The problem with borders is that they’re opportunities. In his novel, Borders, originally published in Norwegian, but released October 2016 in English by Graywolf, Roy Jacobsen explores the borders as clear distinctions, and also limits to push against. Traversing the border between past to present, Jacobsen develops strong characters who fight to define their place in time.
The book begins with the story of a bridge over the river Our in 1894. A miller inquires of the governments on both sides of the river about building a bridge so that he can get between his house and the mill more easily. Others would find the bridge useful, too. But bureaucracy delays the project long enough that the miller ends up building a bridge himself. So starts the story of border people, forging their own paths often contrary to institutional arrangements.
We skip to the same geographical region in 1960’s. The community now includes the main characters, Leon and Markus, veterans of WWII, Leon’s sister, Leni and her mentor, Maria and Maria’s son, Robert, whose father, a now-absent American soldier and pianist, fought opposite Leon and Markus. In the bulk of the novel, Markus tells Robert, and through Robert, us, how he lost track of his son during the battle of Stalingrad. Markus and his son both worked as radio operators with the German army. Markus, from his post in Command Headquarters, relayed sensitive messages to his son, in the thick of the action, that would affect the outcome of the battle, as well as their relationship. Meanwhile, Leon loses track of his regiment (defects?) and spends time in a POW camp. Both men come home to families who accept them, changed as they are. (Leon is distant and Markus is “blind.”) Jacobsen sets the two war stories alongside one another. They do not intersect, but play off of each other and shape Markus and Leon’s relationship. So, too, Jacobsen inserts stories from the more distant past, about William of Orange and a traveling sword thrower, like wavy, distorting mirrors held up to the main action.
“‘War is mother of all things,’” Markus quotes Robert. “But what [Carl von Clausewitz] had in mind was state building, constitutions, demarcation of borders and that sort of thing, while my attention is directed toward the little man and the invisible lines within ourselves which we never cross but which move like swaying ribbons, first we’re on one side, then we’re on the other, we keep our word and we keep our peace, but the borders move and the words are changed, the interpreters die and our reason fails us, it’s almost like sitting down at the piano when all hell breaks loose” (206). After reading his story, I think what Jacobsen means is that war – rifts and destruction, pain and failure – bears the potential for something entirely new and unexpected, perhaps even reconciliation. In other words, war cannot exist without the chance for not war, without peace and fecundity and creativity. Borders exemplifies this claim through its border crossing characters, characters at war in themselves. They are each accused of being traitors. Markus has to choose between his son’s safety and the safety of the army. Leon has to decide which army to call his own. And each has to choose how best to love his own family, however unorthodoxly. Are they traitors for making the decisions they make or are they simply human for making a decision, crossing a border, at all?
Borders is not about war and borders so much as it uses these things to make a point about the act of writing itself. Like war, any story’s conflict is pregnant with possible resolutions. And we are all stories. Jacobsen makes this clear as Markus narrates his tale to Robert. He inserts questions and commentary to Robert, which is really Jacobsen speaking to us from the text. Just as Markus queries Robert, Jacobsen asks us to take the risk of crossing the border between reality and fiction, to let the story have currency for us. We aren’t traitors by crossing such a border, rather, it is how we create new worlds, new endings, ones we never would have conceived if not by the help of a gifted storyteller like Jacobsen to give us something to unpack.