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Book review: Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin “shimmers with life”

Book review: Johan Harstad’s Buzz Aldrin “shimmers with life”

July 26, 2011

“It takes vast willpower, luck, and skill to be the first. But it takes a gigantic heart to be number two.”

Oh how we all ache in some way for the attention of the spotlight. At one time or another we’re all desperate to be recognized for what be perceive to be our unique importance. Maybe we seek this from a loved one for simply being ourselves, or from a co-worker for a job well done. Perhaps more ambitiously, we crave it from a legion of adoring fans for being the hottest sensation on the planet. No matter what the case may be, however big or small, we let no one and no thing stand in the way of our aspirations. We were born into this life; therefore it is ours to conquer. Here I am world, adore me.

But not everyone can be a famous actor, Nobel Prize winning physicist, or an award winning novelist. Those people need an audience for their body of work in order to achieve fame. Every movie needs a viewer, every book a reader. Just what’s so bad about being content with living a simple, unassuming life as one of these number twos?

That’s the question put forth by Mattias, a gardener with most amazing singing voice one could possibly possess (yet never use) who lives in Stavanger on the cusp of the new century. All Mattias craves is to live a simple life. As long as he feels he’s serving some purpose, no matter how small, he’s content. Who is the hero in which he chooses to model his life after? That would be the second man to walk on the surface of the moon, the experienced engineer and pilot who held the entire moon landing operation together, Buzz Aldrin.

Things go mostly okay for Mattias for many years, but then rather suddenly, back-to-back, he loses his job and his girlfriend of nearly thirteen years. It’s these two events that lead him to have a breakdown. He wakes up in the middle of a road on the Faroe Islands (Denmark properties that are so small they’re usually omitted from most maps) in the pouring rain with no recollection of how he got there. Eventually he’s rescued by Havstein, a man who runs a post-psychiatric facility in a renovated factory on the island. It’s here, with the help of a quirky group of misfits, that Mattias slowly begins to rebuild his life.

Harstad’s writing (and Deborah Dawkin’s translation of it) shimmers with life. Mattias’ inner dialog reads like a conversation with a trusted friend. He’s spilling his guts out, but it’s never for our amusement or our entertainment. The emotions expressed and explored are honest and universally relatable. Harstad uses sparse language to eloquently state things we’ve all thought or felt at some point in our lives. Through Mattias he questions the very meaning of our existence on this planet and what the end result of all our struggles translates to.

Be forewarned: once you let Harstad and his cast of damaged characters into your life you may find that you never want them to leave. They just might occupy space in your head for a long time after the novel concludes. This is especially true of Mattias, for even though he’s desperate to live out his days as a number two, he shines brightly as the novel’s more than worthy hero. I’ve given this book the maxium rating of five stars, but if it was possible I would bestow entire constellations upon it.

Read the entire book review on the Opinionless website.

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