Set against the backdrop of rapidly developing Oslo in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lars Saabye Christensen Echoes of the City – translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, who you may recognize as the translator of another Norwegian literary giant, Knausgård – follows the faiths of various residents living the Fagerborg district of the city.
Largely anchored in the slice-of-life tradition of storytelling, Christensen emphasizes the small details, bringing to the fore the interpersonal dramas of married couples, of children, of friends, and of those people who would unlikely end up together but still do. This may suggest a large cast of characters, but there really isn’t: at its core, it’s a story of the Kristoffersen family (wife Maj, husband Ewald, son Jesper), which branches out to include, for instance, an Italian immigrant playing piano in the local bar, who ends up as Jesper’s piano teacher.
In tandem with the main storyline, Christensen presents the history of Oslo’s Red Cross and the crucial role that women played in its development and success in the country. Maj attends the local meetings, and interspersed in the novel are the (faux-)memos of the Red Cross: “The first item on the agenda was the suggested purchase of a potato-peeling machine…” Christensen doesn’t seem to mind testing his readers’ patience with the minutiae of official documents. I might as well confess here I didn’t read each memo word-to-word, but I think that even a skim-read of these sections showcases what Christensen presumably set out to do: to demonstrate how small acts can turn into something big over the course of the years. In this way, the Red Cross documents mirror the main storyline in that even the tiny things may matter a great deal in the end.
In essence, this turned out to be a very positive reading experience, one that I timed really well. Amidst a half a dozen of grotesque novels dealing with violence, I took my copy of Echoes of the City along with me to the Åland Islands, where I spent a peaceful summer week, reading the novel in a matter of days. (This review appears much later, closer to the publication date in October.) Nearly 500 pages may seem like a big investment, but it never felt like that. Christensen is an experienced writer who knows how to maintain your interest all the way to the finish – although there is no finish per se. Echoes of the City is part one of a trilogy already published in Norwegian. I hope it is well received in the English-speaking world, so that we may expect to see parts two and three appear in translation soon.