Review of Utøya Thereafter, by Harry Man and Endre Ruset, pub. Hercules Editions 2021

This is an extract from a longer work, “Deretter” (“thereafter”), written to commemorate the 69 victims of the murders on the island of Utøya, Norway, in 2011. The Norwegian work has 69 poems, one for each victim, plus “Prosjektil” (Projectile), a poem written by Ruset after the murderer’s trial and based on forensic evidence concerning the movement of bullets through the body. This pamphlet has a condensed version of that poem, in both Norwegian and English plus 25 of the 69, in English only. 

The poems for the victims are written in the shape of faces, not very obviously so, but more so that the face suggests itself, resolving out of the words, as one reads. No two shapes are exactly alike; I don’t know if they were perhaps based on newspaper head-and-shoulders shots of the persons concerned, but they look as if they might be. Needless to say, this makes it quite hard to quote meaningfully from them, because the impact is carried in the overall shape on the page as well as the words. What one can say is that many are based on personal details, which, like the different face-shapes, individualise the subjects and bring them, often achingly, to life along with those who mourn their loss:

                                               I don't want
                                       to remember which
                                  paving stones in the garden
                               you loved to tip up. To watch the
                                 woodlice run in every direction.                                    

Over and over, these poems emphasise what a gap each individual leaves, how impossible, yet inevitable, it seems for those bereaved to come to terms with a world that no longer contains him or her: 

                                     Julys feel like oceans.
                           You know they will rise and bring
                       new questions. What if and if only

Sometimes they seem to seek comfort in pantheism, imagining the dead becoming one with the island, part of the weather, the “grey/ light that peels back”. Other poems, though, admit more finality:

                                  A face in the grass
                     Outside the entrance to the Café
                   Building. There are no gods, only
                 people.                                   No words
               to                                                 make the
            dead                                               rise again.

In contrast to the face-poems, “Projectile”, in the middle of the sequence, moves in a brutal straight line across the page, enumerating the body parts it passes through in a dispassionate tone that mirrors the way its subject dehumanises and denies the individuals it enters. (In the Norwegian version there is only one of these lines to a page, which emphasises still more the bullet’s momentum and trajectory. The pamphlet can’t allow itself this luxury and has several lines to a page, which is probably inevitable but does detract a bit from the effect, I think.) 

Ruset and Man decided to leave out the victims’ names, and while I can see how the families might prefer this, in some ways I think it would have been apt to have them as titles for the poems. One name they are both, rightly, very careful to leave out, both from the poems and their foreword and afterword, is that of the perpetrator, and I was disappointed to see it mentioned several times in the introduction by a professor of language and literature. If ever there were a case for damnatio memoriae, it is surely that worthless loser, and I think it was a monumental lapse of taste to include this one name in a book designed to commemorate his victims. If ever this pamphlet is reprinted, which wouldn’t surprise me, for it is a very moving and impressive work, I hope the introduction will be omitted to remove this unhappy blemish. It wasn’t necessary anyway; the foreword gives all the context needed. 

This apart, the work is truly powerful and memorable. It is always a joy to see technique used to some purpose, and here the notion of using words to create, literally, human faces on the page comes off brilliantly. Ruset states in the afterword that he had coincidentally suffered a personal loss of his own at the time, and this perhaps accounts in part for how sharply he evokes grief –  “a hole in the silence” – and the getting used to it – “it was so un/expected to feel a moment’s/ peace”.


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