returned to his mother’s apartment and she became one of his only human contacts.
The book paints a picture of a proud but lonely young man. He is intelligent and would like to influence people. But his attempts to become part of any group do not gain traction. His tendencies and choices lead him ever deeper into isolation. Yet he believes that he can make a mark on the world, and focuses his efforts and resources to horrific effect.
The other young people described in the book are also striving to make their mark on the world. But whereas Anders is isolated, his victims are connected and charismatic. They are the up-and-comers in AUF (the Norwegian Labor Party youth organization), on the fast-track to leadership in the Norwegian Labor Party. The book could not possibly tell the stories of all the victims—there were 69 shot on Utøya and another eight died in the bombing in downtown Oslo. So the author focuses on a few “AUFers” whose families and friends were willing to share. In the book we meet Viljar Hanssen, Simon Sæbø, and Anders Kristiansen from Troms AUF in Northern Norway. Bano and Lara Rashid, sisters that came with their family as refugees from Kurdish Iraq to live at Nessodden south of Oslo. Bano is a very promising student and extremely active in AUF. Her family personifies the experience of dark-skinned people living in Norway, and draws in the geo-political reality of racism and genocidal gassing exercised by Saddam Husein against the minority Kurdish population of Northern Iraq in 1988.
The subtitle of the book “En fortelling om Norge” is also extremely apt. Having lived many years in Oslo, much of what I read was eerily familiar. I remember visiting friends at the Silkestrå neighborhood in the early 1980s—the time when little Anders lived there with his mother and sister. I think I may have even seen his “Morg” graffiti in the 1990s (at least I remember being disappointed to see an elaborate “tag” covering the happy-cat painting that used to decorate the wall between Makrellbekken and Sørbyhaugen station). While I read this, I found it was a story about parts of Norway that I know like the back of my hand. The familiarity of the setting is part of what was so shocking for all of us. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen there. Sure, there are occasional “rampete gutter” who make ugly paintings over pretty ones, but they don’t go and blow up half of downtown Oslo and then shoot a bunch of kids!
At a broader level, this “narrative about Norway” illustrates some of the cultural and structural strengths and weaknesses of the nation. Prime Minister Stoltenberg set the tone of the reaction to the atrocity: “In the middle of all tragedy I am proud to live in a country that has managed to stand tall in a critical time. I am impressed by how much dignity, compassion, and resolve I have met. We are a small country, but we are a proud people. We are still shaken by the blow, but we will not yield our values. Our answer is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity. But never naïveté.” There was no call for revenge. In the U.S. I heard comments about how Breivik “got off easy”—this may be so, but Norwegians don’t react that way. Parents of the victims remarked at their own passivity in the presence of the monster that killed their children. They found it unnatural to meet violence with violence. But then again they wondered if their restraint was truly appropriate under the circumstances.
But it is telling that Stoltenberg added “never naïveté” in his statement to the Norwegian people. Incompetence marked the immediate response to terror. Police did not coordinate, delegate effectively or seek help from the military. Neither did they seek advice on how to best access the island where every few seconds another child was killed. Most tragically, Breivik needed more than an hour of highway travel to reach the camp. Had police followed procedures for national emergency and stopped traffic, the deaths on Utøya would have been avoided altogether.
So, although the book affirms the strengths of Norway, it also suggests that the culture allowed naïve individuals to hold positions of power and that incompetence multiplied the tragedy of July 22.
Seierstad has received critical acclaim for the book, but in an interview she notes that the book is a “slap in the face” for most Norwegians, whom she said would simply like to forget that something so terrible ever happened.
Author and journalist Seierstad is no stranger to controversial subjects and dangerous circumstances. She reported for NRK from the ground in Baghdad and was seen flinching in her blue helmet and flack-jacket as ordinance exploded behind her. She also reported from Afghanistan, and wrote “The “Bookseller of Kabul”—a book that generated its fair share of friction in the Norwegian court system. Through her books, Åsne Seierstad is one of the clearest voices describing conflict and current events in the world. I highly recommend “En av oss” and look forward to the release of the English translation.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.