‘Bulbjerg’, the first story in Naja Marie Aidt’s Best Translated Book Award long-listed collection Baboon (translated by Denise Newman), begins “in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky.” A couple and their six year old child are cycling in the sunshine; slowly Aidt infiltrates the scene with unease: a buzzard flying overhead; the realisation that the couple are lost; the child crying. The tensions lie deeper, however, beyond the unlucky outing, as we soon discover: “Your sister has a tighter cunt than you.” The sudden shift in tone is typical of Aidt – the sentence is made more shocking by the way in which the narrator’s gender has been carefully hidden until this point – and the story continues on its path of disintegration as the affair is revealed and further secrets follow. Again, typically, we are never in full possession of the facts.
‘The Honeymoon’ also tells of a trip gone wrong – an idyll invaded by unexpected menace. Once again, Aidt creates tension prior to the event – a minor row between the couple with Eva swearing (after Tim has taken a picture of her peeing at the roadside) that “she would not talk to him for at least half an hour.” Shortly after a man reciting poetry forces his way into their car. Eva is transformed by the encounter, and the story ends with (as they say in the papers) a sexual act between the honeymooning couple recounted with religious overtones (finishing with Eva whispering, “We will now descend into the valley.”) The story demonstrates Aidt’s statement in an interview:
“This book is not psychological realism but more like a very physical prose, describing the characters’ body reactions in their interference with the world. I do not crawl into their brains and their emotions as much as I crawl into their physical beings.”
This is evident again in ‘Conference’ when the narrator catches sight of an ex-lover. When he briefly speaks to her, he places his hand on her shoulder:
“It stings where you had placed your hand. As if you had made an imprint on my skin.”
The story is told without dialogue, and the narrator’s reaction to the encounter is also physical as she throws up the glass of milk she has drunk on the table at lunch:
“Then it gets completely still. You wipe your mouth with your napkin and turn your head slowly slowly to look at me.”
Consistently, the everyday is interrupted by events that are entirely realistic yet at the same time occur with surreal overtones. In ‘Candy’ an oversight while shopping, forgetting to pay for two bags of sweets, leads to a husband being separated from his wife (who is accused of the crime):
“’Bring me to my wife!’ ‘Unfortunately,’ the manager said, smiling apologetically, ‘I’m not allowed to.’”
That the wife remains completely silent throughout creates a sense of the narrator’s isolation even before she is taken away. Quickly he loses control as he discovers how powerless he is. In another writer’s hands this might be simply a Kafkaesque incident about faceless authority, but Aidt is also interested in what it tells us about the couple’s relationship.
In other stories, the relationships being tested are between parent and child. In ‘Torben and Maria’, the mother (Maria’s) attitude to her son, Torben, is quickly summarised:
“Soon he’ll be two. He’s a little weakling and there’s nothing special about him.”
In the story, the kindness shown to Torben by others is contrasted by the cruelty of his mother, ultimately symbolised by the gift of a snow globe from an absent father which is smashed against the pavement by Maria. In summary it may sound a blunt instrument, but, despite its brevity, it is a nuanced portrait, not only of Maria and Torben’s relationship but of the role of her brother, Bjorn. A different kind of cruelty is shown in ‘She Doesn’t Cry’, where a young girl imitates the posture of her father and his friend. When they notice, they begin laughing: “It’s just because it’s so funny that you’re standing like us, right?” In three pages the girl has learned something fundamental about the way men treat women.
Baboon is a fierce, fearless collection of stories, stripping back its characters’ lives to the bones so sharply that often only a few pages are needed.