from Nobody Compared to You
by Jonas Brun
introduced and translated by Andy Turner
Brun’s disquieting and engrossing tale of psychological suspense covers a history uniting past and present with secrets and truth. Some twenty years after their paths first crossed, the main characters Stewe and John come face to face at Stewe’s isolated house deep in the Swedish forest. Their previous clandestine relationship is opened up and a mystery they have shared about a catastrophic fire in the 1990s resurfaces.
In the passages of dialogue between them (without the conventions of direct speech), double-spaced among the historical narrative and some twenty years later, the reverberations, tensions and suspense play out centre stage. Brun never assigns any utterance to either character, leaving us to deduce who is saying what to whom. Adding dramatic immediacy amid continuing repercussions from that summer, it becomes clear that unfinished business remains between them.
The opening paragraph carries the novel in embryo, setting the physical scene of the fire, hinting at the presence of who might be involved without apportioning blame or role. In Swedish, Brun is able to keep the identity of the owner(s) of the hands, say, hauntingly clandestine. English, however, has less flexibility to flirt with such mystery. The challenge was to keep this veil of inscrutability in the Swedish drawn in the translation. In fact, eyes, blood, thoughts or tears in the Swedish textual imagery could belong to any of them, individually or in combination, but keeping what is uncommunicated in the original language intact in translation, they could equally belong to anyone at all.
The following extract is from the beginning of the book. There are no chapters, a layout break here indicates a page break in the original.
from Nobody Compared to You
How were they by day? By day they were together. How were they by night? By night they were alone. And between the night and the day? Between the night and the day came dawn. What was the water doing? The water was flowing in the river. What was the water doing? The water was falling from the sky. What about the sky? The sky was wide. What about the sky? The sky was open. Who was coming down the road? The man was coming down the road. What was the man’s name? The man’s name was unknown. What did the man have? The man had a head. What did that have? It had a mouth. And around that mouth? Around that mouth were lips. What came from those lips? From those lips came the cry. What about those eyes? Those eyes were open. What about the blood? The blood was red. Where were the tears flowing from? The tears were flowing from those eyes. Where were the tears flowing? The tears were flowing down those cheeks. Where did the tears land? The tears landed on the ground. What about the thoughts? Nobody remembers any thoughts. And between the day and the night? Between the day and the night came dusk. And at dusk? The fire was in the dusk. What were those hands doing? Those hands were lighting the fire. Where was the fire? The fire was in the house. Where was the fire? The fire was in the treetops. What was the fire doing? The fire was lighting up the sky. What was the fire doing? The fire was hot against your face. What was the fire doing? The fire was throwing out sparks. What was the fire doing? The fire was reflected in the water. Where was the fire? The fire was behind them. Where was the fire? The fire was in front of them. What was the fire doing? The fire was wiping clean. What happened then? Then time moved on.
It is twenty years after the fire. It is a Friday. This is the day he comes back. Darkness radiates from the forest. It is the moment before it descends thick and fast around the house and the exterior lights go on. Yet it is bright enough to make out the tiny figure walking down the road in the distance, across the frosty, bare, autumnal field.
Stewe is drying the glasses he has just washed, waiting for whoever is walking along out there to turn back. Pehr took the car and drove off to a job less than an hour ago, leaving him alone for the weekend.
The only people arriving here unannounced are those who have taken a wrong turn. For this is the last house before the road slips into the forest and tails away, becomes no more than a track and breaks up among marsh, undergrowth.
But the figure continues to approach, rapidly, a pale head against the wall of firs. Dark jacket, light blue jeans. This stranger is pulling a roller case, not with difficulty, but with ease, as if it weighed nothing. Although it is impossible, only one person in the world moves in this particular way.
The figure passes the bend, is hidden for a while behind the lilac hedge before appearing again at the gate and opening it. The crunch of the case being pulled across the gravel on the path. A pause. The wooden veranda floor creaking. One, two, three steps.
The knock. Stewe thinks he should just stay put, waiting completely still until the man knocking inexplicably at the door turns around and walks back along the road unrewarded, disappears from sight, is absorbed back into the twilight, remaining where he belongs. Among the forgotten and the dead.
Of course, this is not what happens. He walks up to the front door and his hand grabs the handle. A strange, extended period of time goes by as his hand simply rests there, before it actually opens the door.
His face has hardened, lines have made inroads around his eyes and mouth. His hairline is now high on the top of his head, only a thin strip of hair extending down towards his forehead, his hair closely cropped all over. There are shimmers of grey, especially at the temples. The case is still below the veranda, right at the edge of the circle of light from the outside lamp. No gloves. His jacket done up right to the neck. His breath turning white as it leaves his mouth.
. . .
Won’t you let me in?
Why should I?
I’ve come a long way to get here. To see you.
Not my problem.
You’re sure? I won’t be back again.
OK. How do I get out of here?
Don’t have a car.
How did you get here, then?
By bus. When’s the next bus?
This is the country. There aren’t any more tonight, the next one’s at noon
tomorrow. You can phone a taxi.
I don’t have a phone.
Are you cold?
Come in then.
He nods and fetches the case. It is battered and fixed with duct tape at the corner. His boots are muddy. His nails rough, his hands too. He unlaces his boots, placing them neatly beside each other on the hall runner. The cursory outline of pectoral muscles as he pulls his jacket off. Thin, grey shirt beneath. His body so much heavier than back then.
He blows into his hands and his eyes scan the room.
Big place you’ve got.
He is standing just below the hall light as he says it. As he opens his mouth and speaks under its piercing glare, Stewe sees that he has a dark gap in his row of teeth on the left, some way back, like a deep black entrance to a cave. When they last saw each other, all his teeth were in place. Stewe is sure of that. He would have remembered if anything was missing from that mouth.
Still only morning and he is already sick of it all. Mum calls after him but he is not sticking around. He is running away from her and her question. He runs beneath the nodding tops of the birch trees towards the river, as it glints harshly up ahead in the sun, flowing along like sharp silver jewellery around a neck.
Weren’t you meant to be phoning Kim today?
All morning has been taken up with rabbiting on about this and that until right past lunch, making him believe that she had actually forgotten. Making him hope that it may yet happen, that something actually could disappear in a blink of an eye, making life simple. But now he had to run. Away from the house, away from Mum’s questions, Mum’s nagging. From the anxiety being stored there. In the walls, in the heat, in him.
. . .
His dad mutters to himself from somewhere across the room, puttying a window with the radio crackling on the window sill. Stewe can’t stand that, either. Tweaking and fixing, pottering and chugging along. The vast emptiness of summer up here. Why go north when you have been waiting ages for it to get hot again? After the cold of autumn, winter, spring. Idiotic. This is a house of idiots, full of fools.
But this is one hot summer, true enough. The hottest in a long time. The first in years when you can actually swim in the river without freezing to death. To him, such a summer is a mere figment of some distant memory. A long row of cold summers has to be weathered before it all blazes up in a summer like this one.
He is in the midst of its glowing eye, its golden field of vision, running right through the heat, his sweat dripping. Dry, scratching plants, swarms of wasps. Pets escaping at the first opportunity, never to be seen again, running wild outside in the forest. He has read in the newspaper about two girls who killed a third with a rock for no particular reason at all. It is that sort of summer. So intense and heavy that thoughts are pushed down into the silt and suffocated.
Now he has broken loose too. All is silent behind him and the only sounds are his own deep breathing and the dull slaps as the flat soles of his trainers strike the hard-trodden path again and again. His mum must have realised that he’s made off. Isn’t coming after him. She isn’t stupid, not always. Gives him space. At least sometimes.
He runs right out along the jetty, steps into the rowing boat and unties the moorings. Rows a few strokes and then lets it drift along. He lies down in the bow. Catches his breath. The sky is high. Not the tiniest scrim of cloud, just clear blue straight into perpetual space. All you can do with the sky is stare at it, and it feels nice. It asks nothing. Wants nothing. Doesn’t even try to keep out of the way.
But it won’t do to lie there too long without paying attention. There are large rocks along the river, just below the surface. Dad would be mad if he ran aground, if the bottom of the boat ripped open and the whole shebang sank. Manda is coming later today. Maybe it will be easier then, maybe she will sweep in like a breath of fresh air to blow away all his parents’ stupid questions that are hanging there.
He sits up, digs the oars in and steers free from the current. Brings the boat closer to the river bank. He could go and moor up in a creek. He does that sometimes. Letting the time go by. Swimming. Wanking. Reading. Daydreaming about everything he is not, everything he lacks, but desires.
He sees the first house on the other side of the river, the one high up on the slope, the red-ochre, boarded walls lurking behind the greenery. The sloping roof and the single, dark window upstairs. Its jetty is smaller than theirs, hardly extending beyond the reeds. Nobody is ever there. In the other houses downstream, a bit past the bend, there are nearly always people about. Especially in the white one. You can hear them speaking Finnish as you row past. Sometimes they wave.
The first house is a mystery. Why have a summer house if you never plan on being there, Dad asks each time the matter comes up, pointing with his oar as they row past. Pointing to the grass that is left to grow too tall, to the peeling walls. On one occasion they tied the boat alongside and walked up and peered in through the windows. A powerful sense of being off limits caused them to look carefully all around first. But clearly there was nobody there because nobody ever is there and nobody discovered them. It was dusty in the house, he remembers. Sofa and table and a cracked vase. Looked ordinary, just like any old room, only forgotten long ago. That was the only difference.
But today. A sign of life. In the sun on the jetty. He notices the feet first. White, wide, opened out in a way, toes pointing down to the water. He glances along the legs, strong as well as long. Someone is lying on their stomach wearing nothing but light swimming trunks. They are not swimming trunks. They are white buttocks shining; a sharp line against a deep tanned back, sun-tanned legs. A blond head further along the jetty. The head moves. He promptly squirms right to the bottom of the boat. Waits for the boat to drift just far enough away so he can risk sitting up again with no fear of being noticed.
He twists his gold ring as he waits. It is unfamiliar and he loves it. It was almost the last thing that happened before he left the city. He went to the salon and had it put in. His earlobe throbbed afterwards and swelled up. It has healed now. Nobody at school has seen it yet. He had been longing to have it done and hadn’t said anything to anyone. Mum and Dad largely thought it was him wasting money. Because it is real gold, through and through. It took all the cash he had saved in his moneybox.
As he rows back, the jetty is just as empty as ever. But the veranda door is open, gently swinging in the breeze and bouncing the light off it. A towel is hanging over the fence to dry.
Only two other people have the same name as you do. I looked up the one
guy in Gothenburg first. And clearly he wasn’t you.
What if I’d taken a new name? Suppose I got married and switched names.
Or maybe I just changed it.
I’d have found you anyway.
You’re not so easy to track down.
Having a common name’s good. You can vanish in the crowd with
. . .
You looked me up.
. . .
If you’d found me? What would you have done then?
I was just curious.
. . .
I wouldn’t have gone to your house anyway, wouldn’t have just turned up
out of the blue.
And that’s why I had no other choice. Because it never would’ve happened,
nothing would’ve happened. If I hadn’t done anything.
Maybe it’s best that certain things never happen.
Rather than just waiting? Because that’s what you were doing too, right?
Waiting? It’s no better in the long run. I can tell you. You wait and wait and
eventually you find that’s all you’re doing. It consumes you in the end.
He is in his room, lying on the bed. Spiders are abseiling down from the ceiling and the wasp is buzzing in the window, attacking the glass again and again. Mindless of the fact that one of the windows next to it is open quite some way. The wasp, however, will carry on regardless, just where it is. Time ticks by here too. Like in the boat. That’s all that happens in this place, the house of fools. Time ticks by. And slowly too.
As soon as you move outside they arrive, landing in the food, on your arms, drowning in juice and coffee. The wasps. Their jerky, black and yellow, stripy abdomens at every turn, the sting pumping helplessly in the air as you swat them with a rolled-up newspaper. They may be defeated but they never give in. Just as the wasp at the window doesn’t give in.
He has already been stung several times. At first, it is just a little dot, then the burning and the stinging pain break out in a raised, red bump. Some cold Salubrin cream on it, just as with his earlobe. The itching comes and goes, it takes many days before the swelling reduces.
Mum and Dad escape lightly, the wasps only have eyes for him. They want to die for him. The wasp suddenly buzzes close to his ear, the high-pitched mechanical drone almost inside his head, then it circles around him and heads back to the window. He can’t be bothered to get up and chase it out. Keeping out of the way is a bit tame but also rather pleasant. Simple when everyone else is busy doing their own thing. Yet at the same time he has a feeling of being overtaken, ignored, left on a deserted island of hot and futile summertime.
If you follow the little forest track for half an hour, then turn left onto the main road and follow the ditch alongside the motorway beneath the pines for half an hour more, you come to the town with its single street. Before you get there, you pass silos, petrol stations, repair shops. On the square in town, you can have an ice cream. You can sit outside the station house. It takes no time at all to eat the ice cream. After that, you go back to the summer house again. There is nothing more here. Not for him. His parents say coming up here is comforting. They’re at home here. If you don’t follow the track, the river offers the only way out of here where you can be sure to be left alone, without needing to crouch down and hide.
But now he is inside his room. The little cell upstairs. There is barely enough space for the bed, a cheap lopsided wardrobe and a folding table. He doesn’t risk crying in here. They would hear him through the thin walls. He wishes he had some music. But the batteries have run out and the money for new batteries has run out with them. So the CD player is covered in dust with the headphone wires all tangled.
The wasp has gone silent. Perhaps it made its way out at last. Or it got stuck in a spider’s web. But new wasps will come along soon enough, they always do, this entire summer plagued by insects. He lies still. Sweating all the same. The shaft of sunlight from the window lands directly on the ring in his ear. Heating it up so it burns where it enters his earlobe, his thin skin, thin flesh.
When did you last eat?
Had breakfast today. Think that was the last time.
Don’t you remember?
Sometimes I forget.
Had other things on your mind?
Sure. Had other things on my mind.
Are you hungry?
Bloody starving, actually.
There’s some leftovers from dinner, if you want. I can heat some up.
. . .
It’s game casserole.
. . .
Ingen jämfört med dig
Albert Bonniers förlag, 2018, 230 pages
Foreign rights: the author.
We are grateful to the author and publisher for permission to publish this translated extract.
A review of Ingen Jämfört med dig appeared in SBR 2018:2.
Jonas Brun is a writer, psychologist and translator, including of the Nobel-Prize-winning writer Louise Glück. He made his literary debut in 2004 and has since published a number of celebrated novels and poetry collections.
Andy Turner is a literary translator and reviewer. Andy received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia in 2017 after more than twenty years as a secondary school teacher in East London, Essex and Suffolk. He was the 2018/19 National Centre for Writing's Emerging Literary Translator in Swedish in a mentorship with Sarah Death.