Thursday, 12 August 2010

Chitambo

Some excerpts from the novel Chitambo (1933), by Hagar Olsson.


I, Vega Maria Eleonora Dreary

I was born in 1893, of course. That, as everyone knows, is the proudest year in the history of Nordic polar research. It was the year in which Fridtjof Nansen began his world-famous voyage to the North Pole aboard the Fram. Mr Dreary viewed this as a personal distinction and a sign that fate had fixed its gaze on him. He at once took it for granted that I was destined for great things, and he also showed much skill in fostering the same foolish idea in me...

My father had decided that in order to commemorate the notable year of my birth and place the seal upon my unique position in life I should receive at my baptism the strange-sounding but all the more meaning-laden name of Fram (forward). My mother was naturally in despair. At first she said nothing and dedicated herself instead to gathering allies for the expected confrontation. In the usual irrational way of women, she ran to the neighbours and complained. They listened, slightly amused and slightly scandalized. The most benevolent of them tried to persuade her that it was merely one of Mr Dreary’s jokes, but the malicious did all they could to egg her on. Mr Dreary smiled contentedly into his beard and thought: let the old women chatter – the girl shall be called Fram! Being able to vex my mother and her pious friends with this was a source of indescribable enjoyment for him. The more scandalized they felt, the more clearly did he feel his superiority in their milieu.

On the same day that the holy rite was due to take place, the storm broke. My mother wept and pleaded and wrung her hands, but to no avail. Mr Dreary was immovable, and remained so.

Weeping, my mother took me to be baptised. She quietly informed the godparents that the girl was to be called Maria Eleonora – a Christian and perfectly respectable name. There was a sense of relief, a conviction that Mr Dreary had backed down. He went about beaming, extending cordial greetings to everyone. But when the priest arrived, Mr Dreary raised his voice and curtly informed him that the girl’s name was to be Fram. In a longer statement, delivered with suitable gravitas, he set out the considerations that had led him, as the girl’s earthly guardian, to make this choice. This speech produced general despondency.

People in difficult situations often have brilliant ideas, and so it was with the priest. Like a flash of lightning out of a clear sky the name Vega suddenly presented itself to his inner vision. As an Arctic exploration vessel, the Vega was as illustrious as the Fram, was it not, and even more so! After all, there was still uncertainty as to how the Fram would fare.

One fine day it might perhaps be learned that the ship had gone down and all its crew perished. That was something Mr Dreary had not thought of. He grew pensive and rather long in the face. No, the Fram was not yet something to raise a cheer for, but Nordenskiöld’s Vega, now – there was a name that would surely fit. With such a name one could calmly sail into life’s storms. And then, too, Nordenskiöld was one of us, a meritorious son of Finland.

The priest did not need to say more. He had touched the most sensitive strings in Mr Dreary’s heart. Moved, Mr Dreary thanked the eloquent priest for drawing his attention to these symbolic circumstances. Then he said:

‘Let the girl be called Vega.’


translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

(to be continued)

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