When politicians talk about preservation of Danishness, I often wonder exactly what they mean. Perhaps Danishness is most clearly expressed through the traditional celebrations. The Danes do love a good celebration. At one point the calendar had so many holy days to celebrate that a whole host of them had to be combined into just one holiday, Store Bededag or Great Prayers Day. Far from all Danish celebrations are of the religious kind. Many, including those appropriated by Christendom, have their genesis in pre-Christian traditions and beliefs.
Over the past two weeks I have read two books in two very different ways.
Firstly, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a birthday present to my husband late last year. He took it on the trip to read, but last week it was me who picked up the paperback to read the Australian Man Booker Prize winner from last year.
The story is about Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and set to work on the Emperor’s railway in Thailand. Told in five parts, we follow the main character, Dorrigo Evans, from earliest childhood memory to death. From meeting Amy, the love of his life, over his life as an army surgeon in charge of the Australian POWs in the Japanese camp on the Thai-Burma railway, to his loveless post-war marriage, fame and death. The story is captivating and excellent.
Getting started was hard going and to me the first part of the book did not begin to make sense until I finished it and turned it over to reread those first 18 short chapters. Without understanding the significance of the many characters introduced, this first part was confusing with its jumps in time. I very nearly gave up on the book before finishing those first 59 pages. But then in the second part, the story took off and carried me through the next 400 pages to the end, through the sea of love, lust and longing, through the mud, unspeakable horror and desparation of the war camp, to the aftermath for both survivors and captors and the profound impact on the lives of all involved.
I am glad I persevered. The book is about the horrors of war, but is mostly about humanity and human relationships. It leaves me with the sense that humanity will prevail and that what matters is how we relate to each other irrespective of all of the circumstances and horrors that are around us.
Among all the rotting skin and seeping ulcers, crude amputations, bodies so skinny anuses stick out, mud and shit, it was Dorrigo’s initial adamant denial that memories matter that horrified me the most. Thus he threw Rabbit Hendrick’s sketchbook on the inferno that was his burial. Thankfully Dorrigo later picks up the book, partly damaged from the fire, but sufficiently whole to keep and be published post war. Memories do matter. And as the people who have the memories first hand die we risk the stories, their truth, will never be remembered. Flanagan dedicated the novel to his father, a POW on the death railway, who died the day the novel was finished.
Though personally I have no connection with the Australian war experience in Asia, it is clear to me that this is an important Australian story and a book worth spending time with to make human sense of the history books’ treatment of these events.
The second book was a Danish audio book. Jens Vilstrup’s Opland is a story about a doctor living in Copenhagen returning to his unnamed home town in Jutland when his father dies. Socially mobile against all odds, the doctor finds his home town a desolate place of alcoholism, violence and child abuse and memories of his childhood intermingle with surreal events leading up to his father’s funeral. He can only hardly connect with the friends he used to have. He was the one who left, while they were stuck.
The experience of an audio novel is entirely different from holding the novel and reading it – it all happens in the head and there is little tactile experience. This book is read by Jesper Vilsom, whose accent is from too far south in Jutland to confuse the story’s location until references to surrounding towns and roads narrows it down to the local area of where my father grew up, not far from my own childhood home in Mid-Jutland.
The author also jumps back and forth in time. In the hard copy, childhood memories are marked by italics, but in the audio version there is no marker. I did not mind this – there seemed to be sufficient segway back and forth for it to make sense.
The story is based on the Author’s childhood memories – he is three years older than I am but some seem too violent and too plentifully serious to be true. While I cannot recognise the violence or desolateness, some cultural references ring true from my own childhood: John Mogensen, Sex Pistols and shaggy carpets. I also recognise the drunkenness, the youth criminality and the strange drug-induced sensiblity of people I knew in Herning when my then boyfriend was at home in those circles.
Vilstrup’s writing leaves me with the smell of musty, too-warm living rooms of older people and the deafening sound of squealing pigs in my grandfather’s stable just before feeding time. I can see the flatlands of the reclaimed heath of Jutland that I have passed through so many times to go back to Herning on the train.
Like Vilstrup I also left my childhood town to study. I later left the country for adventure and then emigrated entirely. Unlike Vilstrup when I come back, as I have now, I feel so at home in Denmark. My family and old friends embrace me and are so happy we can spend time together.
While the Danish book was of more personal relevance to me – and much easier to read than the Australian one – it certainly is not Man Booker Prize material. However, both books explore the role and lifelong impact of violence, one in a significant historical setting, the other in a more personal setting, unfamiliar and insignificant to those who have not experienced it.
I love December. It heralds time with family and ‘hygge’. ‘Hygge’ is that Danish concept that escapes English translation: ‘cosiness’ simply does not capture the feeling of warmth, friendship and good conversation associated with the Danish concept. From old Norse, its etymology denotes comfort and encouragement (as in comforting and encouraging someone). In my mind, ‘hygge’ conjures up images of candlelight against dark windows, a big pot of tea and rustic ceramic mugs, held tightly to warm the hands, while sitting with a friend in a deep soft couch, the legs drawn up under us, absorbed in gossip and secrets with laughter ringing. “Oh is that the time? I better go. It has been so ‘hyggeligt’!”
But hygge can also be outdoors, during long light summer nights, gathered with friends on a patio, the grill cold again after the slightly burned sausages and steaks have come off – dirty dishes still in front of us and plentiful red wine in our goblets. And the lark singing as the sun refuses to be completely overwhelmed by the night and the children have fallen asleep on the couch in front of the tv inside. “Thank you for the other night. We really enjoyed it. It was so ‘hyggeligt'”
The ‘hygge’ I associate with December is both indoors and out. The outdoor markets in Tivoli, plentiful with food stalls and merchendise, snow and darkness by 4 o’clock. Long walks in newly fallen snow and coming back inside with red cheeks and that fresh feeling in the entire body.
But best are the indoor pursuits leading up to the evening of 24 December. Here in my brother’s house we have been drinking a lot of tea and coffee, while sitting around the long dining table making confectionary. With marzipan, nuts, melted chocolate and hazelnut nougat, hands sticky with the sweet almond mass, yet some amazing and delicious creations achieved. And with bellies full of nuts, figs and marzipan, we made decorations. The woven hearts and 3D stars are particular favourites, though both can be challenging for the smaller children, who prefer to just cut shapes and glue them together. With plenty of glue.
‘Lille juleaften’ – the 23 December – the old box with decorations was retrieved and its contents combined with newly made ones on the recently erected fir tree. Plus the live candles. Candles on a tree may seem foolish to firefighters, Australians with plastic trees and anyone else who fear a fast xmas fire. But here it is unthinkable not to have live candles everywhere, including on the tree. They add so much to ‘hyggen’ on ‘juleaften’ on 24 December.
When I grew up, we almost always held ‘juleaften’ in my father’s childhood home, often with another clan of cousins. Our ritual was of piling presents and children into the station wagon in the afternoon, my father driving carefully on 20 kms of small, slippery roads to be welcomed by my grandmother – Farmor – at the farm. She had been busy in the kitchen with the feast to be devoured – roast pork, caramelised potatoes, red cabbage and ris-á-la-mande – before the tree would be lit.
After the feast my grandfather – Farfar – ushered everyone into the kitchen, while he and a chosen child lit all the candles on the tree, complete with hearts, angels, stars and fairy hair, glittering up and down the tree. When he finally opened the low kitchen door and let us into the living room, all of the electical lights were off and the tree lit up the room in warm golden light. We would link hands and walk – dance – around the tree, singing the familiar songs, with Farmor sitting in a seat with a small songbook to lead the singing, with her high voice which gradually degraded over the years. After the last loud and fast song that we knew all the words to, even my English speaking cousins – ‘Nu er det jul igen’ – the lights would come back on and the gift orgie commenced with its soundtrack of ripping paper and excited screams. Then, exhausted from the anxious wait and the adrenalin rush from singing and dancing and opening presents, we would pile back into the car, now with the presents in an unopened state and distributed to the right child, to drive back home through the dark night. It was nothing, if not ‘hyggeligt’.
‘Juleaften’ on 24 December is the night of celebration in Denmark rather than xmas day. The following holidays are just that: days off with family and doing things together. ‘Hyggelige’ things, always involving too much food.
I love being with my Danish family during these days. And I love being in Denmark, where Christmas makes sense in ways that Australian marketeers could only dream of, what with their fake snow on shop windows, polar bears and warmly dressed Santa Claus, all in 30 degrees of humid, sweltering antipodian heat. The holiday season is still ‘hyggelig’ in Australia – and with my Australian family we have created our own traditions and rituals to make it so. Yet to me real xmas is what I recall from my childhood memories in cold wintery Denmark. Thank you to my family for making it happen this year.
Josie died this week.
Josie – or Josephine, after Napoleon Bonaparte’s lover – was our sweet yellow labrador who had been with us since 2003. She had become very lumpy, with a melon sized cyst on her neck, and very tired and spaced out most of the time. Half way through the first anaesthetic needle, she took her final, laboured breath.
I am not sentimental about pets – I love them and care about them, but when life has become unenjoyable for them, I see no reason to prolong it.
My first dog was Vaks – after Lady and the Tramp‘s little grey male puppy, Scamp in English. Vaks, a black cocker spaniel, lived with us on Chopinsvej in Herning in the early 70s. I was very young when Vaks and I played in the rumpus room. We found a feather doona with a hole in it – that hole fast grew and suddenly we were pioneers battling a white winter landscape. On a visit to my grandparents, I had to get something from our car. Vaks merrily followed me out, probably expecting we were leaving and not wanting to be left behind. He refused to get out of the car, so I closed the door and left him there. When it was time to leave, Vaks had literally chewed everything soft and bite-able inside the car. In our home he had also gnawed all of the door frames to about 30 centimetres up. So Vaks did not move with us when we moved to our next home on Solbakken in Gjellerup in 1972. I am not entirely sure what happened to that little black dog, but he was no longer part of my universe.
The next dog – Buster, after Buster Keaton – was really my brother’s. He started a campaign to get another puppy. I think my mother, the vet’s daughter, was secretly supporting his campaign – she loved animals. My father, the farmer’s son, had a more utilitarian view of the role of animals. Eventually he gave in. Buster was a small fox terrier, white and beautifully marked with black spots and small brown ones above his eyes. Buster had the run of the yard – and the neighbourhood, with the owner of a female bassett hound particularly complaining about Buster’s promiscuous behaviour. Buster never became fully house trained and usually left small surprises behind the oval Piet Hein Superellipse table with the six orange Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs in the upstairs living room that doubled as my father’s office. On Saturday mornings, Dad removed the smelly parcels so he could hold author meetings around that table. In the early 1980s we moved again to Klokkebakken in Gjellerup; Buster did not follow. My cousin, the computer programmer who worked in my father’s company, reluctantly took care of him. I am still not entirely sure what that entailed.
Our new house was massive. Big enough for two apartments – one for our family of six, and one for my parents’ two business partners and their two dogs, a newfoundlander and a chow chow – and the office of my parents’ growing business. The house had been built as a single family house by a wealthy business owner who insisted on living higher than the old Gjellerup church. This time my sister and I started a campaign for another dog. My father would find carefully designed posters on the mirror inside his wardrobe and notes under his doona or in his office drawer, and again my mother secretly supported the campaign. We promised to housetrain the puppy, to walk it daily and to feed it and look after it. Mum bought Donna, a golden retriever, from a breeder in Hammerum and we were ecstatic. Mum took Donna to puppy school and she became a very well-behaved dog. Occasionally, I did walk her, but generally Mum fed her and let her sleep near her feet in winter.
One summer, after I had moved away to go to university in Aalborg, Donna had six beautiful little puppies. Entirely unplanned, a yellow labrador belonging to my brother’s friend had rendezvoused Donna in the small forest behind the house. That summer I looked after the puppies while my parents, sister and brother went to Italy. I taught them how to run down the steep stairs to get to the enclosed garden near the swimming hall every morning, and carried them up to sleep in the bathroom every night. We found good homes to each of the puppies: family, friends and one went to my flatmate. She named him Kasper and loved him to bits. And so did I – he was a beautiful dog, easy to love.
We partied hard in that student house. One night Kasper got out through the door left open. It turned out he was a very clever dog: he took the bus from the main road out to one of the suburbs. On the bus he met a group of Norwegian young men on a drinking spree. They sang Norwegian drinking songs for him and the next morning took him to the pound. They offered to take Kasper home on the ferry to Norway if he remained unclaimed by the end of that Sunday. Meanwhile back in the sharehouse, my flatmate fretted and kept me awake all night. In the morning I called the pound, could describe Kasper accurately and we went out to get him on our bikes. Kasper became my dog, when my flatmate could not have him in her flat when she moved back to Copenhagen. So he came back to Gjellerup when I left for Australia to study. Eventually he was adopted by my brother’s girlfriend’s family. Kasper managed to walk into every heart that he met.
Three years later, in Australia, Mick and I stopped to look at a clutch of new-born staffordshire bull terrier cross puppies. Before long we named the little black staffy Bo – after Boudicca, the East Anglian warrior queen. The name was apt and she ruled us for 14 years – sweet, adoring and completely mad! She loved people, but was so rowdy that most were dead scared of her. She suffered terrible anxieties and needed stable routines and predictability. She was very awkward right up to her death. We had moved to acreage on Samford Range and had bought Josie. Each morning we took Bo and Josie on a five kilometres walk, up and down steep hills through the bush. Half way, Bo had a stroke. Unable to walk, Mick had to carry her all the way back to our house. The next morning we left her in her bed and when we came back from our walk, she had peacefully passed.
Josie had learnt lots of bad habits from Bo and she had let Bo be the dominant dog – but she had always ruled the roost at dinner time. Food was the one thing Josie cared immensely about. That and being part of the action when the click of the washing machine door sounded. She would rush down the stairs and roll on the grass next to the washing line. Beyond that she was happy with lots of laziness and pats.
RIP sweet Josie, we miss you.
When my father was dying I started to write my memories of the childhood I had with him. I wrote in my native langauge, Danish, and gave him a long, long brain dump of everything that came to mind in the short period I had. He enjoyed reading my memories and my perspective of events he himself could recall to greater or lesser extent.
Together we wrote the story of his own life, illustrated it with photos and had it published in 100 copies. I put one copy, hot from the press, into his hands just as the ambulance officers came to collect him to take him to the hospice. Two days later he died.
With both my parents now gone there is no-one to remember with me the self that I was as a child. Of course I still have my siblings and a few childhood friends, but they don’t have the memories about me that my parents did. After 23 years of living with English language, it was refreshing to remember and write in Danish. A bit rusty perhaps (but I am not a best-selling author like Christian Mørk); memories flowed easily and my brain was filled with words, images, smells, feelings and sensations that were conjured up and remembered in Danish.
I have lived all my working life in Australia. When my mother first visited us I tried to explain to her my work in Danish. I found it really difficult – I could not find the Danish words for the particulars of my day-to-day working life, which itself was word and language based, working with policy, procedure and freedom of information decision-making, carefully reading complex documents, interpreting the statute, analysing precedents and choosing the right words to describe my decision, so it could withstand scrutiny. I was constantly using English words to explain my role to mum, who must have felt she was losing me in more ways than one.
A couple of years ago I found myself working up my cv in Danish – my public service profession was under attack by an incoming government and the villification of the public service was rife in the media. A public outrage was whipped up against an old stereotype of useless, lazy public servants – a stereotype I found difficult to reconcile with the commitment and hard work of public servants all around me. I lost my job in a restructure and I thought perhaps I needed to go back to Denmark to continue to support my family. Writing about my work experience in Danish was a difficult task and I found it hard to succinctly explain my responsibilties and achievements in a different language. I never sent the cv to any prospective, Danish employers. In the end, I won back my job and I stayed in the Australian-English life world.
Language and memory go together. The story of Nabokov’s three autobiographies is well known: first he wrote and published Conclusive Evidence in English. Then he began translating it to Russian, but found thinking about his life in Russian brought out much more memory worthy of documentation, making the English version seem woefully inadequate. Once he had finished his Russian autobiography (Drugie berega or Other Shores) he then translated it to English; yet he found it difficult to fit his Russian experiences into the ‘straightjacket of English’. So he ended up with three very different documented versions of the same life, the last being Speak, Memory.
We experience the world differently in different languages. My Australian-English experiences are very different to my Danish experiences – not just because of different place and culture. How I remember my experiences depend on the language I use to remember.
According to Dr Anna Pavlenko, language and memory are integrated – language used during particular events becomes a ‘tag’ for memory of that event and when we try to translate to another language something becomes lost in translation: We lose the sense of a correlation between words and things and words and feelings. It is never quite the same. Our childhood language integrates words with our experiences, which can make the memory feel real. Words learnt in the class room or later in life do not integrate with our experiences in this same way “because by then we learn to suppress our emotions.”
When I reconnected and started corresponding with my dear departed uncle, who was in the business of story telling, he called my Danish language refreshingly crisp and uncorrupted by adulthood and work’s habits. He encouraged me to write more and to write in Danish.
When I joined the Queensland Writers Centre, I was advised to write in English – if I wanted to be a professional writer – because the market is much larger than the Danish market. And if I wanted help and support with my writing here in Queensland, this would only be possible if I wrote in English. Fair enough, but knowing what I now know about memory and language, perhaps this is not quite right for me.
I am currently writing in English – my writing would no doubt be different if I write in Danish. It would also be challenging. I love the Danish language and want to reclaim it for my future self. If I get to write my book when I am away, it may well be in Danish. That would be my writer’s pied a terre.