The Pequod Review:
The Birds is Tarjei Vesaas’s masterpiece, a simple but beautifully written novel that at its core is about human perception, neurodiversity, and the difficulties of understanding one another.
The book is the story of a 37-year-old man (Mattis) who suffers from an unspecified mental disability. Mattis lives with his sister Hege, who takes care of him, and together they share a small house in a remote Norwegian village. Mattis has difficultly communicating with others, and is lightly mocked by his fellow townspeople who call him “Simple Simon.” Despite his awkward personal interactions, his interior mind is alert and self-aware enough to be deeply wounded by his inability to connect with “the clever ones.”
The book alternates between the third-person and first-person, as it focuses on Mattis’s active inner thoughts and his inability to effectively communicate them. In one pivotal moment, Mattis observes a woodcock who had begun to regularly fly over his house. He tries to convey its importance to his sister:
The news Mattis was bringing was great. He hardly knew how to put it into words. In the end he simply said, “There’s a woodcock started flying over here tonight!” His voice was hard and inflexible. He almost felt like a stranger standing by her bed.
Hege seemed to notice the tone of his voice. A tongue numbed by wonder and awe. But there’d been so many strange things that Mattis had come rushing to tell her. Things that were usually soon explained and no longer strange.
She said quietly: “A woodcock? Oh I see. Well, go and get some sleep now, Mattis.”
He didn’t understand.
“Go to bed now, Mattis,” she said gently, seeing the distraught expression on his face.
Mattis groaned with disappointment.
“Didn’t you hear what I said? There’s a woodcock here! It’s moved! It’s flying straight across the roof of our house! Now! This very minute, while you are sitting there in bed.”
Hege remained sitting as before, with the same expression on her face.
“Of course I heard. But what of it? Can’t you let the woodcock come and go as it likes?”
He didn’t understand her. It was as if she were speaking a language he didn’t understand.
Mattis is entirely reliant on his sister and constantly terrified of losing her. His fears heighten when a lumberjack comes to town and falls in love with Hege:
A sudden thought made him start: You mustn’t leave me! He gasped, turned toward the room where Hege lay. Whatever happens to you or me you mustn’t leave me.
This was by no means a new thought, but it felt new each time, and just as painful. And each time he had to dismiss it as nonsense, Hege had ever as much as breathed a word about leaving him. Why should he torment himself like this?
The vision would not leave him. He saw Hege walking away, farther and farther. She was carrying all her belongings in a little parcel under her arm.
Are you leaving?
As the book progresses, Mattis becomes an increasingly sympathetic character. He has a child-like delight in the natural world, finds deep importance and meaning in everyday moments, and captures so much of the emotional complexity we all face in human interactions. And his tender and simple thoughts sometimes reveal profound truths:
Now it is night.
What can you do when everyone around you is strong and clever?
Shall never know.
But then what can you do? You have to do something, even then. All the time.
And through it all is Vesaas’s simple and evocative prose that accentuates the fable-like nature of the story. Highly recommended.