Friday, 13 April 2012

New books: Norway’s darkest day

It was said of the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who had been wounded in World War I, but survived, that he used to see in the galleries of the House of Commons the ghosts of his more talented, fallen friends and hear them say: “What you, Harold – you Prime Minister?”
In a couple of decades it is well possible that the same sentiment may be shared by Norwegian MPs and ministers feeling that they would not have been in their positions if others had not been killed on the terrible day of 22 July 2011, when the right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, driven by a hatred of the multicultural society and the Labour Party, first blew up the government building before continuing to the Labour youth movement’s summer camp at Utøya to carry out his massacre, leaving a total of 77 dead, most of them teenagers and young adults representing the future of the Labour Party.
This most dramatic day in the postwar history of Norway is the subject of journalist Kjetil Stormark’s book Da terroren rammet Norge – 189 minutter som rystet verden, which was published by Kagge Forlag in December and is now already out in paperback. It is one of those rare books which are excellent and terrible at the same time, in other words so dreadful that it is hard to put down.
Stormark follows the events from the hours before the bombing on 22 July until the enormous flower manifestation in Oslo three days later. The author does not dwell on the ideas that drove Breivik to commit his unspeakable crimes, which might have served to put the drama into a context, but would at the same time have made it a very different and much longer book.
The story is told mostly chronologically and made up of many individual stories. At first this seems somewhat chaotic as the author seems to try to tell too many stories at the same time and thus makes the book too crowded.
But eventually it comes to work very well when he reaches the massacre at Utøya, which lasted for an interminable hour. While charting the actions of the political leadership and the emergency services, Stormark also recounts the stories of individual victims, some of whom survived, some of whom did not.
Here are also the stories of the victims’ families, who in many cases were in touch with them on the telephone, but endured the heartbreak of not really being able to do anything to help their children except calling the emergency services, mostly in vain.
The many detailed accounts make it seem that the nightmare will never end and that help will never come, which must have been a feeling shared by those present as the drama unfolded. Only when he is captured is the name of Anders Behring Breivik mentioned for the first time.
The author uses his pen to paint vivid pictures, such as the bereaved family being comforted by a man with a tear-washed face whom a government official suddenly recognised as the King, or the sight after nightfall from the landside of all the cell phones abandoned on the island lighting up in the dark as families and friends desperately and in vain kept on ringing.
It is a heartbreaking story told in the present tense which shows the chaos, the desperation, the uncertainties, the shock, the relief, the despair, the ineffectiveness, the shortcomings and the heroism of that terrible day.
The trial of Anders Behring Breivik starts on Monday. Inevitably there will be many books written on the events of 22 July for many years to come, but Kjetil Stormark’s book seems likely to take its rightful place as an instant classic.

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