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Another Time, Another Place

Written by: Anne Birgitte Richard |

Inge Eriksen (born 1935) is the voice of ‘Marie’ in one of the last interviews in the unusual and remarkable work Kvindernes bog (The Women’s Book), which the Danish film director Jytte Rex produced in 1972. Through anonymous interviews with a number of different women, Jytte Rex sought to show that the power of women lies just beneath the surface, and that a new world can evolve from women’s willingness to love and willingness to fight.

Cover of Inge Eriksen and Jytte Rex: Kællinger i Danmark, Gyldendal 1975

Inge Eriksen’s debut work Kællinger i Danmark (1975; Bitches in Denmark), was written as a continued collaboration with Jytte Rex based on their correspondence from October 1973. The subtitle of the book is Agitationer fra ingenmandsland (Agitations from No Man’s Land), and it campaigned for “the further liberation of women in Danish society”, as well as “a struggle to escape from the despair – the despair of women and the despair of society – and to move towards possibilities for collective action”. In the open form of the letter, genres are mixed in a series of suggestive texts ranging from memoirs and dreams to political reflections and literary fragments. “Himalaya’s abundant flowering bushes, a bare arm grazing a hip, the thrill of understanding”, these are images for what the authors “perhaps really want to express”. They poke fun at the fragmented daily life in which each morning on the way to work with “the night still in your veins”, you feel like “a battlefield between work and capital with love caught in the middle and it’s only 3 minutes to 9”. The focus is on the desire for wholeness, for being “a person who could stand to be viewed from all sides”, for a life in which “work and leisure flow together”.

The two-volume work Victoria og verdensrevolutionen (1976; Victoria and the World Revolution) was Inge Eriksen’s great literary breakthrough, sparking ideological and fierce debates in Danish society. The novel is set in South America between May 1953 and November 1963. It is an account of a socialist revolution which, according to the author, should have taken place in Latin America and in Europe in the 1950s. A utopian alternative to the Cold War and to nuclear armament. In Victoria og verdensrevolutionen, Inge Eriksen tests utopian notions of the power and strength of femininity through the main character Victoria, whose energies unfold in equal portions as erotic, in relation to the revolutionary hero Gerardo; courageous, in relation to the realities of war; and persevering, in relation to establishing a daily life in the midst of the chaotic process of creating a new society. At the beginning of the novel, she incites the village to establish agricultural terraces on a mountain: “We must turn towards them and carry out a counter attack in the only way we know how: by building something up where others tear down, by sowing and planting where they drop bombs, and by making the mountains green when they plant the fields of death with medals and statues of old generals.”

It is, to a great extent, the 1970s’ notions of a special femininity that Inge Eriksen puts into play here. Victoria is a woman who places excessive demands on everyone and everything, and who insists on a coherent and full life. At the same time, her own inability to do just that – to give everything – makes her a modern fragmented personality who is convincing as a portrait of a modern woman of the day. Her generous erotic submission to men in general and her deep love for the male hero are part of this idealised woman’s portrait.

Victoria og verdensrevolutionen (1976; Victoria and the World Revolution) is the first part of a trilogy, and is followed by the contemporary novel Fugletræet (1979; The Bird Tree), which takes place in the period September 1973 to December 1975, and Silkehavet (1981; Silk Ocean), a historical novel that takes place in the years 1782-1789, in the period of the civil revolutions. Inge Eriksen has said that the trilogy is written in a basic atmosphere of rebellion and longing, as an attempt to create both politics and fiction based on what she felt were the “cornerstones of existence: work, love, and political struggle”.

As a first novel, Victoria og verdensrevolutionen is unusual in its ambition and command of the material. The artificiality and ghostliness of language limits the novel from a literary point of view; however, this is conquered in Fugletræet (1979; The Bird Tree), which represents a literary high point. Fugletræet again focuses on the notion of wholeness in life that unfolds in two very different women’s portraits. Scenes alternate faster and faster between Julie and Ariella, weaving them tighter and tighter together while at the same time giving the novel a formal structure. Julie is a secretary at a draughtsman’s office in Copenhagen and a single mother to five-year-old Peter in a flat in the suburb Glostrup. An erotic attraction strikes her like a physical blow on the train on the way home from work. “You can go crazy from lack of love”, she thinks:

“real love. Everyone wants it. The overcrowded swaying train trembled with hidden dreams about love […]. Once, being content was enough. But not anymore, just being satisfied is no longer good enough.”

The tightrope walker Ariella performs in the circus and lives out in the idyllic countryside with a cat and hen and her workouts, to which she takes a craftsman’s approach. Suddenly she falls head-over-heels in love. Love gives her the inspiration and ambition to do something more, and she manages to elevate tightrope walking to a supreme art form. Her need to express herself is brought forth by love, but it is not until she loses the ability to walk the tightrope after a car accident that she can be united with her beloved. In Fugletræet, the liberation, the healing of the division between work and life that is called for in Kællinger i Danmark, seems very far away. However, there is also a much greater artistic credibility in Fugletræet than in Victoria og verdensrevolutionen, the tone of which combines a hint of hysteria with Victoria’s inability to live according to the law.

With Silkehavet (1981; Silk Ocean), Inge Eriksen travels back to the years 1782-1797, the period of the civil revolutions that represent the historical background for both the contemporary fragmentation of Fugletræet and the rebellious ideals of Victoria og verdensrevolutionen. Silkehavet is a novel about a girl who starts out sailing as a pirate in the Caribbean, but ends up going ashore and getting married. Onboard the pirate ship Liberty Lady, Antonia participates in the American Revolutionary War, but ends her life in the women’s societies of middle-class Philadelphia, Barbados, and Cuba, and finally in London. From the male universe of the pirate’s life of war and rebellion, political struggle, fighting for freedom, and slave trading, Antonia ends in a conventional marriage, in the family room with births, babies, and the institutionalised women’s values. At sea, there are friends and enemies, power struggle, and passionate euphoria, while family life is about the ability to love, the ability to yield and yet still be present in the now. Throughout the novel, Antonia moves from an adventurous world of pirates to the realities of the world of the adult woman, which is not black and white but must be experienced in many shades of grey. With Inge Eriksen’s analysis of the civil revolutions, she also establishes a topical perspective on her own modern world, as is illustrated by the cuttings from The Glasgow Herald at the beginning of each chapter. However, the connection between the historical time and the present day does not become clear until the final chapter, where it is amplified by the fact that the final chapter is written in the present tense. The clear division between light and dark is dissolved, and the political staging of the good and the bad is replaced by radical change full of “shades of grey and transition and drifting objects no one can identify because everyone is too afraid to truly see them”. Antonia feels she is in “two places at once”. “It is a time of retreat, a time of the inner shrugging of shoulders”, she thinks, and has thus voiced Inge Eriksen’s commentary on the 1968 youth rebellion which Silkehavet does not denounce, but rather corrects. In the rebellions, something is forgotten, both in the civil revolutions of the 1700s and in the youth rebellion of 1968. Inge Eriksen remembers the subjective dimension of human liberation, which in Silkehavet is presented as a female view on revolution.

In the essay “Statuer” (Statues), Inge Eriksen reconstructs her father’s life, from his childhood until he joins the Danish resistance in 1945 and dies in the Neuengamme concentration camp.

Her father’s history becomes a personal challenge, while his life becomes an example of the “dream”: “During the 1800s, it slowly developed into a political programme, but it was not until the Russian Revolution that freedom, equality, and brotherhood took on meaning as ideals that could be realised.” With its gaps, the narrative also reminds Inge Eriksen of the major and now “soiled and discredited” project to elucidate the entirely personal, loving, and fantasy-like relationship between father and daughter.

A Future History

With her 1,600-page tetralogy Rummet uden tid I-IV (1983-89; Space without Time I-IV), Inge Eriksen presents contemporary history in a science fiction series that is both a revision of contemporary politics and psychology, and an ambitious historical novel about the multitude of mechanisms involved in historical development.

The point of departure is an apocalyptic, catastrophic ecological event that has made Earth uninhabitable. The world is on the verge of collapse, and during its final days people work in computer-controlled thermal suits to dismantle Planet Earth before emigrating to other solar systems. The main characters of the four volumes are the crew on the spaceship Jezabel, which accidentally jumps 700 years into the future and lands in Decentia, an unknown place that turns out to be located on Earth/Terra, an almost paradise-like reservation that has avoided both the natural disaster and contact with the Federation – an interplanetary organisation that controls the inhabited planets.

Rex, Jytte (born 1942): Drawing in: Jytte Rex: Jeg har ikke lukket et øje. En billedroman, Borgen 1978

In Rummet uden tid, Inge Eriksen elucidates the political dilemmas of our culture, and places the spotlight on the concept of humanity from the first volume about the Whore from Gomorra, a super-whore who services her customers on computers entirely without our notions of a personal life, without memories of her childhood, without physical contact with others. In contrast to the apocalypse, the Decentian society in Nord for tiden (North of Time) is a paradise populated by kind, festive people who seize any opportunity, even political meetings, to hold a feast. Compared to them, the crew on the crashed spaceship appear shy and reserved. However, the story about Decentia is also a story about the price of utopias, which is their initial lack of history. The small society has situated itself outside time and space, and does not know its roots, its situation on Earth, or the Federation outside. And in the subsequent volumes, they experience the loss of innocence that becomes a partial destruction of their culture and the remains of their technology. At the same time connections are, for better or for worse, established with the powerful Federation. The story of this giant, apparently abstract power apparatus, with its inaccessible organisational form, is also told through the people who are involved in the decision and change processes, our crew, the Decentians, and citizens of the Federation. The political sphere is constantly encroaching on the private sphere. Love affairs, friendships, babies, all types of personal relations and intrigues concretise Inge Eriksen’s understanding of history, which seeks, in the process, to shed light on humanity as the product of history, but also views humans as the decision-makers, the initiators of change – and not least as holding the power to interpret.

Throughout the long series of novels, there is also a meta-theme about the telling and interpretation of history. “‘The writing of history is forgotten, Lu,’ she slowly said. ‘In a way, the struggles of the past are not really our problem. But if the same people’s struggles were written into fictional stories, perhaps they would be remembered and people would realise that they concern us after all’”, says Mnomele, who is both part of the fiction and, as narrator of volumes one and two together with his twin sister, one of the history writers of the fiction. Rummet uden tid is an attempt to create a process of history-writing in the form of fiction: it pretends to have been written by historians who reconstruct and pass on the story.

Marianne Rosen (1941-2000) is one of several Danish authors who wrote in fantastic prose in the 1980s about themes involving body, gender, art, and identity as formulated in the literature of the 1970s by, among others, Jette Drewsen and Inge Eriksen. Marianne Rosen’s prose is both dream-like and distinctly sensual, as in the novel Bebudelsen (1987; The Annunciation), which has a young male artist as its main character. Bebudelsen is set in Rome at the end of the nineteenth century, where art and adventure reveal to the travellers unexpected and unknown sides of themselves, and a forgotten and illegitimate femininity in the form of the young girl Maria manifests itself. The use of a male narrator opens up a complex and dual theme of art and gender. The looks change, and the sexes meet in new contours.

Decent Histories

Alice, Alice (1991) continues the story about the actual and moral impossibilities of utopia. Alice is an artificial society, a space station organised as a financially well-functioning whole that has freed itself deep down in its structure from the surrounding world, in that the station is divided into four zones, each with their own time zone. The secure life of the children appears to be proof of success, which is based on a secure material profit, until a sudden and partially incomprehensible military occupation upsets the structure and forces the station to collaborate with Earth.

Like a paralysed utopia, Alice is “a rotating marzipan sarcophagus” built on an unfeeling concept of freedom that only emphasises financial dependence. Freedom from others proves to be impossible, ethically indefensible, and an undermining of all religious searching: “‘God must be endured’, Carpenter said one day. ‘But here – in an artificial world, how can you even see God? No, my love, in that area, we’re poor, God is very far from us,’” realises Aliki, the space station’s queen.

Alice, Alice is the story of hubris, of the indecency of withdrawing from society and therefore considering yourself above history and its problems by creating your own universe, regardless of how exemplary it is. Inge Eriksen continues with this story in two more novels, in which she returns to the present day, which is deliberately and explicitly said to be close to the publication date of the books. Hjertets femte kammer (1992; The Fifth Chamber of the Heart)

Inge Eriksen, who lives in constantly critical confrontation with the doctrines of 1968, may also be the Danish author and cultural personality who most consistently promotes the world view of the 1970s. Over the years, she has perceived the world politically and has been involved in the Danish and international debate, regardless of whether it concerned international politics, cultural vision, or the potential of the genre of science fiction. In all her criticism of the left wing’s tendency towards totalitarianism and fear of institutions (for instance joining the European Union) she has also remained the dialectic and the champion for the whole life, and her novels always navigate between politics, drama, aesthetics, and passion.

and Hertuginden (1995; The Duchess) both take place in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where a generation of adults with relatively fresh memories from World War II attempt to find a decent way of life. In Hertuginden, Ulrike is the incarnation of a Europe that is at once divided and reunited. From Luxembourg, she freelances as an accountant in Western and Eastern Europe. She is a self-made and avid European. However, like the space station Alice, she is forced during the course of the story to make both political and private choices that put an end to her satellite life based in a women’s commune in the heart of Europe. With her choice of husband and residence in Prague, Europe’s centre and fulcrum shifts, and with her choice, she refuses to move into the grey-black economic zones that are a result of the open borders between North and South, East and West. Inge Eriksen uses violent drama to symbolise the necessity of change. A sudden and violent attack on a friend puts Ulrike into physical crisis, and the commune transforms into three marriages that make passion and love part of the lives of the career women.

In Hertuginden (1995; The Duchess), Ulrike discusses her moral and political dilemma with her friend Bill, and tells him about her friend Olga who received a threatening offer of protection from Prague’s mafia:

“‘Danger works like a magnet. We have all tried it when we were kids – stealing furniture, climbing scaffolding, and balancing high up on something that is unstable. I do feel attracted to a disturbing project, why not? It’s also a professional challenge. But in Prague, I saw that the defence of decency can be just as dangerous as the shady project.’ His eyes looked like dry stones, almost buried in blubber. But she naturally understood the question in them and told him about Olga’s fight against the so-called mafia protectors. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘She only wants to protect her business. It’s not a matter of decency, dear Ulrike, but of economy.’”

Inge Eriksen’s heroine in Hertuginden is a critical intellectual, but is also part of the European capitalist economy to the point where decency forces her to opt out. Decency is thus a category that unites political, ethical, and personal morals, and it can also be interpreted as Inge Eriksen’s corrective follow-up on the emancipation and enlightenment projects.

In Hjertets femte kammer (1992; The Fifth Chamber of the Heart), terrorism brings the German police officer Oscar and the Danish translator and Middle East expert Hannah together in an exchange of letters that leads them back to the wounds of World War II. Their own issues are associated with the intensified situation during the Gulf War and culminate in a dramatic ending.

Elisabeth Møller Jensen and Anne Birgitte Richard

The Burden of Culture

Grete Roulund (1946-2004) has a sharp and different view of Western culture. Her tough style, which confused the critics so much that they even doubted her gender, was rooted in the body and gender consciousness of the 1970s, but the orchestration was new. Her debut, Verdito (1981), contains stories of grim and taciturn Spanish bullfighters, but also contains stories about the vulnerability and death of the body. In the short story “Malaguena” from Verdito, Michael cowardly sends his wife, who is sick with cancer, home to Denmark, but in his flat he discovers in return that his landlord has received a delivery of sacks of pigeon feed that are filled with weevils, which subsequently invade the flat, especially the drains in the bathroom. The infestation is just as violent as the cancerous cells attacking his wife’s body.

Blackhawk (1982) really set the tone and theme for Grete Roulund’s writing. Two men are in the snow; one, the American Indian Blackhawk, is struck by disaster when a white rabbit bites him and he becomes infected with rabies. The bite sparks a suspenseful sequence of events: the two are caught by the weather, the wrong medication is dropped down to them, and the nightmare grows worse when the younger, feeble Keagan becomes infected and in his madness passes the death and contagion on to the rescue workers on the last page. In an almost lyrical ending, the meaning of the infected blood increases. “Gentle it is, gentle, you are not kissed this way by others,” says Keagan as he cuts his own finger to allow the blood to drip onto the pilot who has come to rescue them. And in the final scene, he paints blood-red flowers on the windows of the cabin.

“Who is the author?” asks Lars-Henrik Jensen in the headline of his review of Blackhawk. “There are many possibilities, but there is one that is not possible: that Grethe Roulund is ‘a perfectly ordinary’ Danish woman.”

The threat also comes from without, in the form of the American Indians who symbolise the cultural other. This is another characteristic of Grete Roulund’s technique. As an American Indian Blackhawk is, in the eyes of Keagan, strong, beautiful, and wise. However, he also experiences the Indians as ravaging, dirty, murderous, and sexual, until in the end they are simply seen as a people driven from their own land. The view of the foreign and the savage thus alternates between the culture’s contradictory stereotypical images, with Blackhawk’s own inner identity issues added for good measure. The text’s statement is ultimately about ideologies, about the views and practices of Western culture, its projections, and violent behaviour towards anything different or foreign.

One example of the hardboiled style of Blackhawk:

“Outside lay the dead Indians. Keagan had gone out to look at them. The one he’d shot was just a child, probably no more than fourteen years old, and his throat was shot almost entirely through and his nose was recently frostbitten. The other one was much older, and he wasn’t toothless like Keagan had thought at first, but his teeth were completely worn down and black. Keagan didn’t touch any of them and he was ashamed because he had shot the boy so many times. The boy had bled a lot and some of the blood had flowed down to where the dogs were tied up. They were lapping it up in the snow.”

This also includes gender. Blackhawk and Keagan represent two different versions of the male body: the powerful consumer of women and the impotent male respectively. However, they share an unresolved relationship to the opposite sex, which places them firmly in the series of male characters throughout Grete Roulund’s oeuvre who have issues with the body, women, and love. The main character, Sigi, in the post-apocalyptic Efter år nul (1983; After Year Zero) has not loved anyone since his first wife (of four), whom he murdered. John in Dødens horisont (1988; Death’s Horizon) has had an affair with his friend’s wife, who is sick with cancer; only the passion that comes on the threshold of death – with the woman who has both breasts and later her uterus removed – can attract him. The men’s overwhelming focus on the mortality of the body is associated with a fear of the body and of physical contact, and especially of love, where the boundaries between body and identity are broken down.

In the work of Grete Roulund, this fear is the problem of “evil”. The “hero” in De små søstre (1984; The Little Sisters) is Dietriech, a former Nazi doctor who lives in hiding somewhere in Central America in a small, but multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, community. He becomes involved in a bloody intrigue between an Indian and her non-Indian boyfriend, and a young American who rapes and kills the girl. The evil, the murder, that circulates among the men is partially explained by Dietriech’s non-guilt-ridden flashbacks to his experiments with the human body’s abilities to survive in freezing water and its reflex-like drive to be united with another body after experiencing the cold. Dietrich has never been united with a woman; evil’s premise is explained as indifference or even disgust when faced with the other as a human and as a body. This disgust in Keagan as well as in the officer Morales in Emeralde Verde (1992) is a product of the men’s loathing of their own bodies.

Emeralde Verde is the story of a married Danish couple who are stranded on a multi-ethnic, dictator-controlled tropical island whose connection to the outside world is cut off by a plane hijack. As is often the case in Roulund’s works, the narrative changes focus and slowly the not-all-white Morales and his problems in service of the president become a key theme. Morales can torture – without passion – but he cannot love; his hatred of his own body’s needs makes him a masochist, and he is unable to acknowledge his attraction to the husband in the Danish couple. At the same time, he is an officer in an impossible moral dilemma, and the only way to do the right thing is to disregard his duty to the hated president. But even so, he can never save himself. He personally carries the burden of the corrupt civilisation on his shoulders; however, Grete Roulund also has this tormented and despised man carry the seed to change by pointing to admission, choice, and love as new paths to be followed.

The novel Dr. Zarkowskis eksperiment (1993; Dr Zarkowski’s Experiment) delves directly into the black hole, fear, and evil as a common psychological problem. Dr Zarkowski is a hypnotist and psychologist, but his special treatment methods seem to cause extreme fear and anxiety in his patients rather than healing them. Chris, who is homosexual, is in therapy with him, and is to participate in a fantastic experiment in which the doctor will reveal on a TV screen the images the hypnosis brings forth from Chris’s subconscious. However, Dr Zarkowski has the technical problem that just as the experiments are about to succeed, a violent barrier of anxiety develops in the subjects, leaving them with phobias. The animals he also uses are literally scared to death. Chris is driven to the verge of suicide, and to his girlfriend and friends Zarkowski represents the evil and the mystery they are trying to solve. In one of the final scenes, it becomes clear that the anxiety is the doctor’s own and beyond his control, but it is also the anxiety of history: the screen shows images from Zarkowski’s childhood in a German concentration camp, where he witnessed sexual and violent assaults on nuns and where he himself managed to survive by becoming the lover of a German soldier. This is the cultural burden (and its limits) that he infects his patients with, and which also testifies to the porosity of human subjectivity. But it also depicts a cultural community that stands in stark contrast to the bodily barriers between many of Roulund’s characters.

The tone in Grethe Roulund’s stores is tough, but also filled with unsentimental and dark humour. The humour and the rough style establish a distance to the suffering; the texts are less interested in empathy with the victims than in the psychology and ethics that can be studied in the both unfeeling and tormented men. The violence and brutality represent the sickness in a culture that in its fear of the other – the foreigners, the opposite sex – and of death must constantly face its own downfall.

Anne Birgitte Richard

Translated by Jenifer Lloyd