LONG LIVE THE POST HORN!
By Vigdis Hjorth
Whatever you’re watching or reading these days, chances are the circumstances of the world within are extraordinary, but the ordinary — who loves whom, what family secrets keep complicating matters — helps drive the drama.
What if this formula has the balance of living wrong, if we’d be better fed by tales of ordinary circumstances in which the drama is extraordinary? The midday office meeting as an existential crisis! A family holiday as an opera of love and death!
The poet laureate of this kind of tale is the Norwegian novelist Vigdis Hjorth, whose brisk, skittering books pounce on everyday experiences, revealing beneath their forensically detailed surfaces pools of risk and doubt.
Hjorth’s latest novel to appear in English, “Long Live the Post Horn!,” is a brilliant study of the mundane, full of unexpected detours and driving prose. It is also the best post office novel ever written, first published in 2013 but arriving in the United States just in time for an election that has made routine mail delivery one of the tensest political battlegrounds in years.
Ellinor, the book’s 35-year-old protagonist, stumbles upon journals from her mid-20s: Amid a sea of long-forgotten names of men bob riffs on wardrobe decisions. Aghast at the banality of her life, Ellinor decides to live with purpose. “I, too, had been waiting for my fairy tale to begin,” she says, “but I had waited in vain for so long that I had stopped believing in fairy tales.”
A cause comes in an unlikely form: Ellinor’s public-relations firm has a contract with the Norwegian postal workers’ union, which is fighting a resolution that would open some services to private competition and most likely lead to salary cuts. When her colleague leaves them in the lurch, Ellinor must take over. Now she’s in for the high drama of Labour Party meetings, the thrash and cajoling of local politics. How will she weather the chaos of bureaucracy?
It’s not saving the world from a zombie apocalypse, but it’s a cause — and a full-throated endorsement of a service that, despite undermining from powerful people, goes to great lengths to fulfill a public need. Hjorth’s novel, lucidly translated by Charlotte Barslund, ingeniously orbits the intimate stories that are possible only when a character has put words on paper and sent them through the post.
Ellinor’s disquiet that she’s not up to the task of defending this essential service deepens with a greater alarm, as she realizes she hasn’t told her boyfriend, Stein, what she really cares about, or her family what’s actually on her mind. If she can’t truly speak to people, she wonders, how can she possibly speak on their behalf?
One of Hjorth’s ongoing concerns has been to apply skepticism to every inch of her characters’ inner lives. In her 2016 novel “Will and Testament,” which made her a sensation in Norway, the narrator struggles to convince her family that her father abused her, the truth assembled from and then ground into mica by text messages, email exchanges and diary entries.
Ellinor, too, takes to writing — letters to herself and to Stein, and, of course, a new diary.
“Am I real?” she scribbles at one low point. “No, I wrote. I exist in some way, I wrote, then I stopped. Perhaps I had to approach the concept of real via its opposite, fake.”
Is there a better description of what a novel is? Perhaps here is a defense for why Hjorth continues to call “Will and Testament,” which prompted a lawsuit from her own family and a response book from Hjorth’s sister, fiction. We all need a mirror, sometimes to see the distortions, sometimes to see our true purpose.