The Solitaire Mystery

Jostein Gaarder; Translated by Sarah Jane Hails

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Solitaire Mystery
... a German soldier came biking along the country road ...
THE GREAT JOURNEY TO the homeland of the philosophers began in Arendal, an old shipping town on the south coast of Norway. We took the ferry, the Bolero, from Kristiansand to Hirtshals. I'm not going to say much about the trip down through Denmark and Germany, because apart from Legoland and the large dock area in Hamburg, we saw little more than highways and farms. It was only when we got to the Alps that things really began to happen.
Dad and I had a deal: I wasn't supposed to complain if we had to drive a long time before stopping for the night, and he wasn't allowed to smoke in the car. In return, we agreed to make lots of cigarette stops. These cigarette stops are what I remember most clearly from the time before we reached Switzerland.
The cigarette stops always began with Dad giving a little lecture about something he'd been thinking about while he'd been driving and I'd been reading comic books or playing solitaire in the back seat. More often than not, his lecture had something to dowith Mommy. Otherwise, he would go on about stuff which had fascinated him for as long as I'd known him.
Ever since Dad had returned from his life at sea, he had been interested in robots. Maybe that in itself wasn't so strange, but with Dad it didn't end there. He was convinced that one day science would be able to create artificial people. By this, he didn't just mean those dumb metal robots with red and green flashing lights and hollow voices. Oh no, Dad believed that science would one day be able to create real thinking human beings, like us. And there was more--he also believed that, fundamentally, human beings are artificial objects.
"We are dolls bursting with life," he would say.
This sort of declaration often came after a small drink or two.
When we were in Legoland, he stood and stared at all the Lego people. I asked him if he was thinking about Mommy, but he just shook his head.
"Just imagine if all this suddenly came alive, Hans Thomas," he said. "Imagine if these figures suddenly began to toddle around among the plastic houses. What would we do then?"
"You're crazy" was all I could say, because I was sure this kind of statement wasn't normal for fathers who took their children to Legoland.
I was about to ask for an ice cream. You see, I had learned that it was best to wait until Dad started to air his odd ideas before asking for something. I think he occasionally felt guilty for always going on about things like this with his son, and when you feel guilty, you tend to be a little more generous. Just as I was about to ask for the ice cream, he said, "Basically, we ourselves are such live Lego figures."
I knew the ice cream was a sure thing now, because Dad was about to philosophize.
We were going all the way to Athens, but we weren't on a normal vacation. In Athens--or at least somewhere in Greece--we were going to try to find Mommy. It wasn't certain that we'dfind her, and even if we did find her, it wasn't certain she'd want to come home with us to Norway. But Dad said we had to try, because neither Dad nor I could bear the thought of living the rest of our lives without her.
Mommy ran away from Dad and me when I was four years old. That's probably why I still call her Mommy. Gradually Dad and I got to know each other better, and one day it just didn't seem right to call him Daddy anymore.
Mommy went out into the world to find herself. Both Dad and I realized that it was about time you found yourself when you'd managed to become the mother of a four-year-old boy, so we supported the actual project. I just could never understand why she had to go away to find herself. Why couldn't she sort things out at home, in Arendal--or at least be satisfied with a trip to Kristiansand? My advice to all those who are going to find themselves is: Stay exactly where you are. Otherwise you are in great danger of losing yourself forever.
So many years had passed since Mommy left us that I couldn't really remember what she looked like. I just remembered that she was more beautiful than any other woman. At least that's what Dad used to say. He also believed the more beautiful a woman is, the more difficulty she has finding herself.
I had been searching for Mommy from the moment she disappeared. Every time I walked across the market square in Arendal, I thought I might suddenly see her, and every time I was in Oslo visiting Grandma, I looked for her along Karl Johan Street. But I never saw her. I didn't see her until Dad came in one day holding up a Greek fashion magazine. There was Mommy--both on the cover and inside the magazine. It was pretty obvious from the pictures that she still hadn't found herself, because these were not pictures of my mommy: she was clearly trying to look like somebody else. Both Dad and I felt extremely sorry for her.
The fashion magazine had found its way to us after Dad's aunt had been to Crete. There, the magazine with the pictures ofMommy had been hung up on all the newspaper stands. All you had to do was toss a few drachmas on the counter, and the magazine was yours. I thought it was almost comical. We had been looking for Mommy for years, while all the time she'd been down there posing and smiling to all the passersby.
"What the hell has she gone and got herself mixed up in?" Dad asked, scratching his head. Nevertheless, he cut out the pictures of her and stuck them up in his bedroom. He thought it was better to have pictures of someone who looked like Mommy than to have none at all.
That was when Dad decided we had to go to Greece and find her.
"We must try to tow her home again, Hans Thomas," he said. "Otherwise, I'm afraid she may drown in this fashion fairy tale."
I didn't really understand what he meant by that. I had heard of people drowning in big dresses lots of times, but I didn't know it was possible to drown in a fairy tale. Now I know it is something everyone should be careful about.
When we stopped on the highway outside Hamburg, Dad started to talk about his father. I had heard it all before, but it was different now with all the cars whizzing by.
You see, Dad is the illegitimate child of a German soldier. I am no longer embarrassed to say it, because I know now that these children can be just as good as other children. But that's easy for me to say. I haven't felt the pain of growing up in a little southern Norwegian town without a father.
It was probably because we had arrived in Germany that Dad started to talk once more about what had happened to Grandma and Grandpa.
Everyone knows that it wasn't easy to get food during the Second World War. Grandma Line knew this, too, the day she biked up to Froland to pick cowberries. She was no more than seventeen years old. The problem was, she got a flat tire.
That cowberry trip is the most important thing that has happenedin my life. It might sound strange that the most important thing in my life happened more than thirty years before I was born, but if Grandma hadn't gotten a flat tire that Sunday, Dad wouldn't have been born. And if he hadn't been born, then I wouldn't have stood a chance either.
What happened is as follows: Grandma got a flat tire when she was up at Froland with a basketful of cowberries. Of course she didn't have a repair kit with her, but even if she'd had a thousand and one repair kits, she probably couldn't have fixed the bike herself.
That was when a German soldier came biking along the country road. Although he was German, he was not particularly militant. On the contrary, he was very polite to the young girl who could not get home with her cowberries. Furthermore, he had a repair kit with him.
Now, if Grandpa had been one of those malicious brutes we readily believe all German soldiers occupying Norway at that time were, he could have just kept going. But of course that's not the point. No matter what, Grandma should have stuck her nose in the air and refused to accept any help from the German military.
The problem was that the German soldier gradually took a liking to the young girl who had run into bad luck. Her greatest misfortune, though, was actually his fault. But that happened a few years later ...
At this point in the story Dad used to light a cigarette.
The thing was, Grandma liked the German, too. That was her great mistake. She didn't just thank Grandpa for repairing her bike for her, she also agreed to walk down to Arendal with him. She was both naughty and stupid, no doubt about it. Worst of all, she agreed to meet Unterfeldwebel Ludwig Messner again.
That's how Grandma became the sweetheart of a German soldier. Unfortunately, you don't always choose who you fall in love with. However, she should have chosen not to meet him again before she'd fallen in love with him. Of course she didn't do this, and consequently paid for it.
Grandma and Grandpa continued to meet each other secretly. If the people of Arendal had found out she was dating a German, it would have been the same as banishing herself to exile. Because the only way ordinary Norwegians could fight against the Germans was by having nothing to do with them.
In the summer of 1944, Ludwig Messner was sent back to Germany to defend the Third Reich on the eastern front. He wasn't even able to say a proper goodbye to Grandma. The moment he stepped onto the train at Arendal, he disappeared from Grandma's life. She never heard another word from him--even though for many years after the war she tried to track him down. After a while she felt pretty sure he had been killed in the fighting against the Russians.
Both the bike ride to Froland and everything which followed would probably have been forgotten if Grandma hadn't gotten pregnant. It happened just before Grandpa left for the eastern front, but she didn't know it until many weeks after he had gone.
Dad refers to what happened next as human devilry--and at this point he usually lights another cigarette. Dad was born just before liberation in May 1945. As soon as the Germans surrendered, Grandma was taken prisoner by the Norwegians, who hated all Norwegian girls who had been with German soldiers. Unfortunately, there were more than a few of these girls, but it was worse for those who'd had a child with a German. The truth was that Grandma had been with Grandpa because she loved him--and not because she was a Nazi. Actually, Grandpa wasn't a Nazi either. Before he'd been grabbed by the collar and sent back to Germany, he and Grandma had been making plans to escape to Sweden together. The only thing that stopped them were rumors of Swedish border guards shooting German deserters who tried to cross the border.
The people of Arendal attacked Grandma and shaved her head. They also beat and kicked her, even though she was the mother of a newborn baby. One can honestly say that Ludwig Messner had behaved better.
With not so much as a hair on her head, Grandma had to travel to Oslo to stay with Uncle Trygve and Aunt Ingrid. It was no longer safe for her in Arendal. Although it was spring and the weather was warm, she had to wear a woolen hat, because she was as bald as an old man. Her mother continued to live in Arendal, but Grandma didn't return until five years after the war, with Dad in tow.
Neither Grandma nor Dad seeks to excuse what happened at Froland. The only thing you might question is the punishment. For example, how many generations should be punished for one offense? Naturally, Grandma must take her part of the blame for getting pregnant, and that is something she'll never deny. I think it's more difficult to accept that people believed it was right to punish the child, too.
I've thought a great deal about this. Dad came into the world because of a fall of Man, but can't everyone trace their roots back to Adam and Eve? I know the comparison stumbles a little. One case revolved around apples and the other around cowberries. But the inner tube which brought Grandma and Grandpa together does look a little like the snake which tempted Adam and Eve.
Anyway, all mothers know you can't go around your whole life blaming yourself for a child that is already born. Moreover, you can't blame the child. I also believe that the illegitimate child of a German soldier is entitled to be happy in life. Dad and I have disagreed slightly on this particular point.
Dad grew up not only as an illegitimate child but also as a child whose father was one of the enemies. Although the adults in Arendal stopped beating the "collaborators," the children continued to persecute the unfortunate innocents. Children are very clever at learning devilry from adults. This meant that Dad had a tough childhood. By the time he was seventeen years old, he couldn't take any more. Although he loved Arendal like everyone else, he was forced to start a life at sea. He returned to Arendal seven years later, having already met Mommy in Kristiansand. They moved into an old house on Hisøy Island, and that is whereI was born on February 29, 1972. Of course, in some way I have to bear my part of the blame for what happened up at Froland as well. This is what is known as original sin.
Having experienced a childhood as the illegitimate child of a German soldier and then many years at sea, Dad had always enjoyed a strong drink or two. In my opinion he enjoyed them a little too much. He claimed that he drank to forget, but here he was mistaken. For when Dad drank, he always started to talk about Grandma and Grandpa, and his life as the illegitimate child of a German soldier. Sometimes he would start to cry. I think the alcohol just made him remember all the better.
After Dad had told me his life story again, on the highway outside Hamburg, he said, "And then Mommy disappeared. When you started nursery school, she got her first job as a dance teacher. Then she started modeling. There was quite a lot of traveling to Oslo, and a couple of times to Stockholm as well, and then one day she didn't come home. The only message we got from her was a letter saying she'd found a job abroad and didn't know when she'd be back. People say this sort of thing when they're away a week or two, but Mommy's been gone more than eight years ..."
I'd heard this many times before as well, but then Dad added, "There's always been somebody missing in my family, Hans Thomas. Someone has always gotten lost. I think it's a family curse."
When he mentioned the curse, I was a little scared. But then I thought about it in the car and realized he was right.
Between us, Dad and I were missing both a father and a grandfather, a wife and a mother. And there was even more which Dad must definitely have had in mind. When Grandma was a little girl, her father had been killed by a falling tree. So she had also grown up without a proper father. Maybe that's why she ended up having a child by a German soldier who would go to war and die. And maybe that's why this child married a woman who went to Athens to find herself.
Translation copyright © 1996 by Sarah Jane Hails