In this complex and personal novel, dedicated to his father, Mads Nygaard spins a web of mysteries around family secrets, religious obsession, and psychic unrest in a bleakly rugged Danish setting. It is Nordic fairy tale, social history, and Danish-Lutheran parable in equal parts. And a wondrous narrative featuring innocently cynical observations by a seven-year-old boy becomes a story in itself—the mystery of growing up.
When we meet young Karl Gustav, his life has changed forever. His older brother, Alexander, an excellent swimmer, has washed up dead on a North Sea beach near Hirtshals Harbor. The drowning has left Karl bewildered, because it hasn’t followed a pattern of “rules” about life the older brother taught the boy, and because the tragedy is somehow connected with their grandmother’s God and with Karl himself:
In our town you couldn’t drown barefoot. You had to wash up on the beach in smelly socks and underpants that kept you warm, with your sleeves rolled up far enough so everybody could see the tattoos. On the one arm there had to be an anchor, on the other, a name. The name should be of the ship you’d just gone down with. Then those who were supposed to grieve could get the news quickly. There were a number of rules. A beached body was supposed to wash ashore with a knife in its hand.
But Alexander washed up on the beach barefoot. He had bare legs, bare arms, and lots of ocean in his stomach. Neither of his hands was clutching anything at all.
Struggling to understand, the precocious boy perceives everything through an earnestly fractured sensibility. Whether contemplating his brother’s death or describing a simple car trip with his grandmother, the same unique metaphors, fluid renderings of time, and dives into the stream of consciousness apply:
In the afternoon we took a trip in Grandma’s car. The car was named “Chevy” and was incredibly Christian. We stopped at a farm. The farmer was rich. He had a giant mountain of cow shit. I had to look way up in the sky to say hi to the hen who was standing on top, dancing. The farmer wasn’t home, but his wife was. It was all right for me and Grandma to come in and tell her about the magazines we’d brought. They were wholesome magazines. You got healthy and immortal from reading them.
In style and concept the novel evokes a form of early literary modernism to which great Danish authors made such significant contributions. To me, Nygaard suggests the socially-conscious naturalism—with ironic and symbolic flourishes—of Henrik Pontoppidan, and the stories in fairy tale and fable format of Karen Blixen. Yet, there is also a postmodern literary aspect to this work that creates just enough distance from structural artistry to highlight the emotion and humor within.
When Karl and his grandmother discuss the boy’s affinity for soccer, it isn’t long before the woman’s hard-nosed faith is revealed in a humorous metaphor of Calvinist-Lutheran “election”:
I went back to Grandma’s room and got up into her bed with my soccer ball. I wasn’t allowed to kick in Grandma’s bedroom, or dribble either. Besides, Grandma said the day would come when God would put together a team made up of the best people on earth. God would come down from heaven and dribble around between the houses and choose the people who were best. Grandma believed she’d make the team.
As Karl enters his teenage years, the dynamic of his family undergoes significant change. Mom stops cutting Grace Kelly photographs out of magazines and goes to work in a dress shop. Dad serves a one-year prison term for an unfortunate mistake in his building construction business. And 14-year-old Karl enjoys a widening circle of new friends, while emerging as a skilled soccer player and learning the mysteries of sex, love and not love. Now and then, he is troubled by thoughts and bits of dreams about Alexander.
By the time Grandma has met her stubborn fate alone in her Calvinist house, the narrative has subtly changed to reflect Karl’s growth into young manhood. His observations have become linear, his surreal humor restrained.
He understands why Mom’s heart was broken by the death of her idol, Grace Kelly, in the accident above Monte Carlo. He sees the irony of Dad falling ill with cancer just as he is starting to understand him. And he is ready to embrace the difficult truth of Alexander’s drowning, to accept that there are no “rules” when it comes to fate. Or manhood. There is only love and death—and they are mysteries.
When Me and God Were Little, translated from the Danish by Steve Schein, is Mads Nygaard’s first American release.
When Me and God Were Little, by Mads Nygaard. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, January 2021. 268 pages. $16.95, paper.
Robert Crooke’s poetry has been published in the West Hills Review: A Walt Whitman Journal, and his short fiction has appeared in The Paragon Journal, Literary Orphans Journal, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. His latest novel, Letting the House Go, will be published in August 2022 by Unsolicited Press.