Gunnhild Øyehaug’s “machine in the present”: an error separates mother from child: NPR

Machine in the present tense: a novel, by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux

At the start of Gunnhild Øyehaug Machine in the present tense, a mother misinterprets the word trädgård – Norwegian for garden – like tärdgård, an absurd word, while his young daughter is playing nearby. The error triggers the expulsion of the child from his life.

Thus, the allegory of The Fall becomes a linguistic accident, rather than a proud quest for knowledge. From this irrevocable error, the mother’s world is split into two parallel universes, making her invisible and forgotten for her daughter and vice versa.

Anna and Laura, mother and daughter respectively – exiled from each other but continuing to exist as thinkers and artists in their respective worlds – often each feel an absence akin to a vague but persistent undocking. Anna, a novelist, wonders if her writing career and her teenage children – born long after her accidental cosmic separation from her first child Laura – can thrive without her vigilance. Laura, a literary scholar heavily pregnant with her first child, tries to stave off dangers both in her home environment and in her own mind. Motherhood and the creative identity of each woman represent the central duality of the novel: to be a biological mother is to be bound by time, physically and psychically divided by gestation and birth, but to be creative is to assume an eternal presence, genderless and indivisible.

The notion of mistakenly created parallel worlds is based on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel in which God, offended by mankind’s desire to build a tall structure to challenge his authority, brought languages ​​into them as division tactics. But by synthesizing the science fiction trope of parallel universes with stories from Genesis, as well as Greek mythology (i.e. Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone), Machine in the present tense – translated transparently by Kari Dickson – takes various but unifying forms: like a gestational fable with a beginning and a middle, but no end; a metaphysical poem in an infinite loop; a rebuttal and assertion of mortality; and a lyrical essay on the differences between an original text and its translation. Ultimately, as an ingeniously constructed ‘machine’, Øyehaug’s novel evokes a cosmos that can simultaneously expand and compress.

Aside from Anna and Laura, who unknowingly mirror each other in the book’s split universes, Øyehaug also sneaks in from time to time as a bodyless “voice”, complaining about her wet boots, bad weather. Nordic and the lack of stationery that keeps it from the end of the novel. This author’s intrusion, highlighting Øyehaug’s various ailments as she portrays two fictional women struggling to overcome their existential angst, is meta, comical, ironic: the novelist, while playing a transcendent God, also seems flawed and realistic than its characters.

In a way, the idea of ​​linguistic error or pun as shaping a person’s trajectory literally seems more human, if not fortuitous, than the classic notion of tragedy, where individuals are inexorably destroyed. by the gods. When Anna’s misreading separates her from Laura, other social dynamics gracefully realign themselves to alleviate her loss. For example, immediately after the schism, in the first universe, Bård, Anna’s first husband, confesses to him that he fell in love with Sara, a colleague. Her revelation nevertheless seems anticlimactic, even calming, as Anna is convinced that she has lost something much more visceral that she does not remember. In the second universe, Laura, who grows up with no memory of Anna, has Sara, Bård’s wife, as a loving mother “who [cannot] remember not having met Laura before. “

Laura, like her forgotten mother, misinterprets words. In footage that reflects Anna’s misreading of trädgård in tärdgård, Laura reads the painted sign on a street sweeper like “Presens Maskin” or Present Tense Machine, when it actually says, rather boringly, “Presis Maskin” – Precise Machine.

Moreover, in an example of a life imitating art, translator Kari Dickson, when asked about translation errors, replied that once, while translating a Norwegian detective novel, she almost became rømlingene (fugitives) in romlingene (growls), while describing a snowmobile chase over an icy landscape.

Thus, errors, omissions, accidents – rather than perfection – create new understandings, deepening the awareness that art, built on the instability of language and the diversity of human experience, can be as mutable as the life. Anna and Laura, like Øyehaug, cannot resist their irrepressible but banal lives, which remind them of Erik Satie’s. annoyances – a short piece for idiosyncratic piano which must be repeated 840 times in relay:

“There’s always a tone that goes off the rails, it’s like hearing what it feels like to have something wrong, what it’s like to stumble all the time, what it’s like to constantly try to put something on the right track, only the track keeps moving … [something like] an enormous irritation and at the same time very small, beautiful because it is incomprehensible, and therefore all the more irritating. “

But it’s no coincidence that Anna and Laura simultaneously perform Satie’s play in their respective universes on June 16, 2019 – Bloomsday. As a structural, linguistic and aural pun, Øyehaug’s symbolic attempt to reunite Anna and Laura also merges Aristotle’s classic concept of narrative unity with that of Satie – and with James Joyce’s modernist notion of the present. holistic, but fragmentary.

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. His work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. she tweets @ThuyTBDinh.


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