Does our fear of the perpetrator make our respect for the perpetrator higher and our expectations lower compared to other people, or is just not being seen/heard always more severe than the violence itself?
Warning: the article contains spoilers.
Will and Testament is a novel written by Norwegian writer Vigdis Hjorth in 2016. It is a partially autobiographical text in which we follow our character Bergljot’s story of keeping up and surviving despite her family. The book, which opens with the death of the character’s father, focuses on the past and the present, which began even before his death and was revealed around the unequal distribution of two cottages that will be inherited from the parents to their four children (Bergljot, Bard, Astrid, Asa). Parallel to this story, we witness Bergljot’s friendship with Karen, whom she met at the university and whose solidarity grew stronger over time.
The book makes you think about what can be inherited and not inherited from a family. Halfway through the book, we don’t know exactly what the character is going through, even though we’re feeling or guessing. The reality of the tensions, confrontations, and non-confrontations with parents and siblings, and the weight of the elephant in the room, don’t leave room for our need to know exactly what the character is going through. The novel subtly conveys how the sense of injustice, being unheard, being unseen, and not being accepted by our closest relatives permeates everyday practices, conversations, and actions.
Bergljot’s story progresses in a flow that is not tired of demanding justice, but that you are tired of and even admired instead. I think this is very impressive. We don’t know exactly what the character is going through, even though we have some feelings until the first half of the book. We learn that the deceased father sexually abused his daughter when she was a child, and that Bergljot had tried to tell her mother and siblings, but they had been ignoring or refusing to acknowledge this fact for years, at the moment when the inheritance was negotiated with the rest of the family.
Up to the point where we don’t know exactly what Bergljot was exposed to -I think sometimes it’s okay not to know- I had some questions. First, as a result of what event or events can one’s need and desire to protect oneself from one’s family -to the extent that one does not want to talk or meet with them- occurs? Can’t this happen even if there is not that much “great violence”? Do we have such a right? At what point can distancing from the family or certain family members, finding them guilty for what they have done, naming the violence experienced, and the feelings related to all these experiences be legitimate and free from the burden of conscience? I think they are thought-provoking and exciting questions.
Another point of the book that stood out for me was what the victims of violence demanded and from whom. I also wanted to think about the anger and respect directed at the perpetrator and the anger and respect directed at those who believed the perpetrator/did not believe the victim/remained silent in the face of the event. In fact, unlike many stories that focus on the theme of revenge or seeking justice, this novel deepens the expectation of justice by focusing on people who believed in the perpetrator/did not believe in the victim/kept silent. In a short section that begins with a conversation between Bergljot and Karen and continues with Bergljot’s own reflections, Bergljot admits that she respects her father more than her mother and builds this on consistency. While she thinks that her father realized what he had done, saw that he had “crossed the line” and withdrew himself over the years, she finds it more inconsistent that her mother, refusing to accept this violence, continues despite Bergljot’s desire to stay away from her and not to communicate with her, and this is where she builds his diminishing respect for her. While she acknowledges that her father’s guilt is greater, she sees her father’s withdrawal as a harsh punishment, and her mother’s behaviors as if nothing happened, demandingness and blaming her puts that balance in a different place in her eyes. This is not exactly the focus of the book and I think this could be the subject of another book or even an article, but it makes me think about what we expect from whom and with what motivations. I wonder if it might also be because of our fear of the perpetrator. Although the perpetrator usually does not fully admit what he did, is his taking even a step back in a place that relieves some of our anxieties? Perhaps our fear of the perpetrator makes our respect for the perpetrator higher and our expectations lower compared to other people, or is just not being seen/heard always more severe than the violence itself? I don’t know.
It would not be wrong to say that the book is shocking, compelling but also gripping. There is something about its subtle and clear narration that keeps the events and characters alive. How would you prefer to describe an evil, violence, seeking justice and how it makes you feel?
It also gives strength to the reader to witness the ups and downs inherent in the character’s never giving up, and to see the strength she gets from the solidarity she builds with her friends who listen/see/understand her. As the author put it: “One cannot choose family, but can choose to tell her story.”
Translator: Gülcan Ergün
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan