Dog Bite Degustation: Bjorneboe's "Moment of Freedom"

on Thursday, May 27, 2010
There is a great story, probably apocryphal, about Norway's infamous literary rebel Jens Bjorneboe. As founder of the anarcho-sophist movement, he had dedicated his artistic life to antagonising the authorities, even spending time in jail to protest Norway's obscenity laws. Yet Bjorneboe had his eyes on a bigger prize. He would not be content until he had pissed off pretty much everyone. And so he set about writing what he termed "The History of Bestiality". Starting with Moment of Freedom, it was to be a trilogy, in which he would explore the history of man's inhumanity to man, upending any notions of our inherent goodness as well as questioning the place of the individual within what he saw as a society of beasts. By the end, he is supposed to have said, he would come to know so much about the horrid nature of our species that he would no longer, in good conscience, be able to live as part of it. Bjorneboe, if the story is to be believed, certainly had the courage of his convictions. After completing the third book he committed suicide.

I don't know how much I buy into the Bjorneboe myth. I love it but it reduces him to a simplistic idealogue. Sure, he trawled the darkest depths of mankind, and he ultimately did take his own life, but the dates don't add up. The final book in the trilogy, The Silence, was published in 1973. Bjorneboe didn't die for another three years. This wasn't a case of someone laying down his pen and ending it all. The truth, I regret to say, is a little more pedestrian. Bjorneboe was an alcoholic who struggled for years with manic depression. These twin demons undoubtedly fed his dark vision, allowing him to write the sort of books he did. They also killed him. Suicide was not a moral stance, but a sad end to a life of mental illness.

Moment of Freedom is an intriguing opening salvo in Bjorneboe's grand statement, a scathing indictment against barbarism. The unnamed narrator, a Servant of Justice, works in the courtroom of a rural town high in Norway's mountains. By day he cleans the judge's robes, sweeps the court and watches the various characters as they are shunted through what he perceives as a system of injustice. Hypocrisy rules, and he is complicit. Each afternoon, he heads home to the room he rents above a brothel (he has made a point of always living in brothels) and compiles his life's work, "The History of Bestiality". Although we are only ever privy to the first Protocol, dealing with the Nazi doctors' concentration camp experiments, we are told that he has written at least ten and that the manifesto (I figure this is the best word to describe it) is somewhere in the vicinity of eight thousand pages long.

Not much happens in Moment of Freedom. It is more a series of vignettes, some shocking, others humorous and benign. It is structured intentionally like a bullfight - the moment of freedom refers to that point at which the matador stops 'dancing' with the bull and invites the spectators to join him in the kill. Life, according to Bjorneboe, is much the same. We dance a dainty waltz of manners but when the cape is pulled away we face the Inquisition. Or Auschwitz. The realisation is harrowing, a Sartre-style existential punch delivered as a Joycean romp.

I'm not sure that I'd still include Moment of Freedom amongst my top ten books of all-time. I suspect I was too caught up in the romance of the Bjorneboe tragedy to gain proper perspective. Plus, I probably liked the fact I'd found and connected with an obscure author none of my friends had read. Like many of the books I've revisited for May's Dog Bite Degustation challenge it is unremittingly bleak, and has given me cause for concern. Why do I so feel the need for a book to destroy me? Someone really should have given me a few P.G. Wodehouse books as a kid...


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