European fiction - The sadness of the circus

The Half Brother

Lars Saabye Christensen Translated by Kenneth Steven <em>Arcadia Books, 782pp, £1

Fred, the boxer and central figure in The Half Brother, was born after his mother was raped in the drying loft of her apartment as she hung up her washing on VE Day, 1945. How does he know this, asks his half-brother Barnum. "I've listened. In the backyard. In the loft. There are stories everywhere, Barnum. But no one can say who my father is." These two casual assertions, about the mystery of his father's identity and the way in which stories surround us, turn out to be the cornerstones of this huge, bestselling work by Lars Saabye Christensen, one of Norway's most acclaimed novelists. As Barnum relates the 50-year chronicle of his family's history in the Majorstuen district of Oslo, we are repeatedly reminded of how events, circumstances and objects combine and recur to generate the stories by which we know (but always incompletely) those around us. This has been a major theme of European fiction since Proust, and The Half Brother wears its European literary pedigree visibly but lightly throughout its 782 pages.

The novel is shaped by a metaphor hinted at in Barnum's name - the world is a circus if we would like it to be. As a boy Barnum's father Arnold ran away from his home in the far Lofoten islands and joined a circus, where he conceived his belief that he had been put on earth to make people "laugh, tremble, gasp and dance". Because this shiny, short man, who turns up one day in a Buick Roadmaster, is able to make Vera laugh, she consents to marry him. Arnold receives rather more from the relationship than Vera, revealing himself successively to be a liar, fabulist, spiv and con artist. But that, as Barnum's story shows, is part of the sadness of circuses. One should never get close enough to see the illusion for what it is.

Barnum, however, follows in his father's footsteps (and those of his great-grandmother, an early star of the silent movies). He becomes a screenwriter, a weaver of dreams, but is compelled to operate in the world of pitching and schmoozing, and we first see him as a just-amusing drunk. (The opening chapter at the Berlin Film Festival is a very funny set piece that includes a chance meeting with Cliff Richard in a sauna. This frenzied first-person account hardly prepares the reader for the utterly different, retrospective tone of the rest of the novel.)

Fred the half-brother, dyslexic and mute, follows his own mysterious trajectory, becoming the difficult son and meditating on the assassination of the unreliable Arnold. When Arnold does die (killed by a discus thrown by Fred), one wonders - is this poetic justice, or murder? But the defining act of Fred's personality is not killing Arnold, nor even his disappearance for 27 years, but his return to Oslo. For all his inscrutability, the troublesome Fred is a repository of the deepest virtues, of faith and love. (The author of the wonderfully readable translation, Kenneth Steven, points out in his foreword that fred also means "peace" in Norwegian.)

Despite the novel's length, there is very little extraneous narrative. The multitude of characters within Barnum's world - from the greedy insurance agent in the apartment opposite to the little blonde girl whom he briefly loves for the imperfection of her mole - all exist for themselves. The many collisions and recurrences between each of their lives are emblematic not only of reality, but of the novel's great artistic ambition.

There are echoes here of other European writers besides Proust - Joyce, Halldor Laxness, even Strindberg's first novel The Red Room. All of them pursued a truth that is perfectly expressed as Barnum reflects on his mother's unknown rapist: "We do not disappear without trace. We leave a wake that never quite disappears, a gash in time that we so laboriously leave behind us."

This is exceptionally well put - what stops us from disappearing is nothing but the labour we expend in existing. How to restore that crucial sense of the importance of the human act was perhaps the greatest question hanging over the novel during the 20th century, ever since it lost its religious, or moral, certainty that even the most unimportant character exists in God's eye. It is exhilarating to find in this book one answer to that question, delivered with such clarity, energy and imaginative force.