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18 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:18pm

Why are writers burying stories in a forest in Norway?

Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and more take part in the Future Library project.

By Ted Hodgkinson

The Oslo metro glides out of the subterranean vaults of the city, and in the space of a few short minutes, we have climbed up through a dense forest and are looking down on a shimmering fjord. From this vantage point, it is possible to imagine a time before humans, or even a time after us. How will our as yet non-existent descendants remember today? Which stories will survive us? And who, or what, will read them?

These are the questions that have brought me to Norway to witness the Future Library, which was launched in 2014. Over the course of a century, the project is inviting one author each year to write a manuscript to be sealed away, only to be shared with the world in 2114.

The Future Library was conceived by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson. It asks us to place our faith in the most human of acts: the creation of rituals, traditions and stories that transcend us. In asking us to sacrifice our readerly curiosity, the project highlights a capacity to look beyond self-interest. It also asks some of our most celebrated authors to fast-forward to a potentially less receptive future and question what of their creations will retain a universal resonance.

Margaret Atwood was the first to take the plunge through time with Scribbler Moon (the only piece of text that has been revealed is the title). She was followed by a fellow writer of dystopias, David Mitchell, with From Me Flows What You Call Time. This year marks the first Nordic contribution, by the Icelandic poet, novelist and lyricist Sjón. He will hand over his manuscript during a ceremony in the forest, along with an already kitsch-seeming USB stick. In a final flourish, he will reveal his title.

Sjón told me the night before our journey into the forest that he has taken the idea of the project into the work, responding to it as though to a surrealist game fused with an Icelandic folk tale. For him, the leap into the temporal unknown is accompanied by a trepidation that his native tongue, despite its proud literary lineage, might be a barrier to his text being translated and understood through what he calls “the fog of the future”.

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As we near our destination, my fellow future pilgrims appear, wearing a distinctive combination of librarian-style cardigans and apocalypse-proof outerwear. It was striking that, despite certain sartorial similarities, the project had drawn people from opposite sides of the globe, from Tokyo to Texas.

A man across from me shows me a camera with a bulging lens, with which he intends to live-stream the ceremony. He says that the gadget is the “opposite of a selfie stick, because it’s never just about you”. We alight on the platform, led by Sjón, who is dressed immaculately in a herringbone suit. “This is what we Icelanders wear to the forest,” he says, as we set off into the trees.

After half an hour of walking, we come to a clearing, where foresters in orange T-shirts tend to industrial-sized pots of coffee over open flames. One tells me, “For us, 100 years isn’t that long. We’re used to thinking that we won’t be around to see the trees grow.”

How foreign this idea must feel to an author who is used to a more immediate response to their work. Sjón tells me with a wry smile that, while he writes only for himself, there are certain readers he will miss not sharing this work with.

The atmosphere as we gather in the clearing is that of a bittersweet ritual, marking a transition into an unknown territory, to which, it seems, only the text and the trees will travel. A golden harp has somehow been transported to the forest and on it is played an Icelandic lullaby. Sjón reads his title first in Icelandic, and then in English: VII – As My Brow Brushes on the Tunics of Angels, or the Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and Other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age.

Through the surrealist jumpcuts, we glimpse a text that appears playfully to splice what we consider sacred with the fairground ride of our times. But the only potential reader present is Katie Paterson’s child, who is still in her womb. The Future Library is just one of her many gifts to those who will come after us.

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions