Darkness at Noon

In this essay, South African author André Brink describes the pain he felt when terror struck Norway last July, and the pride he felt for a nation that came together and rose up amid the sorrow.

Read the Norwegian translation

Who would have though that a year like that, in a country like that, could take a turn like the one that came in July 2011?

That darkness could descend, literally out of the blue, on a day so resplendent, in a landscape so pastoral, among a crowd so young and full of energy and joy and rushing hormones and exuberant vitality?

André Brink

André Brink.

Foto: Aschehoug

Over the almost thirty years that my work has been published in Norway the country has come to occupy a very special place in my mind.

Among the beacons that demarcate this space are, in and around Oslo, the panorama of human forms throughout the Seven Ages of Man in the Wigeland Park; the Ibsen Museum, where one can follow the last glory-days on the playwright to that poignant moment of solitude when the chambermaid pulled back the curtains of his bedroom to ask him, «Isn’t it a beautiful day, Mr Ibsen?» and he grumpily replied, «On the contrary», before he turned his back and died.

And then there are still the stunning new Opera, the vivid evocation of the past in the Viking Museum, an unforgettable performance of «Hedda Gabler» lit by the midnight sun in the small, narrow theatre on top of the hill that overlooks the city, or the view from the skilift high above Oslo…

Even that is only the beginning, for beyond the capital one finds the architecture of Bergen, the studio of the painter Trine Røssevold in Ălesund, the wooden houses of Stavanger, the streets of Tromsø, the house of Sigrid Undset outside Lillehammer, the Bjørnson Festival in Molde, the smell of ozone in the old cemetery on the fishing island of Ona, the symmetries of the coastal cruiser Trollfjord as it ploughs through the breakers under the aurora borealis to Nordkapp and Kirkenes.

This year, guided by Wiggo Andersen and his wife Kristin Johansen who have become not just close friends but like members of our own family, and who this time brought us all the way to the far north to the islands of Lofoten, where we spent midsummer savouring the best of the Norwegian arts, accompanied by the best of Norwegian foods, surrounded by starkly beautiful mountains and the Prussian blue of the sea.

Afterwards, when my wife Karina left to attend a literary meeting in Cape Town, I rounded off my Norwegian visit, as so often in the past, staying as the guest of my publisher in the glorious Aschehoug villa on Drammensveien, among the sumptuous frescoes on the downstairs walls and the shrewdly and subtly ordered arrangement of the antique furniture, tended by our dear friend Guro Monsen.

So the summer visit had confirmed the glowing happiness both of us have come to associate with Norway for so long.

Which meant that the news of the bomb explosion in Oslo at 15:25 on the afternoon of 22 July, and the even more horrifying report of the shooting at Utøya which began at 17:22 on the same day, came as a complete and utter shock.

Finding ourselves in South Africa, some ten thousand kilometres away from our friends and the scene of the massacre, made the whole experience quite unbearable.

At 18:25 the police arrived at the island and confronted the perpetrator of the atrocity, Anders Behring Breivik.

It was the end of the drama.

It was the beginning of the unfolding of the human story, and the enquiry into the human ramifications of the story.

There are so many flashes and fragments from the following hours and days and weeks, that coherence in search of closure is not easy to find.

Among the many random images that keep returning in an attempt to discover meaning, is that of two young girls in the Sundvolden hotel where the survivors were gathered on the day after the event.

As they stumbled about, they were crying, and naked, wrapped only in a towel, when they were approached by an old man who gathered them in his arms and comforted them. After some time one of them looked at him, and then turned to her friend to stammer: «It is the King…»

Indeed, King Harald and his queen had come to the island to share the darkness of this summer’s day with their people.

Among the helpers were also members of the government, most visible the Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg who remained with the victims throughout the following days and nights.

Already at his first press conference the Prime Minister left an imprint on the mind of the world by promising that the attack would not harm democracy in Norway, and that the response to it should not be hate but, instead, «more democracy, more openness».

And a young woman from the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party which had organized the holiday camp, added in an interview with CNN: «If one man can show so much hate», she said, «think how much love we could show standing together.»

This show of love became evident in many ways over the following days and weeks: in two hundred thousand people gathering in a flower march in Oslo three days after the killings, and in overwhelming demonstrations of solidarity all over the world.

In a miraculous way the whole world had become an extension of one country, Norway.

In my own torn and broken country, South Africa, I saw, less than twenty years ago, how a whole nation could stand together, after fifty years of apartheid and centuries of oppression and violence and inhumanity, still wounded and suffering, but united in a new-found pride and dignity around the charismatic figure of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, to face the future together in hope and humility and joy.

And then, after only a few years of power abused and humanity wasted, we have come to witness how much new suffering and misery and evil could take over in the hands of a small band of unscrupulous and uncaring leaders who had every reason to know better but who cared only for themselves and their own narrow-minded version of the truth.

While, bleeding and wounded, but assured and proud, Norway can say, «More democracy, more openness»,South Africa announces in its planned new law on controlling information: «Less democracy, less openness, more bureaucracy, more cover-ups, more secrecy, more brute force, more lies.»

Cry, oh cry, the beloved country!

I know – because with the rest of the world I have seen – which way the real light shines and how darkness can be overcome.

With a young naked girl we can point at a tall, wise man and his wife, and whisper: «It is the king. Every inch a king.»

While elsewhere, in our own poor, dark, narrow world, the small local king and his many wives must crouch in lies and sham and subterfuge.

– André Brink