Sin, Remorse, Loneliness, and Religious Submission
Loneliness, and
Religious Submission
Peter Høeg
t the time that Thorvald Bak arrived in Lavnaes, the village comprised around eighty stone-walled houses roofed with three-foot-thick layers of seaweed, these being the only material capable of withstanding the flood tides, torrential downpours, snowstorms, and droughts that succeeded one another, regardless of the seasons, with senseless, interminable monotony. In this capricious climate, where fishing was a difficult and risky business and it was almost impossible to grow anything, the people survived, faint from malnutrition, on a diet consisting mainly of aquavit and potatoes, and worn out by deficiency diseases and the raging epidemics that returned again and again to the village even though they had been eradicated from the rest of the country.

In Lavnaes, cut off from the outside world by fog and wind, the stench of fish and incredible poverty, the course of the year had evolved into a series of celebrations. At these gatherings, drunken villagers tried, through the snatches of song handed down to them and well-worn tales into which the raging elements penetrated deeper and deeper, to hang on to a hope long since swamped by a seemingly never-ending poverty. And, in fact, the inhabitants were able to endure such conditions only because of their pig-headedness and the notion they had formed that Lavnaes was surrounded by a host of legendary monsters. They had but the haziest notion of how these creatures looked, but they associated them with the towers, far off on the horizon, and with the high wall, a corner of which could be glimpsed on a hill high above Lavnaes and which was, in fact, the manor of Mørkhøj --- although no one now remembered this.

When the Count at Mørkhøj had the wall built, Lavnaes was, to all intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world. The fishing village had originally been part of the estate, but thanks to his absorption in his research work, the Count had lost any inclination to exercise his right to the first night with every new bride in the district. Then, too, the smell of fish was --- even from a distance --- quite offensive. So the estate wall gave a wide berth to Lavnaes, which was thus forgotten by the outside world, attracting attention only on a few occasions, as, for example, when one of the state tax collectors found his way to the village. Well, of course a tax collector --- who else?

He was a single-minded sort of man, a former army officer who still felt and thought like a soldier. Having noted the fact that Lavnaes' name was listed in the ministry register but did not appear in the local district court reports, he fought his way through to the town on horseback in a thunderstorm, in an atmosphere so charged with electricity that it made his sword hilt sing out ominously. The storm had also transformed the village streets into an impassable mire in which floated the swollen white bodies of skinny beasts that had perished in the floods preceding the thunderstorm. The village was still numb from the wake held for the flood victims. The tax collector sought out the biggest and best-kept house and stepped inside. On a packed-earth floor saturated by the rain, an old man was sitting by an open hearth, boiling up a thin soup of seaweed from his roof. The tax collector glanced around at the furniture, which looked as if only the inveterate stubbornness of the room were holding it together.

"What do you live on?"

The old man looked blankly at him, his eyes watering in the smoke from the burning dung.

"We eat our own shit," he replied.

The tax collector turned on his heel and left Lavnaes to its poverty.

lthough Thorvald Bak had never set eyes on Lavnaes, he found the place exactly as he had seen it in his vision. As the wagon reached the first houses, the mists were dispersed by a burning sun which, by the time they had driven to the other end of the village, had dried the mud into a cracked crust, and people were sitting outside their houses, on the golden-white sand, playing cards for coins that had gone out of circulation fifty years before. Inside the dilapidated church a man was lying on the alter steps. Thorvald Bak nudged him with his foot. The man opened his eyes onto the painful light falling through the broken windowpanes and asked, "Who bought the last round?"

This man was the former pastor of Lavnaes.

In that first year, not a single soul came to church. For a year, Thorvald Bak's wife --- despite the fact that she was pregnant and was growing both heavier and more gaunt --- was the sole witness to his preaching. His sermons grew ever more radiantly animated and full of conviction, despite the howling gale and the chill of the building, which left them both with the coughs and sneezes of chronic colds.. At the end of the year she gave birth to a daughter --- this was, of course, Anna --- only, right after the birth, to be hit by a violent coughing fit, during which she coughed her soul to death. Just as he heard the child cry out, Thorvald saw the soul rise upward and soar through the cracks in the ceiling like a big white bat. When he christened his daughter, the only witnesses were his housekeeper and the church frescoes.

That same autumn he fell victim to dreadful saltwater sores, which the wind from the sea prevented from healing. When it rained heavily on the patch of earth on which --- with great difficulty and with fortune, it seemed, smiling upon him --- he had managed to grow some turnips, and when these were covered by three feet of water and rotted away within the week, the first of the villagers turned up at church to lay bets on how long the pastor would stick it out.

During the Winter, Lavnaes was hit by a cyclone whose icy winds swept past at lightning speed, freezing the crests of the waves. Like miniature icebergs, these then crushed several of the boats in the harbor. The same winds sent one of the parsonage gable ends flying sky-high and showered the area with a lethal hail of rock. In their wake they brought so much snow that --- when it was melted the week after by high summer temperatures quite unnatural for mid-November --- it flooded the parsonage and the church, forcing Thorvald Bak and his baby daughter and the housekeeper to take to the attic in one of the wings.

On the first Sunday after the flooding, when, despite everything, he still succeeded in sailing to the church in a flat-bottomed barge of his own construction and --- standing on the alter in seaboots that reached to his crotch --- gave his sermon for the crowd of people who had sailed to church, all bets were off. No one in Lavnaes had dared to bank on his being there. There were those who were genuinely shocked by that Sunday. The widespread betting was an expression of how they looked at life: as a chain of coincidences in which the only sure thing was suffering. There were many in the village who threw the dice every morning to see whether they should get up or stay in bed on their seaweed mattresses and await the day's quota of pain. What the people who had come to church now saw was Thorvald Bak's serenity. For the first time ever they did not play cards or drink in the organ loft. Instead, they listened to the sermon.

They heard themselves. They rediscovered words they themselves had spoken and songs they themselves had sung. In Thorvald Bak's description of hell they recognized Lavnaes, and when he painted a picture of heaven they remember the dreams they had clung to during all those get-togethers and Christmas parties and spring revels. Then still more turned up at church, and there were those who asked to receive Communion at the Lord's table --- which had by now dried out --- and so the conversion began. It happened, not because Thorvald had put the people of Lavnaes in touch with another reality, but because, in his serenity, he was stronger than anyone they had ever come across and because his euphoria was more powerful and imaginative than their own. They converted because they could see that Thorvald Bak was in the hands of the same forces as themselves, and they took to religion with the same energy and obstinacy with which they had searched for the stairs to hell.

They developed an unbelievable level of patience in which they could, with exalted tranquility, watch the waves rise, topple their fishing stakes, and carry them, nets and all, out to sea, while they did not lift a finger because it was Sunday and they were observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. Thereafter, with hearfelt joy, they could thank the Lord for having chosen them to suffer, rather than the people of the surrounding towns or Mørkhøj, whom they had, for one hundred years, thought of as the menacing, winged monsters who made leaving Lavnaes a dangerous business. Now, however, Thorvald Bak could reveal that they were in fact miserable sinners, squandering their existence in calculated acts of ungodliness and excess. They congregated for Bible reading and confession in an ectasy of a new day dawning. There they had the opportunity both to recall the crowning moments of their own past sinfulness and to savor the sweetness of denouncing others.

Thorvald Bak was wise enough not to interfere when these meetings developed into appalling relapses during which these saintly souls would start giving themselves alcohol enemas and singing disgusting songs, before going on to tear down the mission house, rip off their clothes, and run around the village --- stark naked and with seaweed from the roofs in their hair --- on the hunt for kerosene, because the aquavit had run out. When that also had been drunk, they rubbed their gums with axle grease, which drove them right out of their minds. Thorvald Bak waited until their ravings subsided because he, too, was familiar with sin and knew how closely related it is to remorse, and remorse to loneliness, and loneliness to a longing for fellowship, and fellowship to the religious submission that brought these righteous folk even closer together.

--- from The History of
Danish Dreams

Translated by
Barbara Haveland
© 1995, Doubleday Canada
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