The Great Hunger

Contents:
Author: Johan Bojer

Chapter I

Once more a deep valley, with sun-steeped farms on the hillsides between the river and the mountain-range behind.

One day about midsummer it was old Raastad himself that came down to meet the train, driving a spring-cart, with a waggon following behind. Was he expecting visitors? the people at the station asked him. "Maybe I am," said old Raastad, stroking his heavy beard, and he limped about looking to his horses. Was it the folk who had taken the Court-house? "Ay, it’s likely them," said the old man.

The train came in, and a pale man, with grey hair and beard, and blue spectacles, stepped out, and he had a wife and three children with him. "Paul Raastad?" inquired the stranger. "Ay, that’s me," said the old man. The stranger looked up at the great mountains to the north, rising dizzily into the sky. "The air ought to be good here," said he. "Ay, the air’s good enough, by all accounts," said Raastad, and began loading up the carts.

They drove off up the hill road. The man and his wife sat in the spring-cart, the woman with a child in her lap, but a boy and a girl were seated on the load in the baggage-waggon behind Raastad. "Can we see the farm from here?" asked the woman, turning her head. "There," said the old man, pointing. And looking, they saw a big farmstead high up on a sunny hill-slope, close under the crest, and near by a long low house with a steep slate roof, the sort of place where the district officers used to live in old days. "Is that the house we are to live in?" she asked again. "Ay, that’s it, right enough," said old Raastad, and chirruped to his horses.

The woman looked long at the farm and sighed. So this was to be their new home. They were to live here, far from all their friends. And would it give him back his health, after all the doctors’ medicines had failed?

A Lapland dog met them at the gate and barked at them; a couple of pigs came down the road, stopped and studied the new arrivals with profound attention, then wheeled suddenly and galloped off among the houses.

The farmer’s wife herself was waiting outside the Court-house, a tall wrinkled woman with a black cap on her head. "Welcome," she said, offering a rough and bony hand.

The house was one of large low-ceiled rooms, with big stoves that would need a deal of firewood in winter. The furniture was a mixture of every possible sort and style: a mahogany sofa, cupboards with painted roses on the panels, chairs covered with "Old Norse" carving, and on the walls appalling pictures of foreign royal families and of the Crucifixion. "Good Heavens!" said Merle, as they went round the rooms alone: "how shall we ever get used to all this?"

But just then Louise came rushing in, breathless with news. "Mother—father—there are goats here!" And little Lorentz came toddling in after her: "Goats, mother," he cried, stumbling over the doorstep.

The old house had stood empty and dead for years. Now it seemed to have wakened up again. Footsteps went in and out, and the stairs creaked once more under the tread of feet, small, pattering, exploring feet, and big feet going about on grown-up errands. There was movement in every corner: a rattle of pots and pans in the kitchen; fires blazed up, and smoke began to rise from the chimney; people passing by outside looked up at it and saw that the dead old house had come to life again.

Peer was weak still after his illness, but he could help a little with the unpacking. It took very little, though, to make him out of breath and giddy, and there was a sledge-hammer continually thumping somewhere in the back of his head. Suppose—suppose, after all, the change here does you no good? You are at the last stage. You’ve managed to borrow the money to keep you all here for a year. And then? Your wife and children? Hush!—better not think of that. Not that; think of anything else, only not that.

Clothes to be carried upstairs. Yes, yes—and to think it was all to end in your living on other people’s charity. Even that can’t go on long. If you should be no better next summer—or two years hence?—what then? For yourself—yes, there’s always one way out for you. But Merle and the children? Hush, don’t think of it! Once it was your whole duty to finish a certain piece of work in a certain time. Now it is your duty to get well again, to be as strong as a horse by next year. It is your duty. If only the sledge-hammer would stop, that cursed sledge-hammer in the back of your head.

Merle, as she went out and in, was thinking perhaps of the same thing, but her head was full of so much else—getting things in order and the household set going. Food had to be bought from the local shop; and how many litres of milk would she require in the morning? Where could she get eggs? She must go across at once to the Raastads’ and ask. So the pale woman in the dark dress walked slowly with bowed head across the courtyard. But when she stopped to speak to people about the place, they would forget their manners and stare at her, she smiled so strangely.

"Father, there’s a box of starlings on the wall here," said Louise as she lay in bed with her arms round Peer’s neck saying goodnight. "And there’s a swallow’s nest under the eaves too."

"Oh, yes, we’ll have great fun at Raastad—just you wait and see."

Soon Merle and Peer too lay in their strange beds, looking out at the luminous summer night.

They were shipwrecked people washed ashore here. But it was not so clear that they were saved.

Peer turned restlessly from side to side. He was so worn to skin and bone that his nerves seemed laid bare, and he could not rest in any position. Also there were three hundred wheels whirring in his head, and striking out sparks that flew up and turned to visions.

Rest? why had he never been content to rest in the days when all went well?

He had made his mark at the First Cataract, yes, and had made big sums of money out of his new pump; but all the time there were the gnawing questions: Why? and whither? and what then? He had been Chief Engineer and had built a railway, and could have had commissions to build more railways—but again the questions: Why? and what then? Home, then, home and strike root in his native land—well, and had that brought him rest? What was it that drove him away again? The steel, the steel and the fire.

Ah! that day when he had stepped down from the mowing machine and had been ensnared by the idea of improving it. Why had he ever taken it up? Did he need money? No. Or was the work at a standstill? No. But the steel would on; it had need of a man; it had taken him by the throat and said, "You shall!"

Happiness? Rest? Ah no! For, you see, a stored-up mass of knowledge and experience turns one fine day into an army of evil powers, that lash you on and on, unceasingly. You may stumble, you may fall—what does it matter? The steel squeezes one man dry, and then grips the next. The flame of the world has need of fuel—bow thy head, Man, and leap into the fire.

To-day you prosper—to-morrow you are cast down into a hell on earth. What matter? You are fuel for the fire.

But I will not, I will not be swallowed up in the flame of the world, even though it be the only godhead in the universe. I will tear myself loose, be something in and for myself. I will have an immortal soul. The world-transformation that progress may have wrought a thousand years hence—what is it to me?

Your soul? Just think of all your noble feelings towards that true-born half-brother of yours—ha-ha-ha! Shakespeare was wrong. It’s the bastard that gets cheated.

"Dearest Peer, do, for God’s sake, try to get to sleep."

"Oh yes. I’ll get to sleep all right. But it’s so hot." He threw off the clothes and lay breathing heavily.

"I’m sure you’re lying thinking and brooding over things. Can’t you do what the Swedish doctor told you—just try to think that everything is dark all round you."

Peer turns round, and everything around him is dark. But in the heart of that darkness waves arise, waves of melody, rolling nearer, nearer. It is the sound of a hymn—it is Louise standing playing, his sister Louise. And what peace—O God, what peace and rest!

But soon Louise fades away, she fades away, and vanishes like a flame blown out. And there comes a roaring noise, nearer and nearer, grinding, crashing, rattling—and he knows now what it is only too well: it is the song of the steel.

The roar of steel from ships and from railway-trains, with their pairs of yellow evil eyes, rushing on, full of human captives, whither? Faster, faster—driven by competition, by the steel demon that hunts men on without rest or respite—that hurries on the pulse of the world to fever, to hallucination, to madness.

Crashing of steel girders falling, the hum of wheels, the clash of cranes and winches and chains, the clang of steam-hammers at work— all are in that roar. The fire flares up with hellish eyes in every dark corner, and men swarm around in the red glow like evil angels. They are the slaves of steel and fire, lashed onwards, never resting.

Is this the spirit of Prometheus? Look, the will of steel is flinging men up into the air now. It is conquering the heavens. Why? That it may rush the faster. It craves for yet more speed, quicker, quicker, dizzier yet, hurrying—wherefore?—whither? Alas! it knows not itself.

Are the children of the earth grown so homeless? Do they fear to take a moment’s rest? Do they dread to look inward and see their own emptiness? Are they longing for something they have lost—some hymn, some harmony, some God?

God? They find a bloodthirsty Jehovah, and an ascetic on the cross. What gods are these for modern men? Religious history, not religion.

"Peer," says Merle again, "for God’s sake try to sleep."

"Merle, do you think I shall get well here?"

"Why, don’t you feel already how splendid the air is? Of course you’ll get well."

He twined his fingers into hers, and at last the sound of Louise’s hymn came to him once more, lifting and rocking him gently till his eyes closed.

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Chicago: Johan Bojer, "Chapter I," The Great Hunger, trans. Worster, William John Alexander, 1882-1929 and Archer, Charles, 1861-1941 in The Great Hunger Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BD6KAI7LMVIGR5J.

MLA: Bojer, Johan. "Chapter I." The Great Hunger, translted by Worster, William John Alexander, 1882-1929 and Archer, Charles, 1861-1941, in The Great Hunger, Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BD6KAI7LMVIGR5J.

Harvard: Bojer, J, 'Chapter I' in The Great Hunger, trans. . cited in , The Great Hunger. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BD6KAI7LMVIGR5J.