THOUGH ADOLF HITLER’S Armed Forces High Command couldn’t possibly have planned to spoil Bjørg’s birthday party on purpose, they might just as well have. The German invasion of Norway on April 9th 1940 certainly put a damper on any thoughts of birthday celebrations, and would serve as a reminder of that fateful day for the rest of her life.
Certainly the tumultuous events will always stick out in my mind, even though I had yet to be born. Not least, because Bjørg’s birthday fell in the same month as mine. She would’ve hardly been in her teens that year.
Bjørg was my mother’s young cousin, and family members often spent summer holidays together at their little shared cottage in Son by Oslofjord. Many years later I visited it a couple of times. My mother never tired of telling me her tales of the war, and I never tired of listening.
Amazingly enough, 62 days of fighting made Norway the nation that withstood a German invasion for the longest period of time during WWII, aside from the Soviet Union.
Just north of the Arctic Circle, most of the city of Bodø was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs on May 27th 1940. Though an estimated three and a half thousand people’s homes were levelled. Mercifully, only fifteen lives were lost during the air attack, two were British soldiers.
Nordland county’s capital was rebuilt at the end of the war with Swedish help. Though the new city is pleasant enough, the centre lacks the character of towns which escaped destruction.
I was there to catch the ferry back to the Lofoten Islands. My first port of call was to be the tiny, southernmost island of Røst, famous to connoisseurs of stockfish, more commonly known as bacalao, the salted and dried cod so popular in southern Europe, Latin America and parts of Africa. According to experts, the uniquely mild climate of Røst and neighbouring Værøy is ideal for curing cod to produce some of the best bacalao in the world. Despite being so far north, the temperature of the two islands hardly ever drops below freezing. Isolated from the Norwegian mainland, and the rest of the Lofoten Isles by a fair stretch of sea, Røst sounded like a potential destination for completing my novel Pedersen’s Last Dream.
First, with a few hours on my hands before the ferry’s departure, I had a chance to explore the sights of Bodø. Its population of almost 50,000 ranks it as the 12th largest urban area in Norway. But it’s the surrounding mountains, islands, fjords and beaches that makes it so attractive. Apart from their natural beauty, there are other points of interest.
The Saltstraumen strait, about 19 miles southeast of Bodø, experiences the strongest tidal current in the world. Water speeds reach up to 25 mph.
To see how many parts of Bodø would’ve looked before the war it’s probably a good idea to go to Kjerringøy, the well-preserved, old trading village on the coast about 25 miles north of the city.
Nobel prize-winning author of Hunger, Knut Hamsun, would’ve almost certainly been familar with Kjerringøy, as he lived in nearby Hamarøy from the age of three.
The old trading village’s scenic setting and authentic old buildings, made it the perfect location for Erik Gustavson’s Telegrafisten (The Telegraphist) based on Hamsun’s novel Dreamers. The Norwegian TV mini series Benoni og Rosa (Benoni and Rosa), taken from Hamsun’s double novel Benoni og Rosa, also used it as a location. In fact, so popular is Kjerringøy amongst Scandinavia’s movie makers, I am Dina a Swedish/Norwegian/Danish co-production, based on the novel Dinas bok (Dina’s Book) by Herbjørg Wassmo and directed by Ole Bomdal, was filmed there in 2002.
Though never a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party – unlike his second wife, the well-known actress and writer, Marie Hamsun (née Andersen), who was a fervent follower of the party’s cause – Knut Hamsun shared much of Hitler’s reactionary vision for Europe. His hate for both the English and Americans had helped reinforce his support for the fascist leader, but he didn’t approve of Norway remaining part of a greater Germany, should Hitler’s armies win the war. He believed more in a Europe guided with a firm hand, but not ruled, by Germany.
Hamsun even flew to Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat at Berghof to meet the German leader in 1943. The Führer was a great admirer of Hamsun’s writings. Both men regarded Norwegian culture as an extension of Teutonic culture, which it is in part. Hitler wanted to talk about the writer’s books. However, Hamsun had other ideas.
Hard of hearing by that time, he spoke almost no German, yet insisted on using it from time to time, fuelling Hitler’s growing annoyance. Instead of discussing literature, he is said to have complained bitterly about Reichkommissar Josef Terboven, who was ordering the torture and execution of dissident Norwegian nationals to Hamsun’s anger and disgust.
Though the treacherous Vidkun Quisling had been made nominal head of state, real power lay with Terboven, a Nazi to the core from Essen, he believed violence was the only way to subdue widespread dissent.
Some believe Hamsun also expressed his disapproval of the Nazi policy towards Norway’s Jewish population, during the meeting. Norwegian Jews were being dragged from their homes and shipped to concentration camps. It wasn’t long before Hitler lost his patience and ordered an aide to “get the old fool” out of his presence, saying he never wanted to set eyes on him again.
It was probably that meeting as much as anything that led to Norwegians turning their backs on the country’s most famous writer. An arrest for treason followed the capitulation of German forces in Europe on May 8th 1945. After psychiatric assessment Knut Hamsun was committed to a hospital in Grimstad on account of his advanced years, and supposed mental deterioration. In Grimstad he was treated more as a patient than a traitor. Nevertheless, after a trial in 1947 he was eventually fined 325,000 Norwegian kroner. In some ways he was lucky. The father of one of my Norwegian cousin’s wives was assigned to a firing squad for collaborators at the end of the occupation. The firing squads were issued with blanks, all except for one unknowing member. I saw the wall victims were stood against at the old Akerhus fortress in Oslo. Even though chances were the live round wasn’t his, he never got over the possibility he might’ve killed one of his fellow countrymen, she said.
Once aboard the ferry, I watched Bodø melt into the horizon from the stern deck. A auburn-haired Norwegian woman in her late twenties and I began chatting. Line was taking her summer break. Like a lot of younger Norwegians on holiday, she’d spent most of the previous week getting sozzled. She told me Røst wasn’t worth the bother of visiting, let alone staying on, and suggested I head straight to the island of Værøy. Dying for a couple of beers after a heavy bout the night before, she rued the fact the ferry was one of the few that didn’t serve alcohol.
Originally from Værøy, she’d spent many years working on cruise liners. Opting for a life back on dry land she now lived and worked in Bodø. Her boyfriend was in a band with a gig on the Lofotens in a couple of days. They planned to meet on Værøy, before catching the ferry to Svolvær next afternoon. With a sledgehammer of a hangover to contend with, and not so much as a nip to administer, Line retired to the berth she’d reserved in one of the cabins below decks. Sleeping it off was the only answer. I sat on deck a while longer before going into the saloon to do some observing. And maybe catch up on a bit of writing.
A breathtakingly beautiful woman, who’d caught my eye in the queue for the ferry, was sitting at a table with a group of people. They appeared to be family. Typically Norwegian she had the bluest of eyes and summer wheat hair. So breath-taking was she, it was hard to drag my own eyes from her. The short story My Beautiful Aunt is based on such a woman.
Suddenly, something made her aware she was being observed, and she glanced over in my direction. Probably accustomed to being stared at, she held my eye for a while. I assumed she enjoyed the attention her beauty brought. Then we both looked away. As soon as I thought she wasn’t looking, I couldn’t resist spying in her general direction once more.
She was playing with two small boys who could’ve been her children. An older couple, I presumed were her parents, sat at a table with another woman, her sister, perhaps. A man, who seemed more like a brother than husband, sat next to the only woman with dark hair. In the story forming in my mind the dark-haired woman became the brother’s wife. Perhaps, the beautiful woman was aunt to the boys she played with. But there were several more children in the party I couldn’t quite fit into the tale.
Moving away from the group, the beautiful woman sat on a chair near a steel pillar support for the upper deck. Stretching one leg up the pillar, she revealed herself to be as lithe and supple as a ballet dancer. By now I couldn’t take my eyes off her, even had I tried. The exercise was tinged with eroticism, to say the least. Even now I like to think she might’ve been performing for me. It was plain she knew she was being observed.
Getting up to wander about the saloon, I almost felt her eyes follow my progess. A quick glance proved me right. But our tacitly flirtatious, little game was about to finish.
All too soon the time came for me to disembark at Røst. Looking vainly for her group on the quayside, I guessed they were still aboard. Bound for another, unknown destination. The beautiful woman and I would never see each other again.
To get to the rorbu, the fishermen’s hostel, I had to take a rowing boat. Though quaint from the outside, the interior was a bit rundown and lacking in homeliness.
Eva and Henrik were from Trondheim. A middle-aged couple on holiday they had been staying at the rorbua for three days. I met them on the verandah where we exchanged traveller’s tales over cans of beer.
Next morning I woke up to misty rain. After rowing back across the harbour, I walked to the only shop on the far end of the island for some cigarettes. At just under 3 sq miles in size, Røst doesn’t take long to walk from one end to the other. Neither is it difficult going, being as flat as the proverbial pancake apart from the hump in the middle. At not much more than a couple of metres or so, it’s the island’s highest point. It drizzled all the way there, and it drizzled all the way back.
Though the island’s permanent population numbers just over 600, its fish based economy generates $US 40 million a year, with the population doubling during the winter fishing season.
But Røst is not only famous for its bacalao, it’s also known to birdwatchers the world over. Mainly interested in the neighbouring rocky islets, they take boats to observe the wide variety of migrating species nesting and nestling in the craggy cliffs.
One night was enough. That it is as flat as a pancake was a bit of a disappointment in a country almost entirely made out of mountains, but not nearly so much of a disappointment as the beautiful Norwegian woman failing to disembark had been. Walking through a heavy drizzle, had proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
An island for birdwatchers, twitchers, anoraks, and without the beautiful woman, it was definitely not for writing. There was no way I was going to stay. The next ferry was due to depart for Værøy at two o’clock. And I was definitely going to be on it.
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming
And here’s a little musical interlude with one of Norway’s leading female jazz vocalists. Silje Nergaard originates from Steinkjer, north of Trondheim.