Translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
(New York: World Editions, 2020)
The Greek goddess Athena, born directly of a father into adulthood and having no mother, has never been a compromised figure displaying a lack of resolve or shying away from conflict, as Homer and other poets and artists have portrayed her over the millennia. Her valor has been cherished (or sometimes held suspect) as a divergent paragon of womanhood among lore filled with all-powerful men not hesitant to abuse that power. From the possible complexities of such a character, then, Linda Boström Knausgård’s Mare Kandre Prize-winning novel The Helios Disaster forms a straightforward yet intriguing premise: what would Athena be like as an adolescent girl instead? And how would she function in the isolated confines of a place like latter-day Sweden where there are no human wars for gods to manipulate, no hideous creatures to battle other than what may reside in the mind? As Knausgård speculates through the tragic plight of her narrator, Anna, the answer to both these questions eschews the standard fish-out-of-water tale for an often moving psychological portrait of a young mind wanting desperately to relate to others despite the impossibility of her very being to them, including a parent who also has no real outlet to their well-defined world of order and reason.
In this contemporary transplanting of the Athena myth, 12-year old Anna recounts what she claims is her violent birth from the head of Conrad, a paranoid schizophrenic living alone, then her setting out into the snow wearing only her fabled golden helmet (conspicuously leaving her spear behind in the process, though later feeling a need to retrieve it from him). Taken in by the friendly townsfolk she stumbles into who, to be sure, are doubtful of the story of her origin, she is put into the care of a stable Pentecostal family with their harmless idiosyncrasies and minor hypocrisies. Life for her becomes humorously mundane but comfortable as she discovers food and skiing. While she tries to learn their ways of daily routine, however, she takes on a more involved task by attempting to formulate the language of her surroundings word by word. This self-tutelage of Anna in the novel’s first part is where her naiveté is established, and that contributes to her downfall in the devastating second part as she is committed to a psychiatric hospital after willingly giving up her ability to speak. Never being certain of her gifts, and maybe punishing herself for her lack of imagination, Knausgård’s teenage Athena becomes a would-be goddess undermined by the simplistic adults around her. After a less-than-enthusiastic connection with Conrad through postal mail, Anna’s undoing is courtesy of their own grand mistake: she earns special favor with the local pastor when the church her foster family takes her to believes she is speaking in tongues, only to have it revealed later she is feverishly speaking something far less divine.
The kindness of strangers may abound initially in The Helios Disaster, but it is telling here how these people become no less strange to Anna throughout its story, especially as everyone tries hard to establish some semblance of what they consider a normal life for her at home and school without much success. It is no surprise this leads to her complete mental withdrawal from them, all the while pinning her secret hopes on Conrad and one of the foster family’s sons, Urban, the only character in the novel whose unvarnished assessments are arriving at the truth of Anna’s futility. Her quiet desperation for wanting to please those around her in the novel’s first part contrasts sharply with her abject decline in the second; the friendly overtures of the townsfolk take on a far different shape at the hospital where Anna states unequivocally for them that their only purpose is to help her die. It is in this environment where Knausgård skillfully wrings out every drop of the inner turmoil of her doomed narrator as Anna surrenders all hope and retreats further and further into herself with the help of medication and the attendant staff not understanding of her condition. Her continued efforts at a parent-child reunion with Conrad further constitute a piteous rebuke to all the adults who have abandoned her at her greatest time of need: at one point she finally learns to say no and embraces the modern scream which accompanies it. To call this scenario heartbreaking doesn’t come close.
When The Helios Disaster dispenses with its parade of well-meaning but impotent helpers, we are sadly left with an unfortunate girl tethered to a father and his suspect mind, apparently the only two things that Anna can account for in her life. While the novel’s conclusion may seem mysteriously abrupt in granting Anna’s release into her supposed happiness (especially when taken with what appears to be a veiled reference to the Helios Airways crash of 2005), Knausgård’s interpretation of a young Athena will indeed resonate for those readers familiar with narratives of teenage depression and suicide, as well as join those other worthy literary revisions of legendary gods whose exposed humanity in our world makes them more human than the mortals they are forced to commiserate with.
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Forrest Roth is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University. He is the author of a novel, Gary Oldman Is A Building You Must Walk Through (What Books Press, 2017), and his most recent short fiction appears in Trnsfr and on-line at Juked and Columbia Journal. Links can be found at www.forrestroth.blogspot.com.