Borders by Roy Jacobsen
Set in the Ardennes region of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, Roy Jacobsen’s fine novel Borders (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) is a multi-layered saga of philosophical geopolitics and World War II. Using a myriad of interlocking short stories, Jacobsen superimposes generations upon generations of life in the rural village of Clervaux, from a bridge-building farmer in 1893 to Germany’s Western Front tearing through the region on their way towards Antwerp.
While the national demarcations of the Ardennes are repeatedly lain and re-established, Jacobsen’s characters are challenged with constitutional borders of their own. What’s the threshold between decisions, or the delineation between ideas? Is a person’s identity or their ethics contingent upon their surroundings? Borders attempts to discover and develop these nuances, “for borders are not only there to separate friends from enemies, one language from another, me from you and neighbours from those who are not necessarily good neighbours, or to prevent someone from moving from one narrative to another without warning, they are also there to be crossed at the appropriate time.”
Jacobsen begins his novel in the haze of World War II in 1944: Maria, a nurse, and a piano-playing G.I. named Robert escape from a German-occupied military hospital in Willitz and have a brief affair in Clervaux before he returns to fight with the Allies. Maria raises their son in the village with the support of a handful of nearby families, including neighbors Markus Hebel and his wife Nella. Markus, of Belgian ancestry, served in the signal corps of the Wehrmacht, stationed at the Eastern Front. Back in Clervaux, he pretends to be blind, vowing to “open [his] eyes again when the war is over.” He tricks everyone but young Robert Junior, for whom he develops a professorial, fatherly affection.
Each chapter in Borders focuses on a new story of Clervaux, often circling around a tangentially related family and their past. Jacobsen’s networked prose is a marvel to read; not only does the novel unfold with a connected tenderness and familiarity, it’s exquisitely cartographic. Characters feel mapped out, divided and developed in relation to their surrounding influences.
Like the swollen map of 1940s Germany, spilling into Austria and Poland and beyond, the story of Markus Hebel’s wartime efforts consume the center of Borders in a remarkable 130-page section called “The Feldmarschall’s Conscience.” This is about half the book and those readers that were particularly fond of the pastoral phase of Borders’s first section may find “The Feldmarschall’s Conscience” to be a difficult adjustment. Markus, in the signal corps, is brought up the ranks to help analyze the Third Reich’s activity in Stalingrad. General Paulus is stuck, with fading troops, but despite repeated requests to break out is instructed by Hitler to hold the region. Markus, meanwhile, is distracted over some intelligence: his son is among the men with Paulus and he’s forced to confront some difficult decisions about whether to act with his heart or for his country, whatever and wherever that may be.
This section is long and full of wartime tension; Borders appears to become an entirely different book as the Soviets win the battle of Stalingrad (despite Manstein’s efforts) and the Western Front marches towards Antwerp through the Ardennes. But, as troops begin to seep back into the Ardennes of Borders’ other half, and bridges are built and detonated, it becomes clear that those quieter moments with which Jacobsen opened his novel could not have been so potent had they not previously been the subject of such great turmoil. While the chapters in Borders could be extracted and experienced independently of each other, their context and, especially, their differences, make them all the more powerful.
Storytellers are fickle and unreliable, Jacobsen explains late in the novel, because “stories have a beginning and an end, and nothing actually has, nothing stops and nothing begins, it just is.”
This can be illustrated by the fact that if one were to pack all the events which took place, for example, in this year of sorrows, 1942, into one book and call it “1942”, it would still be a gigantic distortion of the truth because 1942 also contains remnants of 1941 and 1939, not to mention 1901…
Despite Borders’ uneven execution, Jacobsen’s novel snaps together into a remarkably cohesive terrain. The vignettes in this novel are dependent on each other and grow more meaningful when discovered by way of a neighbor, a father, or a forgotten or repressed memory. Although built from what appear to be disparate stories, Jacobsen skillfully shows how thrilling it is to cross and blur their thresholds, making Borders an exhilarating triumph.