The Pastor by Hanne Ørstavik

Book review

Vidar Ruud

Photo: Vidar Ruud / NTB
Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik was born in Finnmark, where her novel The Pastor is set.

Washington, D.C.

Why did we have to wait so long for the English translation of Hanne Ørstavik’s powerful novel Presten? We could say, “Better late than never,” but 17 years does seem rather excessive.

The good news is that this book, published in Norway in 2004, is now available to the English-speaking public. Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitkin and published by the not-for-profit literary press, Archipelago Books, the official launch date was Oct. 1, 2021.

Scandinavia House in New York sponsored an interview with Ørstavik on this date, conducted by author Rebecca Dinerstein Knight. This book is set in Finnmark, Norway’s far north, and Knight began by asking why she had set her book in the most extreme spot on the planet.

Ørstavik explained that she had read about the Sámi riots against the Norwegian government there in 1852 and felt that it was important to investigate this history. She had grown up in Finnmark among the Sámi and therefore felt a personal connection. 

Liv, the protagonist of her novel, is a pastor who is struggling with her faith.

the pastor

Seventeen years after its publication in Norwegian, Hanne Ørstavik’s novel The Pastor has now been published in an English translation by Martin Aitken.

Ørstavik related that she had gone to church every Sunday while she was growing up but had found the teachings too dogmatic. Feeling a longing for God, she had read a lot of theological literature. She finally decided to think about God in her own way and confirmed that her protagonist Liv reflects her own thoughts. She admitted that Liv’s uncertainty is her own uncertainty. 

She felt empowered to write this novel after learning that in 2003 a Danish Lutheran priest, Thorkild Grosboel, had publicly confessed that he did not believe in God. After her book was published, she heard from many priests who said that they welcomed the book and her candor. 

Ørstavik skillfully weaves three levels of time together in her narrative. Her frequent transition from one level to another could create confusion in the reader’s mind but it surprisingly does not. The three story lines are tightly interwoven and time flows back and forth. 

The book begins with Liv’s arrival in the town in the far north where she has been called to be the pastor and covers her first week there. She doesn’t feel comfortable in her new role. She struggles to connect with the people, to give them what they expect her to give them, but without much success. 

Her thoughts frequently turn to her friendship with Kristiane, whom she had met while they were studying theology together in Germany. Liv is trying to understand why her friend died by suicide the year before while serving as pastor at the church where Liv is now serving. She looks back and reviews their encounters. The more she considers their relationship, the more she feels responsible for Kristiane’s death. She should have been aware of her friend’s turmoil underneath her exaggerated display of happiness.

Liv is deeply troubled by the historic treatment of the Sámi people and is obsessed in particular with the 1852 Sámi Rebellion in Kautokeino, a town not far from where she is now. She has chosen this rebellion as the topic of her dissertation. After the Bible was translated into the Sámi language and many Sami converted to Christianity, they soon realized that the Norwegian Christians were not following their religion as the Bible told them to do and should be treating the Sámi people better. This enraged the Sámi Christians, and they rebelled.

Although Ørstavik said that she doesn’t think about the reader as she writes because she writes for herself, she is curious to know what the reaction to the English translation of her book will be. 

The Pastor should strike a chord in many readers because of the current attention being given around the world to the treatment of Indigenous populations. Also, the questioning of one’s religious faith, of course, is always a relevant theme. The author succeeds in creating a powerful story in which the reader hears the voice of the troubled protagonist who is struggling to find meaning in her life, meaning in her relationship with God and with those around her.

In her interview, Ørstavik said that she could not have written the same book today. Back in 2004, she was very depressed as her last book had not met with success. She wrote this book to write herself back into community. She named the protagonist Liv, which means “life” in Norwegian. She hoped this book would bring her back to life. It apparently did.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.