A man without a face
Erling could hear the night wind beginning to stir. He raised his head from his papers and listened. It was August 10, 1957; it was two o'clock in the morning and the weather report had indicated rain, much rain during the night. It was balmy. The rustle of leaves against the window made the silence in the room more noticeable. He rose and walked about. The room was thirty-six feet long and fourteen feet wide; the ceiling so low that Erling, who was of medium height, could barely walk without hitting his head against the beams. The walls were of horizontal logs, about a foot in diameter; not long ago he had scraped them and oiled them; a fragrance of oil and pitch pine hung in the air. The floor boards were of pine, too; until last spring they had been worn and knottily uneven. People might stumble and the floor was difficult to keep clean, Felicia had complained during her visits. He had once asked her to forget about cleaning and floor-scrubbing, but who could tell Felicia what to do or not to do? He was thinking of that May day seven years ago—how she had discovered his secret hiding place in the floor and examined its contents. They had never mentioned it but he knew it was she. Anyone else discovering it would have stolen his whisky, probably his papers as well, examined them in some other, more secure place, and thrown them away. Probably Felicia, even in her most distracted moments, realized he undoubtedly had had signs which would indicate to him if the safe had been opened. After she had left the following morning he had discovered at once that someone had opened it, but one does not willingly expose one's friends.
He had inquired the price of such floor boards, planks one would call them, and they were expensive, indeed, perhaps unobtainable; such boards were no longer produced. Then one evening this last spring, a thought had struck him: might the planks be flat on the underside also, or were they split logs with the round side down? He worked the whole night through getting one board loose. It was a plank, in good condition, [p. 60] but unplaned. During the following week he busied himself taking up plank after plank. Every one in perfect condition. He had engaged a carpenter to plane them and lay them down again. Since then he had liked his house even better than before.
It had started to rain. He sat listening to the pleasant sound, while an old problem rose anew: the thought of a person's identity. He recalled, still disturbed, his experience in Stockholm with the saber-toothed tiger. . . .
And he recalled also what had happened earlier this evening. Between seven and eight someone had knocked on the door, and he had called out "Come in!" thinking it was the little girl with the milk; she would step in so sure of herself and so difficult to get rid of. She would ask in her precocious way about his life and mode of living. But it had not been she, it had been a man he didn't know who acted hurt when he wasn't recognized. It never occurred to Erling not to mention his own name when he looked up someone who might have met him only fleetingly, perhaps long ago, and he was always irritated by people who played a sort of hide-and-seek, or who seemed waiting the moment to produce a curriculum vitae. Facing the man at the door Erling had said rather roughly, "I have not the slightest idea who you are and I'm not interested in playing guessing games."
The man stared at him like a dog with much suppressed hatred in him—and this must have been easy enough for he looked like a dog. "Oh yes, you recognize me, you do—"
Erling took a threatening step toward his guest, who shied away and suddenly became fawning. "I thought you might recognize an old acquaintance—Torvald Ørje."
Torvald Ørje? Erling recalled him in an instant. And probably he would have recognized the man if it hadn't seemed beyond all reason that Torvald Ørje should want to call on him. How long had it been? In September it would be sixteen years. He looked at this person whom life had treated roughly, this repulsive figure with a thin neck and a head like a dog. He had not been particularly interested in the man, but felt a great anger rise against him—a sort of primitive anger at being disturbed by a simpleton, here in his peaceful house.
Yes, he remembered everything about Torvald Ørje—not in a logical sequence, rather as one remembers a landscape, with no particular time involved. Twenty years ago he had insulted Ørje, perhaps simply by existing; anyway he couldn't clearly recall now. The lazy good-for-nothing was a lawyer who had never had a practice; he had some screwy conception that he was a born journalist. He could always be found in [p. 61] some newspaper waiting room, hoping for an appointment that never materialized; he could see no other way to become a journalist; there he would sit, pulling at his left ear lobe—the way he was standing here and acting this very moment—and allow himself to be pushed, overlooked, and insulted. He only winked and pulled at his ear. The very day after the Germans had arrived he was teasing his ear in their waiting rooms and was insulted there too. In the beginning the people in Nasjonal Samling[1*] were rather haughty when new converts applied for membership (the day would come when they persuaded, pleaded, and threatened). Finally he was accepted; they made him chief of police in various places, for he was of no use as a writer, but they moved him about from place to place until he finally landed as chief of police at Os. There, far up in the North, he was soon forgotten. Not even Erling had known that this confused and always half-drunk deputy—Goebbels in Os was identical with Torvald Ørje; he was said to be harmless because he was too stupid to be allowed a free hand. Erling learned differently; Ørje had sent a couple of NS-men to Oslo to shoot him, but the Germans had already sent their own men. He had to make his escape before any of them had time to strike. The Gestapo was out on honest business, one might say, while Torvald Ørje was only an underling out to revenge someone who once had slighted him.
So strange, so long ago.
The otherwise skinny man had a fat stomach. He used a belt which sat like a furrow across his middle, and Erling found himself thinking of different kinds of fish, the ones called fat and the ones called lean; the fat ones had their fat equally distributed over the body, like halibut, herring, and mackerel; the lean ones had an enormous liver, like codfish and shark. Perhaps it was his liver that made the skinny Torvald Ørje swell so much around his stomach. Erling recalled one of the victims of this revenge-hungry informer, a man who had returned home from Sachsenhausen after the war and said, "You know, you can get hungry enough to eat human liver—but only when it's well peppered." Erling saw only what was vile about Ørje; it made him sick to his stomach to look at the worn belt across this man's swollen belly. And it evoked a memory of the belt in which the informer Jan Husted had been hung.
So unreal and so long ago! For a moment he almost forgot the man Torvald Ørje, as he stood absent-mindedly and evaluated him. It was often said one could see on a person what he was. People looked at pictures of criminals and stated at once: You can see from a mile away [p. 62] what sort of man he is! Yes—because it was printed below the picture; they would have had a different opinion if the print had said that the man had saved four small children from drowning.
Everything about Torvald Ørje was disorderly. He had no command of his body, and his face was distorted as if big bubbles were rising and sinking in it. His look might in the space of a few seconds change from fawning, urging, pleading, to arrogance—all the time alert as to how far he dared go. He created an impression of deceit, fear, and a never-resting urge to dominate and hurt. He might fall on his knees and cry if he thought that was suitable—he had indeed done so—and in the next moment turn brutal if he were given a friendly word that to his mind suggested surrender and weakness; a monster, sick with joy when someone fell into his hands.
Erling did not recall how many years Torvald Ørje was sentenced to when brought to justice after the war, nor had Erling been the one to point him out; during the war there might have been some sense in destroying him but now it didn't matter. On the contrary, when he was let out he was a good man to have: he had so thoroughly discredited the traitors' fight for restitution that it looked as if he had been bribed even then.
Erling looked at the man for a moment before he asked, almost reluctantly, "What has got into you to come to me?"
Torvald Ørje made a motion as if to sneak by Erling into the room, but Erling did not move. "There could be nothing to say between us that can't be said in the doorway. I won't ask you to come in."
"If I could talk to you for a few moments I would explain—"
"I have no desire to listen to your opinions about the war, and what happened in Norway, if that's what you mean. What do you want?"
"Well—you call it during the war—you must mean during the occupation—"
"Shut up! What do you want?"
Torvald Ørje stared and now Erling saw that he actually looked like Goebbels, and that Goebbels also had resembled a dog. Ørje changed his tactics and spoke rapidly: he had some paintings, left behind when Erling fled to Sweden. Now he wanted to sell them, for a price; he had bought them when the Germans confiscated Erling's belongings. But Erling could have them back, might even get them as a gift—the fact was, Ørje had written a book about the occupation, and if Erling could find the time to look over the manuscript—he had it with him in his briefcase—
Just then he caught sight of Erling's eyes and realized there was [p. 63] danger brewing. When Erling took a step toward him he stumbled out backwards.
Erling closed the door after him. The worst thing that the Germans had done was to let stupidity loose in the land, all those jackasses who were harmless enough in peacetime. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a drink, which he swallowed before he picked up the telephone and called a lawyer he knew and asked him to start proceedings about the theft. Then he became depressed and nervous. He regretted it almost as he called, although he could see no clear reason why it should distress him. Were his pictures to hang in the house of that person? Then he realized that what bothered him was the fact that he had dirtied himself with that man by turning to someone because of him. Now there would be trouble; Torvald Ørje would never understand that the pictures weren't his; he had obtained them from the Germans who lawfully had confiscated them, and Ørje himself had paid his debt through his prison term; the books were balanced. Erling had met some of that sort, people who tried to pretend that nothing had happened. But to Erling the curtain had gone down once and for all; such people indicated only too clearly through their action that they were nostalgic for the time of great darkness when the Germans wielded the whip over the country; then all of them had acted like people who had been permitted for a short time to return to their babyhood and dirty themselves as much as they pleased; their happy days in the diaper had come to an end when the Germans left.
He was unable to regain his equilibrium after the visit, and he thought of taking to the bottle—but not tonight, no, not tonight; he was afraid of the saber-toothed tiger, that symbol of his identity problem.
He went to bed but sleep did not come. Something labored confusingly in his head, something about the distinction between war and occupation. Then he knew what it was. He went to a drawer, opened it, and found what he was looking for; it was a sort of letter-to-the-editor from a one-time NS-man, signed with a pseudonym, suggesting that it was Erling and his kind who had been the traitors because of their inability to distinguish between war and occupation.
Erling had read similar opinions written by other criminals; formality of procedure characterizes the criminal's argument: one who had plundered and murdered in his own land while it was occupied could make much over the choice of terms for describing the situation in the country, in order to get around the fact that a crook is a crook.
There was no doubt but that the letter was written by Torvald Ørje, [p. 64] the man who had called this evening, the man who in the fall of 1941 had plotted against the lives of Erling and others he didn't like.
Erling recalled that somebody else had published a bloodthirsty article—The Guilt of the Masses—defending murders of fishermen up in the North, deportation, torture, and starvation for the rest of the village population, because there had been a British raid in the neighborhood where these people were unfortunate enough to live.
Such people had paid their penalty, it was said, but they hadn't done so formally, and there might perhaps be some sense in not insisting on punishment for actions which could not be expiated. The Italians had been clearer in their thinking when they apprehended Mussolini: when he wanted to defend himself he was told that if he was Benito Mussolini he would be killed: what they were discussing was only his identification. The Quisling case was a comedy and it is difficult to believe anyone acted in good faith; a united people wanted Quisling's head, therefore the people should have taken that head, without hiding their own heads in the bushes. We the people let ourselves become irresponsible children when Quisling was brought to trial and sentenced; we were so tired we did not even hate Quisling any longer, it was said. We had become tired of him, we wished to get rid of him, but I believe it was a common daydream he would die of himself—simply not be there any more; we would have preferred to learn that he had vanished into thin air. But the habits from five years of occupation inclined us to demand his life, mainly because we didn't know what else to do with him. Erling had suggested, privately, that he be put in a glass cage, somewhere along the road between Oslo and Drammen; in winter, he might be allowed to sell Christmas trees, or be given a place down at the docks where he could sit in peace and fish. Not many had actually anticipated criminal proceedings, once the war was over.
The situation created by the Germans and the traitors themselves was so wrong that they at any rate had no business complaining about wrongness. To Erling it seemed obvious that people had managed as best they could from day to day, but it was disgusting that some should brag about it. Now some of the worst traitors were free again, simply because they had happened to be brought to justice later than those who were shot, and there was a growing party in the country now who clamored for redress, and received support from the most surprising quarters.
Erling forced himself to think more calmly, mostly because he wanted to go to sleep.
[1*] The Norwegian Nazi party; members were referred to as NS-men.
Copyright © 1958 by H. Aschehoug & Co., Oslo, Norway. Used by permission. English translation copyright © 1966 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Use of this material falling outside the purview of "fair use" requires the permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.
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