Open-mindedness in the age of closed borders

April 5, 2002

Per Knutsen, Vil du ha meg?, Oslo: JW Cappelen Forslag, 2000.

Reviewed by Meagan McCue

9788202203689As the issue of asylum seekers is debated and governments globally see refugee immigration as contrary to the social and economic interests of their population, Per Knutsen’s Vil du ha meg? (Do you want me?) provides a welcome contrast to these negative attitudes. Set in contemporary Norway, the novel begins benignly enough with Emma. She has the expected teenage troubles with her mother, twin sister and brother Tora and Finn, and their father, Kristoffer.   Emma’s biological father is away, mostly in the south, but Emma has the key to his apartment building and begins to go to his flat regularly, unlocking the door to adulthood when she becomes uneasy about the noises being made in an African neighbour’s flat.  As she inhabits her father’s empty home and moves away from the comforts of being a child, she unexpectedly explores her new identity, emerging as a more informed person.

Emma befriends Leo, the African neighbour. He remains nameless for most of the novel, as a symbol of his foreign background with its unimaginable horrors.  Once a child-soldier during Sierra Leone’s civil war, Leo now lives with his aunt in Norway.  He resorts to making money by killing unwanted kittens in his new home, acknowledging to Emma that he is good at killing yet it weighs heavily on his mind.  Losing his family to the ravages of war has taken its toll on Leo, but he takes a chance with Emma.  Both characters find in each other uncomfortable aspects of themselves and an unlikely friendship develops.

Norway has a very liberal attitude towards encouraging young people to be informed on all sorts of topics, and this novel, designed for young readers, is no different.  It examines relevant themes from parental tensions, self-esteem, hitchhiking and shoplifting to, controversially, killing.  But the book is more than just politically correct ideology, it speaks to the readers as much as the reader is ready to handle. More than this, Knutsen’s novel gives us a perspective on refreshing possibilities for the world. So Do you want me? has moving elements that also take us to an unknown place. For a while the story belongs to Emma, and teenagers will identify with her awkwardness and boredom with a seemingly comfortable but uneventful existence.

It is only through Emma’s discontentment, mooching about complaining to herself that “everyone else her age did exciting things together like she had heard they do in books or on TV, but that experience always alluded her” that ironically she is ready for what Leo has in store for her to understand. She becomes spellbound by the mystery in the neighbouring flat and resorts to stealthily watching Leo’s grim movements.   Leo opens up an unknown world that entices further investigation and challenges Emma’s assumption that she knows all there is to know about our world.

It is while she is engaged in pushing the limits of trying to learn about Leo’s life that she feels fully alive.

She said, “Killing. Is that what you’re good at?”

He looked her straight in the face for the first time as though he wanted to say, “There is more.  Much more.”

A rotten sneer formed around his mouth.  She felt it like a blow to the stomach and gasped for breath.

“I knew it,” he said.  “you don’t want to hear it.  You don’t dare.”

Her heart was pounding.  The throbbing in her head was loud enough for her to think that she would lose her hearing.  She couldn’t think but when he smiled, she knew it: somewhere or other, in one way or another, he had killed someone, one or more.  People.

At times the reader may be sceptical about Knutsen’s ability, as a white person, to portray Leo’s experience. However, there is an important place for the experiences of refugees to be told by the affected countries themselves. Knutsen’s story does not shy away from telling something that needs to be told, even if it is only in a limited form.  His writing successfully strengthens the spirit in the way that is possible with literature.

“Do you want me?” – a significant line towards the end of the novel, plunges us into the world of accepting others with terrible pasts, assessing what it takes to accept Leo, so young to have used real guns in the game of war and to grieve the death of his family.  Knutsen reminds us that there is more to the person who has committed a horrific crime than the criminal act itself. Due to this, there is the possibility of redemption and embracing other unique elements as Emma discovers, meeting Leo again on holiday in Oslo after he has moved away from Emma’s hometown.

He smiled. It wasn’t a teasing or malicious smile.  It was the kind of smile that she had dreamt about, the one in her imagination that she had managed to see from a boy, once, no, many times, imminently, momentarily, when she was older, when life began to be more ordered, the kind of smile that everyone dreams about.  She had never seen it before, only in films.  Now she saw it.

Knutsen provides a positive insight into what develops between people of various backgrounds.   This is not the only attitude in Norway, with the recent racial murder of a fifteen-year-old Norwegian boy of African paternity.  Norway also has a history vastly different to English-speaking countries on how to deal with child-murderers.  While perhaps it may not be appropriate to make the comparison between child-soldiers forced into war and child-murderers, nevertheless children who have killed is a reality that many communities worldwide are coming to terms with. Norway has a similar case to the Jamie Bolger murder, but the community affected has a more forgiving nature than England’s, seeing it as their responsibility to rehabilitate the two Norwegian children rather than incarcerate them for long periods.  In Do you want me? Emma, with the encouragement of her family and friends, ultimately embraces Leo and encourages a friendship with him, though it takes time and patience. Knutsen suggests it is not an easy path to redemption.

The Nordic setting with its woods, clusters of spruce trees and fjords, can feel very removed from the Australian landscape.  Any cultural disparity is overcome with most of the novel acquiring its own pace and momentum, centring on the universal elements of a teenager’s life.  The hazards of hitchhiking and stealing, the petty jealousies as Emma’s friends fight over Leo’s attention, exhilarated dancing, Emma’s romantic journey to Leo’s secret place: these are all intriguing and, combined with the discomfort of losing one’s innocence, make us understand the inevitability of Emma’s imminent transformation.  Leo appears to be left thinking his fate is unsettled, though this is certainly not true. But it is only Emma and the readers who are privileged to know otherwise.

Knutsen, an accomplished writer of adult and children’s fiction, captures the transition between childhood, its family squabbles, and an encounter that shatters our sheltered existence in the West.  He has given a fresh perspective on teenage fiction that has serious overtones.  Within a very readable description of the daily life of teenagers, with all of its compassion and contradictions, Leo’s past and his needs emerge as a catalyst, strikingly vital for the whole world to understand.

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