I am willing to bet that most people outside of Norway has not heard about Jens Bjørneboe. It is a shame, because Bjørneboe was a fantastic writer. He was controversial and provocative, with a brutal prose that is both delightful and difficult to read. At the core of his production is a staunch defense of the individual and an absolute willingness to address the bleaker side of humanity in often distressing detail.
His main work is a trilogy: The History of Bestiality. In the three novels within, Moment of Freedom, The Powderhouse and The Silence, Bjørneboe discusses evil. The trilogy, which reportedly took 25 years to write, follows from a series of stand-alone works describing, often in harrowing detail, trespasses against both individuals and groups. He discusses medical experiments on prisoners during WW2 in Ere the Cock Crows (written in 1946 and published in 1952) as well as the harsh treatments of suspected collaborators after the war in Under a Harsher Sky (1957). He debates the cruel treatment of both children and prisoners by the “system” in Jonas (1955) and The evil shepherd (1960), respectively; wrote a deliberately provocative erotic novel Without a stitch (1966) which famously is full of euphemisms and very little by way of vulgar language, wrote several plays, poems and essays that were anti-authoritarian, pro-art and at times deeply misanthropic. But it is in the History of Bestiality that he truly bares his teeth.
Moment of Freedom is an unapologetic, bleak view on justice and humanity. The unnamed narrator is a servant of the court, working in a small German principality called Heiligenberg. His job is to witness the proceedings in a court of law, which he refers to as ‘the daily injustice’, where human failings are plentiful and justice is in farcically short supply. We are told his story as he dutifully fulfills his obligations alongside his recollections of his past life and experiences (although this comes back to him in bits only), and, importantly, how he has been chronicling human monstrosities throughout the ages in a massive twelve-volume tome he has titled “The History of Bestiality.” Bjørneboe’s narrator discusses the inability or unwillingness of humans to do anything but what they are told to do, even in the face of gross injustice. The perfidy and cruelty of man are the central themes in the Moment of Freedom, described by the narrator in a distant, almost clinical, manner.
The Powderhouse continues the tale with the narrator – now a janitor in a mental institution called La Poudrière (the powderhouse) – exploring his history of bestiality. In this novel, Bjørneboe debates the human propensity for evil through a series of lectures given by both the staff and the criminally insane inmates at the institute. The lectures are presented as therapeutic, and centers around crimes of Christianity, with notable exceptions being a lecture by an executioner detailing the complexities of his job. The final part of the novel results in a move in favour of anarchism, a political philosophy which Bjørneboe often appeared to defend.
Finally, there is The Silence. Here, the narrator has escaped to northern Africa. The theme here is the horror of (mostly European) imperialism and conquest, with the narrator (now possibly quite mad) having debates with God and a number of historical figures. His great work, the History of Bestiality, will never be completed, as he recognizes that there is no final chapter. Man will continue to commit cruelty, just as man always has. Still, there is a small glimmer of hope at the end of this bleak journey, as the narrator admits that there is also good in humanity and this goodness may yet grow.
It makes for unpleasant and challenging reading, but the intensity and urgency with which the story is chronicled is hard to resist. While not everybody’s cup of tea, it is still a tour de force of literature. It is not genre horror, but horrifying it is nevertheless. The apocalyptic feel of the trilogy is echoed in his final novel, The Sharks (1974), the only one he wrote after completing The History of Bestiality.
Bjørneboe killed himself in 1976, having written a long and impressive list of plays, poems, essays and novels. The anger and urgency in his writing remains compelling to this day, and the themes of his work – the almost habitual cruelty of man towards man, and the suffering of the individual at the hands of the system – is unfortunately as relevant today as it was in the mid 20th century.