For Liv, the titular pastor in Hanne Ørstavik’s 2004 novel—translated from the Norwegian for the first time by Martin Aitken—language is the original sin. Indeed, God spoke the world into being, perhaps why Liv’s faith is wafer-thin, and why she so is deeply troubled by the violence inherent in language, the binaries it creates, the othering each act of naming entails. She pines for a pre-lingual or non-lingual world, as silent as the bleak landscape of her northern Norwegian parish, where words might no longer betray her. “Words need to encounter something other than words if they’re to be meaningful,” she says. “They have to emerge from something in life, something that comes from within, or at least from some other place, something that can lend them fullness and weight.”
Liv’s remote town hugs the shoreline of an “inky black” fjord, where Liv fled from Southern Germany in the aftermath of her friend Kristiane’s suicide. A year in, and she is lonely, disabused of what little faith she seems to have (more on this later), and plagued by questions about the colonialization of the Sami people, which she is researching for her PhD. It is perhaps this last aspect of the story which makes The Pastor feel so ripe for an English-reading audience, even 17 years after its debut. As evinced by Black Lives Matter, even the reaction to recent Israeli violence against Palestinians, there is a widening consciousness, especially among young people, of what colonialization looks like and where its legacy lives on. The Norwegianization of the Sami haunts Liv—and her preoccupation with it is instructive here. A colonialization on the fringes of Europe, little-known to myself and, I suspect, to most of us.
Liv’s first-person narrative is even interrupted at points by an historical account of the 1852 Sami Rebellion in Kautokeino, a town only a few hours from Liv’s. The text is by the community’s then pastor, part of why it so troubles Liv. It also reveals language as the rebellion’s flashpoint: the translation of the Bible into the Sami language sparks them to demand the justice that leaps off its pages to them. Should not God side with the meek? Are they not created equally to the Norwegians who would subjugate them and levy taxes on them? Does this not make the pastor, with his pompous sermons, a raging hypocrite? There is a parallel here to how slaves in the US turned scripture against their owners, an acknowledgement of the instability of even God’s word.
Worse, though, Liv can see colonialization at work in the historical accounts—her reading of them is essentially post-structural: “There was another version [of the revolt], from the other side, that hadn’t been written down and remained undocumented,” she realizes. “[…] It was there somewhere, submerged in the accounts of the pastor and the bishop, and the only access I had to this other version was from reading into those accounts, making out a kind of impression existing only in its absence.” Liv yearns for the ambiguity between words or rather between each signifier and signified. She wants to exist in the infinitely possible, rather than see meaning sliced, diced, and pinned down by brutish writers, speakers, or clergy—men, in short—perhaps even the male Christian God.
Given that, Liv can feel like she is hiding from her own life. The novel covers barely a few days, with much of it devoted to flashback. There is a something of a speedbump to overcome in the first third of the book, where the action is almost all in the past, but it does highlight how unattached Liv is to her present surroundings as she processes her grief and guilt. Not only for her friend Kristiane, for whom she seems to have had romantic feelings, but also for the Sami. Eventually, the suicide of a young Sami girl, and the community’s grim reactions to it, pull the slow-burning action more firmly into the present. But this remains a heavily narrated and interior piece, that quite often progresses thematically. Liv will pick up on a word or idea in one paragraph then spin it out in a tangent in the next. The gentle repetition lends a poetic quality to Østravik’s chilly prose and allows for sometimes confusing, almost hallucinatory juxtapositions. Liv’s guilt over Kristiane’s death creeps into her feelings over the Sami girl’s suicide and signals danger for a friend’s troubled daughter, Maja.
The notably nameless Sami girl hangs herself from a fish-drying rack on the fjord’s shores—a triangular, wooden structure like the one on the novel’s cover. And this structure that is both complete and incomplete, like a maquette for something more solid, picks up on a liminality that runs through the text. Liv often notices the “spaces in between”; between her church’s towers, between snowflakes, between gestures in Kristiane’s performances as a puppeteer. As Liv’s disillusion with language grips her, she seeks out in-between places or places that defy binaries. Given her powerful feelings for Kristiane, even her role as a female priest (for which another more conservative priest scorns her), Liv reads as queer, seeing only violence when things are delineated, split into opposite poles. She wants to exist on some kind of continuum or in some kind of semiotic goo, where a purer form of identification is possible, one that relies not on difference; indeed one that can survive différance, be its precursor or logical consequence.
How to foster such a world, though, when even with her influence from the pulpit, words will not suffice? In one gut-wrenching scene, Liv thinks she might have found a way through her friend’s daughter’s defenses. But as Liv drops Maja off for her job at the supermarket, even her non-verbal attempts to communicate fail: “I felt my hand move, from the steering wheel towards her, towards where she sat, towards her arm, her cheek, I felt with every fiber, from my shoulder to me hand, how I reached out to her. But I did not reach out to her.”
Plunging ever-deeper into despair, Liv visits Kautokeino for a conference—the landscape there so snow-covered, it at first resembles a page blissfully blank of words. In reality, though, there is little relief here for Liv, as her qualms about the church and her shame over not only its role in colonizing the Sami, but also her role in Kristiane’s suicide, reach a climax. The only female priest in attendance, the weight of the patriarchy bears down on her, the men who have dictated the language that weighs so heavily on her. She ducks out of sessions and in the end leaves early, called back to her town for an emergency and eventually, the Sami suicide victim’s tragic burial.
If there is one slightly nagging note in Ørstavik’s novel, it might be the lack of spirituality in Liv’s voice, which can feel too absolute for even someone undergoing a loss of faith. But otherwise, Liv is a compelling narrator, someone whose own state is perhaps liminal—attached only faintly to life—and who is in constant longing for a connection to others that defies boundaries and heals wounds. This is the triumph of Ørstavik’s novel—to make, in its examination of language, the guilt of colonialization ubiquitous and its hope of redemption a collective responsibility.
The Pastor, by Hanne Ørstavik. Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken. Brooklyn, New York: Archipelago Books, October 2021. $20.00, paper.
Titus Chalk is a British writer based in the US. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod and the Peauxdunque Review. He is also the author of Generation Decks (Solaris, 2017), a history of the fantasy game Magic: The Gathering. He has an MFA from the University of Kentucky and can be found on Twitter at: @tituschalk.