In the year 1882, Knut Hamsun’s roommate returned home to find the author in bed asleep. On the table was a knife, a cigar, and a note. The note read as follows:

Smoke the cigar and stick the knife into my heart.

Do it quickly, decisively and as a friend, if you value my affection.

Signed Knut H.

P.S. This note will be your defence in court.

Hamsun had painted an angel of death on the ceiling.

Was this a cry for help, a genuine bid for death, or a prank? Most agree on the latter, whilst also asserting, for the record, that Hamsun was clearly completely fucking bats. Now, I don’t agree with his methods, but I think you can see this incident in another way, a way that is linked to understanding the novel under review here. But, for the time being at least, enough about the author, what about me?

Have you ever looked at one of those glass break in case of fire alarms and felt an overwhelming urge to hit it? Or looked out over a high balcony and inexplicably, though absolutely not suicidal, wanted to jump? I have. In fact, I’ve felt that way a lot. It’s the desire to do something out of the ordinary, something to ruffle feathers, to make a mark, to shock yourself, or other people, out of the stultifying grind that is day-to-day existence. Once, when I was at college, I got up from my chair and sat on the table in the middle of one of the classes. When the teacher asked me what I was doing and if I was ok I replied that I felt claustrophobic. Another time, my first night in halls of residence at University, I drank [in one gulp] a pint of tequila and nearly died. Did I do it for popularity, to prove or ingratiate myself? Anyone who knows me knows I don’t give a fuck about that. I did it because it wasn’t the thing to do, because I felt distant from or at odds with what was expected of me in that situation, the accepted or expected behaviour of a new University student at a networking party. Am I bats too? Probably, but it at least allows me to empathise with Johan Nagal, the protagonist of Knut Hamsun’s best novel Mysteries [I’m not sure that’s worth nearly dying for, but never mind].

“What does the world know? Nothing! You simply get used to something, you accept it and acknowledge it, because your teacher has acknowledged it before you; everything is just a supposition—indeed, even time, space, motion, matter are suppositions. The world knows nothing, it merely accepts things…”

Nagal, a 29 year old man purporting to be an agronomist, arrives in a small town and proceeds – systematically, knowingly – to cause confusion and anguish among the locals. He does so very much in the ways described above in the opening paragraphs of this review: by behaving erratically, by doing not what is expected of him. So, for example, Nagal is honest when dishonesty is called for, and dishonest when he is expected to be truthful; he writes a salacious poem on a young girl’s tombstone; he throws money around in an absurd fashion; he tries to pay a crippled man to launch a glass at his oppressor, and so on. In one sense, he is the mystery of the title; he’s an enigma, a joker in the pack. But that title also has a broader significance in relation to what I’ll call the mysteries of life. What does that mean exactly? For me, Nagal is Hamsun’s way of exploring certain questions. such as how does one make sense of one’s time on earth? Can one inject life with meaning or should one submit to its meaninglessness? 

Nagal isn’t, for my money, just being a nuisance; he is adding salt to the dish in order for it to taste better. Why shouldn’t I lie outrageously? [What is a lie anyway?] Why shouldn’t I give a woman a ludicrous amount of money for an old beaten-up chair? Why, indeed. Before I read the book I thought it would be like Dostoevsky’s Demons, which involves a bunch of revolutionaries causing chaos and disorder in the name of nihilism. But Mysteries isn’t like that at all. For me, it is far closer to Henry James’ The Ambassadors; it is about grabbing life by the hair and shaking it about; it is twisting the nipples of the tiger…to get a reaction, to feel alive. That is another mystery: how can one feel alive when one is expected to bow politely to social convention? [Mysteries is, in one sense, a hippy book…albeit a dark and sardonic one.] And his methods do have some success, for he appears to awaken Dagny, a local hottie engaged to an officer. She is drawn to Nagal against her better judgement…and despite him killing her dog [the funniest scene in the novel is when Dagny tells Nagal that her dog has died inexplicably. She then asks him why his hand is bandaged. Nagal says, “your dog bit me.” Haha! No? Just me? The comic timing is exceptional].


[Separation by Edvard Munch]

It is worth mentioning that some readers have complained that Hamsun gives them, and Nagal, an easy out by suggesting that he is an opium addict; this is based on a story Nagal himself tells about having once or twice taken it. And, yes, it is fair to say that some of his behaviour is consistent with drug addiction. But, and this is what these readers appear to have forgotten, everything Nagal does and says is dubious, so why would you believe him on this? Also, I’ve read in relation to the novel that Nagal is mad. And madness is one of the themes, but not in the way that one expects. Hamsun seems to be saying: what is madness? Is being unusual or out of the ordinary madness? Perhaps. Nagal actually addresses this issue and claims that as his reason is intact he therefore can’t be mad. He’s not acting without self-awareness, he knows exactly what he is doing. One of the finest aspects of the book is how, like an annoying magician, he reveals his lies, the secrets of his art, to the people he is tricking or manipulating. It’s like, here, this is how I pulled it off! Mad? No, not by my standard. But we’ve already agreed that I’m mental anyway.


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