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  • Ontario Creates
  • Ontario Arts Council
  • Canada Council for the Arts
© Teju Cole


From Brick 104

1. She tastes rocks. She works up north, near Svalbard, putting small rocks to her tongue. By taste she can identify which are calcified, which, in other words, are not mere rocks but possibly fossils. The country is old. There was life here.

Life of a different kind hides in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an ark for the future of humanity. There is, will be life here. It is a vault that imagines a cataclysm yet to come, and Norway hosts this vault on behalf of humanity. A thought experiment made real, in the keeping of the earth, a lever point.

The paleontologist is married to Andreas.

2. The summer has been dry. The fields look scorched (as blond as the groups of women I will later see walking down Bogstadveien). Andreas tells me that if there had been any doubt before, if the rules of evidence were sufficiently complex that one couldn’t say of any given weather spike that it was caused by climate change, all such doubt is now gone. This is the first year, he says, that one can say for sure and fear no contradiction that the climate has changed, that, without a doubt, things are getting hotter. As he speaks, I watch a man walk across a field, lit by the late afternoon’s glare.

3. On the way back, on the ferry back, we are three. I ask Andreas if he thinks that the man taking us across—who had also brought us inbound—is the same man who had brought the killer across that day. Andreas is quiet for a moment. There is great stillness on this water across which dozens swam. Many made it to safety. There were many who didn’t. Then he says, It could be him. He has worked here for decades. It’s likely to be him, he says, but I wouldn’t want to ask. 

4. “Ut” for out, “øya” for island: the outer island, the outer-most and smallest of three. Storøya, big isle. Geitøya, goat isle. Later, I am surprised to find that many of the people I talk to in Oslo have not been to Utøya. Forty minutes from the city, but it is like a mythical island: thought and dreamed and argued about and wept over. Just before going to Utøya, I attempt to talk myself out of it. Why would you go there, why would you do such a thing? To see what? To do what? But I know this voice by now, a counterpoint to the other, stronger voice that always urges me to go where things happened. I might buy books about the things that happened, but I always leave them unread until I feel the terrain. 

Andreas has driven me from Oslo to Utstranda, from which we take the ferry. We arrive on a fine day in late August, and are met by Jørgen, who directs activities on the island. (He came into the job in 2011, shortly after the day of the attack.) Walking around the island, this small island as still in the August air as a held breath. Walking on the Lovers’ Path along the water and above the low cliffs where eleven young people laid down in stillness by the water pump. Stillness, hoping he would not notice them, by the water pump, where he walked up on their prone bodies and began shooting. 

Out here on the out island. 

5. On the Tyrifjorden, I recall that Homer does not say “blue” anywhere in The Odyssey or The Iliad. A perfect blue day, a blue so overwhelming that it is like the blue before language for blue arrives. 

The cafeteria stood and now stands under the blue sky. It is surrounded by the Hegnhuset, shield house, whose columns of thicker wood are sixty-nine in number, the slenderer columns surrounding them four hundred and ninety-five. The dead, sixty-nine of them, hold up the roof. The living, four hundred and ninety-five, surround the dead. Only humans do this. We shield our dead. They keep us sheltered. 

6. While we are on the island, Andreas says: Art is the remembrance of the details, those details you can’t possibly remember. I ask him to say it again, and I write it down: Art is the remembrance of the details, those details you can’t possibly remember. 

7. I have met four Andreases. It’s as though everyone is named Andreas. One I meet just in passing, the other three I get to know and have real conversations with. The various Andreases tell me different stories. Distinct but continuous Andreases. 

When I was growing up, Andreas says, very few people were named Andreas. Now, when I’m walking past a kindergarten, I might hear a voice saying, Andreas, stop it, get down from that table, and for a moment I think, That’s me!

8. I don’t know Ludvig Holberg, other than he was an early notable intellectual in Norway, a philosopher and playwright. But I love the music by Grieg devoted to him: From Holberg’s Time, subtitled “Suite in olden style.” I like it even more than I like the more famous incidental music to Peer Gynt. There’s a beautiful and yearning quality to the Holberg Suite, a dreamspace I occupied and reoccupied both before and during my time in Oslo. 

My room is only two stops by tram from Holbergs Plass. Andreas mentions in passing that Ludvig Holberg, a canny investor, certainly put quite a bit of money into slave ships and reaped the rewards. 

Later I discover that Holberg had his own “Black man”—a house slave. 

And one must now recall that nearly a hundred thousand people were transported across the Atlantic as slaves on Danish and Norwegian ships between 1670 and 1802. From Copenhagen, liquor and weapons to Africa; from the Gold Coast, slaves to the Caribbean; from the Caribbean, sugar, tobacco, and mahogany back to Europe. The so-called triangular trade. 

The Holberg Suite is in five movements, full of character and feeling. 


9. I recall in Denmark a Dane saying to me, We don’t care for the Swedes, but we really like the Norwegians. My response: And the Norwegians, what do they think of you? And her response: Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t know. I hope they like us. 

10. A party at Østgaards Gate. Because I am a guest and a foreigner, I break protocol and ask some of the other visitors what political parties they belong to. This is not a question they would ask each other, and this is not a question I would ask at an American party. But because I am a guest and a foreigner, because there are inconveniences that I want to make visible, I break protocol. They tell me. Social left. Labour. Social left. Red. Green Party. Liberal. And in the briefest and most fleeting moment, you can see their mutual disappointments. My questioning almost spoils the party. 

I’m struck by something written in the New York Times when the conservatives won in 2017. Harald Baldersheim, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Oslo, was quoted as saying, “From a comparative perspective, Norwegian politics has never been—and is not—very polarized. Both blocs are gravitating toward the center. In this sense, not much is at stake.” 

I’m not a professor of political science, but I’ve been haunted by the phrase not much is at stake. Is that true? Could that be true? There’s not very much at stake for whom? What is at stake for the Black Norwegian who grows up with the so-called Progress Party sharing power? Professor Baldersheim added, “The four years of coalition government has tamed the Progress Party and made it harmless.” Is that the truth? How is harmlessness defined here? What is at stake when the rhetoric of the government diminishes your being and your presence? It’s precisely at the margins that a society’s wounds split open. 

11. The hours after the attack. Something terrible has happened, something unspeakable. Many are dead. There are families who will never be whole again. Oh, too frequently we have to confront these thoughts. I wasn’t in Norway when the killer struck. But I was in New York on the day of mayhem, I was in Nairobi during the massacre. Something terrible happens, and I am left with the feeling of having escaped only by chance. 

On July 22, who and what and why—even on a basic level—are all still hours from being known. In these first few hours in the city, there are random acts of violence against the “other.” Against Muslims, against Somalis. Those who are deemed likely to have committed the atrocity. (This is before it emerges that the killer was motivated precisely by hatred of the Muslim other.) 

In these first few hours on the island, where the majority of the dead are, the frantic calling by parents and loved ones makes the abandoned cellphones ring in the dark, their displays coming and going like clouds of fireflies, then the ringing gets fainter and fewer as their batteries drain away. 

12. The Regjeringskvartalet, the Government Quarter, emanates a post-traumatic feeling. Under construction, under wraps, as though manifesting, in physical form, that which cannot be spoken about. 

13. Fiction is made up and so cannot really be erroneous. We understand it as taking place in a universe quite similar to ours, extensively similar in fact, but with a few deviations: of character, or place. So, for instance, in my novel Open City, I have a fairly accurate account of Manhattan as my protagonist moves through it, until I invent a few streets because of where I need him to end up. Elsewhere in the novel is another non-existent place, a town in Norway, that a secondary character hails from. But this non-existent or, rather, misnamed place bothers me in a way that the invented streets do not, for the latter is done intentionally and the former is a mistake. 

Here’s what happened: I did not want my character Lise to be from Oslo, Lillehammer, Trondheim, or anywhere too obvious, so I had her place of origin be a name I’d heard only in music: Troldhaugen. 

But I was to later discover that Troldhaugen isn’t a town or even a village. It’s the composer’s home, it’s Grieg’s name for his home in Bergen. “Troldhaugen” remains in the book like an unpaid debt. 

14. Andreas says that in the eighteenth century, one of his ancestors, a barber-surgeon, out in the hinterland of the country, rendered a medical service to a visiting Dutch sailor. This sailor rewarded his ancestor with a young slave, a Black boy. The boy became a member of Andreas’s ancestor’s family, less a slave and more an adopted son, and it was thought that rather than be merely a barber-surgeon he ought to go to the city of Christiania (as Oslo was known back then) and attend the medical school there and become a proper doctor. The boy went. He enrolled in the medical faculty. Then the historical trace disappears. 

The young man returns to the village, and he has not become a doctor. Was he expelled for his race? Did he leave of his own accord? He becomes a barber-surgeon like his adopted father. 

It is said that he left no descendants in the family, though it is also said that, on visits to the outlying farmsteads and villages, he had encounters with certain maidens and that children were born to them. Evidence has emerged, Andreas told me, that he was not, in fact, Black. He was Filipino, a victim of the Dutch trade in the East Indies. 

15. Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st was released on August 31, 2011. It is screened in Oslo on August 31 each year. Summer is ending. The swimming pools close. The weather shifts. A sad and very beautiful film. 

After a conversation with Anne Hilde on August 31, 2018, I realize that the café featured in the film is actually—quite by chance—opposite the Litteraturhuset, and that I’ve been looking at it every day from my window. In a sense, I had watched the film and the film had watched me. And so I go into the café for a moment, close my eyes, and listen. 

16. The lead in Oslo, August 31st is Anders Danielsen Lie. The film is an account of a day in the life of the character. On August 31, 2018, I’m walking around the city, and it’s as though I am following Anders. (The character is given the actor’s own name.) No, not following him. I do not actually retrace his paths or go to the places he goes. But I feel in myself the undeniable power of a series of encounters and sights compressed into a single day. 

Early on in the film, there’s a powerful scene set in a café in which the depressed Anders picks up, through overheard fragments, the ways in which other people carry on with their lives. He listens. 

Earlier, Anders had said to his friend Thomas: “If you’re unsentimental about it, nobody needs me. Not really.” We know the statement is untrue, but we also know that in the grip of depression—a depression in Anders’s case exacerbated by drug addiction and a failed effort at rehab—other truths impose themselves. 

It is interesting to think of Trier’s powerful film on the one hand and, on the other, the 2017 declaration that Norway was the happiest country in the world. There are ways in which both the melancholy and felicity are true of Norway. And in any case, there are happy countries and there are countries with happy people, and perhaps the two do not perfectly overlap. Perhaps Norway is a happy country with unhappy people. 

I find myself more convinced by the idea that we navigate our lives individually, whatever the country, and that those complexities and pains cannot be accounted for by polls. Sorrow is not an economic metric. 

17. All cities are continuations of other cities. Virtually all of them are subject to the same neoliberal arrangements, so that whether or not the water supply is good or the electrical grid is reliable, you’ll still find Burger King and the Body Shop and H&M and IKEA. In each city, as I wander around, there are moments of a certain self-forgetfulness. Where am I? Is this São Paulo or Lagos? Is this Copenhagen or Oslo? Is this Chicago, Stavanger, Milan, Auckland? The languages are dialects, the neighbourhoods profiles plucked from a common kaleidoscope. 

And nevertheless, as I watch the sun rise and set on Parkveien and Bogstadveien, I know, too, that in this corner of this city, there are specific histories overlaid on specific histories—someone’s daily path to work, a shop someone cannot bear to enter because it is too full of memories, someone’s first kiss, the corner where an accident happened, a club where two met for the first time and began a life together, the traffic light someone was standing at when they heard about July 22; and then, in an even deeper vein of history, parents, grandparents, the emigrants, the lives they lived, the War Years, certain unforgettable winters, the city of Christiania and the hilly terrain well before it was Oslo, and well before it was a city, and far beyond that, the Viking Law. 

18. Walking with Christian through the National Gallery, he asks me about my relationship to painting. He knows I have been photographing details of paintings all year. I tell him that one impetus for the project was the work of Edvard Munch, which I had seen in New York the previous December, the way his details are so painterly. Munch’s work tends to be representational, but any given section has the possibility of holding its own as an abstract painting. A second impetus, I tell Christian, is that in certain films I love, films by Andrei Tarkovsky or Michael Haneke, for instance, the camera from time to time comes to rest on a painting. These moments are non-narrative and do not advance the plot. They are instances of pastoral. They might be accompanied by music (Tarkovsky) or silence (Haneke). 

A view of a landscape is not quite the same as a view of a painting. The landscape is always charged with the possibility of usefulness. In real life, when you’re looking at a field, someone can always walk across that field. A painting, on the other hand, is settled. It is there to be looked at. It stills the frenzy of the human heart. It declares a zone of compassion. It is a settled far away, enclosed in a frame. 

19. I walk around not really knowing what I am looking at. I have been to Oslo before, once, as I have been to many other cities in the course of my travels. The streets, the shops, the stations, the many bits of familiar city logic. 

But in this case, because I want to write some things down, I am asking myself what it is possible to understand in such a short time. Part of understanding is to embrace the “not understanding,” to inhabit a feeling of uncompletable understanding. A photograph I made at the Oslo Opera House was a photo of not understanding. But soon after, the tenor of the next photographs changed: they became photographs not of not understanding but of a limited understanding. I stare at the photographs for hours. They seem to know more than I do. Slow-release images. 

20. One of the challenges of photography is that it seeks to make the world a spectacle. I want to push past the spectacular. This process is so difficult that I sometimes feel as though I might as well be photographing with my eyes closed. 

In many essays that talk about “the essay,” authors point out that the root word of essay is the French infinitive essayer: to try or to attempt. (This is such a cliché by now that I look out for it in essays about essays, the way one looks, pre-emptively annoyed, for a shot of the Eiffel Tower in films set in Paris.) 

How can a photo be an attempt? How do we retain in a photo the tension and openness of an essay? A photo that does essay-work must remain unresolved, unfinished; it must continue to attempt. 

21. We look at the world while thinking our thoughts, thoughts that may by chance match the world we are looking at, or that may be independent of it. What is seen and what is said are in the same universe. The universe is enclosed, the permutations infinite. 

22. While we are on Utøya, looking across the water, he tells me about his daughter. She was born blind and deaf, and it is a mystery how she can reach the world and how the world can reach her. But she knows of their love, and they know of hers. 

We who live in these bodies. How little we suspect about the burden of care. 

23. In Oslo, she tells me about her father, dying now, possibly dying, in a suburban hospital. She enters the hospital room and there is a woman there (a beautiful woman, she says) whom she doesn’t know. The woman is speaking to her father in an intimate way, it seems, her father who is comatose. I’m his daughter, she tells the woman. I worked with him for a decade, the woman says. 

The beautiful woman continues to speak to her father, and she is watching the woman speak to her father, and she thinks that she sees her father’s hand move (he is comatose but has moments of wakefulness). Her father’s hand, she thinks, lifts slowly, touches the beautiful woman’s bottom, and slowly returns to its place, her father who is dying. 

24. At the National Museum, in front of the most famous painting in Scandinavia, I see one tourist after another pose for a picture. They pose in front of The Scream in the silent pretense of a scream, hands held up to faces. 

Perhaps I am thinking about the ongoing disaster in American politics. Perhaps I am thinking about the slow-motion political disaster everywhere, and the real pains that come with it, the wounded, the wounding continual. In any case, I cannot enter into the spirit of pretend screaming but am instead reminded again of the words Aimé Césaire wrote in his Notebook of a Return to the Native Land: 

“Beware of assuming the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not a spectacle . . . a man screaming is not a dancing bear . . .” 

25. At the jazz bar Herr Nilsen on a Sunday, the stage is open for a variety of bands. It is a cool and unpretentious place with good beer and decent wine. Several trios and quartets play, and there’s one particularly fine pianist.

In the small audience, comprising maybe twenty listeners in all, is a woman who has had a lot to drink. One feels it is habitual for her, this drunkenness. She’s talking at various people, and she’s merry but seems unhappy. She’s speaking French, loudly. She might be French. She takes a glance at me and says, in English, suddenly louder, Who are you! Who are you! 

As though someone had turned to me with a camera in the dark and triggered its flash. 

Who are you! she says. 

26. I give myself up. On a massage table, I’m vulnerable, as I am in the barber’s chair, or during a medical exam, or even when I am at a tailor’s being measured for clothes: these moments when the self becomes, primarily, a body. The masseuse is gentle and kind, and as we begin, she says, Do you do a sport? You have a really great body. She says it frankly and clinically but softly. There’s no suggestion of blurred boundaries. No, I don’t, I say, I don’t have a sport, but I know I ought to. I’m getting older, I say, I ought to exercise more. Well, you have an athlete’s body, she says. 

She doesn’t talk much after that. At the end of the session, she says, and this time in a harsher tone, You have a great body, but your back is tight with stress and your neck is full of knots. 

My pride is a bit wounded. I’m as offended as I was flattered forty-five minutes earlier. 

From time to time, walking down these streets in my dark fedora and loose jacket, a Black woman (it is always a Black woman) will look at me with real recognition, she’ll look me in the eye and smile—sometimes a bit puzzled, as though to say, “Who are you?”—and suddenly I’ll realize, I really am here. 

We who live in these bodies. 

27. They take me to Galt, a fine restaurant on Frognerveien. The city is rich, but if you’re with people, also convivial. I’m with Andreas and others. By quite a staggering coincidence, Andreas is there as well, dining at the table next to ours. 

Cities are made of people: Cathrine, Lene, Åshild, Linn, Linn, Nils, Sofie, Lars, Amund, Johanne, Victoria, Jørgen, Nina, Nadifa, Valeria, Paul, Claudio, Anne-Hilde, Andreas, Andreas, Andreas. 

28. I talk to Andreas about the quite serious Norwegian enthusiasm for electric cars. Owners of electric cars gain special privileges, he tells me. They can drive in the fast lane, they pay much less in taxes. Electric cars are all the rage in Oslo, he says, and nowhere in the world are as many Teslas sold per capita. Meanwhile, there’s all this oil money, there’s the staggering wealth of the Government Pension Fund Global, a trillion dollars. We were not imperialists, he says, but there’s this weapons trade, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth. 

War machines in the morning, and in the evening the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Hypocrisy is common to all societies. But is it true, can it be true, that in some places, it is more skilfully hidden than in others? 

29. Did you know that there are goats on Utøya Island? In so many ways, life keeps on going.

30. Each culture represents specific instances of sensitivity. This sensitivity is keyed to the needs of mastering the environment, and the accumulated knowledge can quite easily be lost, depending on the challenges proposed by the environment. An awareness of the clouds on any given day, a knowledge of the behaviours of whales, an intimacy with the patterns of bird migration, an expertise in the varieties of ocean currents, a skill at charting the motions of the sun and other planetary bodies, and a reading of the numerous winds: all underpinned the navigational success of the Vikings. These practices of quiet attention were counterweighted to the obvious brutalities. 

31. I lower the shutters. The city below. I am in my bed in the apartment given to me in the Litteraturhuset. Night falls after a restless and talkative day. This new fashion among young women in Oslo of not wearing bras. Night falls and I am in my bed in the Litteraturhuset and I begin to touch myself, in the bed of J. M. Coetzee, Patti Smith, Tomas Tranströmer, Haruki Murakami, Siri Hustvedt, Alain Mabanckou, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Han Kang, and Arundhati Roy. 

We who live in these bodies. 

32. Clouds, whales, birds, currents, astronomy, winds. I try to pay attention. Look past the money, past the assurances of prosperity. On July 22, on August 31, on September 2. Everything human is here, and there is nothing here that is not human. I ought to say plainly that I feel the sadness of the city, a sadness all the more powerful because everything around suggests that there is nothing to be sad about. 

33. We begin with Lutosławski, and then there’s Janáček, and after Janáček comes Schubert, so that it’s as though the music were slowly assembling itself back from fragments, moving back in time, reconstituting until finally we are in the Andante con moto of the String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D.810. Schubert’s heavenly length, which abolishes time. The Andante con moto is a set of variations on the theme of the lied “Death and the Maiden.” 

This is in the Aula of the University of Oslo. Each locale has its pasts, and the Aula’s past contains the Nazis and their Norwegian helpers. The hall was used to imprison prisoners of war. The fire in 1943. The Norwegian resistance. It contains, too, Charles Mingus. Thelonious Monk in 1966. And the paintings, eleven of them, by Munch, commissioned in 1914 and delivered in 1916, monumental paintings of The Sun, of History, of Alma Mater. We are all contemporaries and time does not exist. The Hagen Quartet fills the room with lines of music, and I’m reminded of what Tranströmer wrote in his poem “Schubertiana”: 

But those whose eyes enviously follow men of action,

who secretly despise themselves for not being murderers,

don’t recognise themselves here,

and the many who buy and sell people and believe that

everyone can be bought, don’t recognise themselves here.

Not their music. The long melody that remains itself in all

its transformations 

The music enters us. The people of the city, their foreign guest. 

Teju Cole teaches in the English department at Harvard. His books include Open City and Known and Strange Things.

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