Linda Boström Knausgård - a mythical tale in which a father gives birth to a twelve-year-old girl, splitting his head in the process. Father and daughter are separated. The girl is placed into foster care and comes under the spell of the Pentecostal movement. When she starts speaking in tongues, she is admitted to a psychiatric ward

The Helios Disaster

Linda Boström Knausgård, The Helios Disaster, Trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles.  World Editions, 2015.

The Helios Disaster is a mythical tale in which a father gives birth to a twelve-year-old girl, splitting his head in the process. Father and daughter are separated. The girl is placed into foster care and comes under the spell of the Pentecostal movement. When she starts speaking in tongues, she is admitted to a psychiatric ward. The girl longs to meet her father, and once they have found each other again the question of who the girl and her father are draws nearer.

The Helios Disaster is a modern Athena myth. A sorrowful song about missing a father and not being able to carry one’s full strength. About the sense that perhaps one has been born too close to the sun.

A twelve-year-old girl is born out of her father’s head. She is wearing a shining armour where she is standing, in the middle of all the blood on the floor. In a moment which lasts a lifetime, they look at each other. Then he presses his hands against his head, as if to close what has been opened, and he screams. The girl is placed with a family. The father ends up in hospital due to severe schizophrenia. The girl learns the language they speak in the village, up there in the north. She embraces the temperance movement and God, like everyone else. The Pentecostal Movement gets a grip on her, once a rumour about her is starting to spread. All of her questions threaten to burst out in a scream as strong as a storm: Who is her father? What language is she speaking when they think she is speaking in tongues? What will happen when she starts to grow, like she knows she has to?

The Helios Disaster is a story about longing for a father and about prepubescence. About the will to die, refusal and a sun shining far too brightly. But in this tension field there is also simple happiness. Boström Knausgård’s authorship keeps getting better and better.” - Dagens Nyheter

”It is simple and it is grand, the story about the girl who came too close to the sun. The Helios Disaster shines!” - Kulturnytt, Sveriges Radio P1, Swedish public radio

The Helios Disaster is an insightful story about mental illness and missing a father. Linda Boström Knausgård manages to fill the rather monotonous hospital existence with a tension so powerful and poetic that one is actually quite taken by it and reads without missing a single detail.” - Kulturnyheterna, SVT, Swedish national public TV

”Linda Boström Knausgård’s childhood story is at once myth and realism, case description and the case itself. There is no skin layer between the reader and what’s written. Being forced to read that way is painful and indefeasible.” - Sydsvenskan

The Helios Disaster is a dense, tender, painful novel written in a prose which, always poetic, touches, shakes and makes a mess.” - Helsingborgs Dagblad

The Helios Disaster is a novel vibrating with beauty, pain and deprivation, and an intense and remarkable presence throughout the text. /…/ I need to go back to Janet Frame if I want to name a description of a psychiatric hospital which has made an equally powerful impression on me. /.../ To read The Helios Disaster is to come very close to an awareness which contains the power of creation and a wish for death. It is a story about being in a span which may burst at any moment. And it is told without fear.” - Birgit Bjerck

Whether a desirable state of affairs or not, a post-religious culture demands extraordinary things from its people, not least from its artists. The attempt to come to terms with the cessation of religion as the primary place of knowing has been demonstrated in the increasing variety and fluidity of artistic forms in the past few centuries, most of all in the previous one. The struggle did not end there. The arguments of the Modernists, the Post-Modernists, the Dadaists, the Abstract Expressionists, the New Critics, Analytic philosophers, etc.: these remain with us, and all of the grand nineteenth- and twentieth-century attempts to make Western societies at ease in (or, at the very least, aware of) a godless world remain in flux, none of them gaining ground on the others for very long. The only long-standing replacement for religion, ironically, has been the ever-changing and increasingly powerful sciences of technology. But this kind of knowledge, despite the convenience it provides, does little to help us understand ourselves and our place in the world, and the search for meaning goes on.
One option in the face of this radically demythologized, not to say dehumanized, worldview is an equally radical realism, to turn the human eye on every detail and relate them with painstaking accuracy, and the cult of memoir and realism dominates the current market. As an anthesis, the poet and writer Linda Boström Knausgård's debut novel, The Helios Disaster, presents an exercise in fantastic metaphor and allegory, with a strong mythological core and vivid imagery throughout. The strangeness, originality, and supreme gentleness of the narrator's inner world contrast sharply with the more recognizable, though not in all respects ordinary world into which she is forced. This, combined with her quiet determination to find her father and the increasingly astonishing events that occur, all add up to form a surprisingly modern portrait of longing and the possibility of homecoming.
The novel begins so strikingly, so shockingly, that one wonders, not entirely happily, whether the rest of it will be the same way:
I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. His woolen socks suck it up greedily and turn red. The blood sinks into the worn wooden floor and I think, his eyes are green like mine.
And, indeed, things do go on in essentially this manner. The prose, though tightly wound and highly lyrical, is as demanding as it is lucid, to say nothing of the story itself, which progresses less through the events related than layers of the young protagonist's psyche and spirit.
But there is an unmistakable rhythm to the Knausgård's narrative, even something like a musical key, and The Helios Disaster is virtually without a misplayed note. A slight deferment of judgment is necessary, but once granted, the world as described here envelops the reader in a way that only a very strong artist can produce. The effect is particularly striking in this case, since so much of what the novel both works toward and depends on is the alteration -- sometimes slight, sometimes drastic -- of the world which we inhabit, always with a hint (or more) of the primordial, the originary.
After being born, things go sour for the narrator, and, at twelve years old, she arrives in the snow-covered "village in the north," naked except for a golden helmet. She is taken in first by a well-intentioned, if slightly aloof, neighbor, and then goes to live in a home, where she is named Anna. One of the first introductions of the ordinary world into Anna's consciousness is the stark revelation of her father's condition:
My father had acute schizophrenia and was sent, screaming, to the mental hospital in Skellefteå, where his story was disregarded and his headache was alleviated with medicine so strong that in the end, he himself was skeptical that it had really happened.
She is sent to live with a family in a town divided between a Pentecostal church and a rigorous temperance league, though residents are able to be members of each. Anna, despite her adopted family being of the temperance league, is brought to the Pentecostal church and begins speaking in tongues. The passage of time is ambiguous here, but Anna becomes comfortable in her role. She even begins to feel love for her adopted family, until a series of variably coherent letters from her father remind her of her obligation to find him and to be with him.
Through unknown circumstances, Anna performs a complete reversal of her role at the church and becomes nearly catatonic. Her inner experience remains as vibrant as ever, but she shuts the world out, save for the odd violent outburst or concession to requests. She is placed in a psychiatric ward, where she cooperates with the staff, except for when she does not. As time passes, the lyrical flow which occupied her is replaced by a kind of paranoid pulse. Whereas before she thought of her father and the sea, now she thinks of death and medication. Again Knausgård's artistry is masterful, and she brings us into the vagaries of institutionalized life seamlessly, though she never loses the unique, sustaining voice of the novel, which would be whimsical were it not so dark.
From the beginning of The Helios Disaster the theme of intoxication rings through in a variety of ways. The almost Bacchic lyricism of the opening staves is stanched, or at least moderated, by an entrance into the dry village, but even then stories of the ravages of alcohol and mental illness are widespread. Then another form of intoxication arises in the form of Anna's speaking in tongues. But this, too, is tempered by the psychiatric ward, and though the initial impulse is to chalk this up to a unique gift misunderstood, the longer she is there the more it appears she needs to be.
The words fell out of me and landed in his lap and I clearly saw him pick them up one by one and polish them the way you might polish an apple.
"Then that's settled, Anna," he said with the apples in his hand.
Anna's condition improves, and she appears to accept that what were her deepest desires were in large part illusory, but that the love that motivated them might be possible in the family who adopted her. But the ambiguity of the closing passages reveals a more complex relationship between the object of desire and its subject, the stories we tell ourselves to sustain that connection, and what cost those stories might exact when they are not shared.
The Helios Disaster is a fine first novel, but it is very much a first novel. There are too many undeveloped characters, too many unanswered questions. All of these, to be sure, stem not from laziness but from the overwhelming force of the central figure of Anna, but the book nevertheless is stained by being simply too rough around the edges. But what is strong here is extraordinary. Knausgård is obviously a writer with a great deal more to say, and we will be fortunate to hear it. - Jack Hanson

Ideas are woven into the flowing text of this intense novella about a young woman sinking into a near-psychotic state. One is introduced in the title: the Helios disaster is a reference to Helios Airways flight 522, which ended with the death of all on board after a series of human errors led to it crashing into a mountain north of Marathon, Greece. In the author’s eyes, the disaster has a mythological dimension: ‘The dead, strapped in their seats while the plane flew on its course under the sky. The dead pilots and the crew of gods who had come to fetch us.’

The second idea turns up on the first page; this time, it is based on classical Greek myth, but strangely modernised so that the present-day narrator, a young woman, and her mad father are Athena and Zeus reborn: ‘My father gave birth to me. I split his head. For a moment as long as life itself, we stand facing each other and meet each other’s eyes… His woollen stockings greedily suck up the blood.’

These two ideas, or motifs, are rarely mentioned again. Instead, second and third-order references in the girl’s mental world remind you of them: spears and golden helmets, Greek islands, speaking (untaught) classical Greek, the Mediterranean, sea-green eyes and madness that might be divine. 

Arguably ‘madness’ is not just an idea, but rather the essence of the book. Maintaining a precarious balance on the brink of madness, perhaps of death, is intrinsic to the life of the narrator, whom we meet as the twelve-year-old girl born knowing but inarticulate from her father’s head.  As her father is carted off to mental hospital, the girl is taken care of by a kindly but baffled local family. ‘The way you turned up from nowhere is a marvel’, they tell her.

Birgitta, Sven and their two teenage sons Ulf and Urban become fond of the strangeling who agrees to be called Anna. She quickly learns to speak and seems happy enough, but remains quiet and withdrawn. She longs for her lost father.

Then the story starts anew. Anna is now in her late teens and has become so unreachable that she is admitted to mental hospital. To the doctors, she says just one thing: ‘Can you help me die?’

Death obsesses her, as do many other things. The next 40-odd pages are filled with Anna’s frightening fantasies – about snakes, deep wells, blood, a mirror-bright sea. Dream-like states are interrupted by more aware moments when she attempts to respond to the hospital routine and the kind but helpless staff, and to cope with her excruciating loneliness. Anna clings to her memories of another world, of being with her father, under the sky, by the sea: ‘To sense the last beats of your heart. Such liberation is denied to me. Why? Because I was Athena.’

The story is tightly, cleverly organised around a central idea: to show how Anna’s perceptive, disturbed mind struggles to impose some kind of mental order and, finally, fails. It is through Anna’s eyes that we see the other characters but her observations are limited by her lack of real interest in them. Internal monologues are difficult to sustain, but the writing is accomplished and the author’s passionate involvement with her protagonist illuminates what it is like to slide irresistibly away from reality.

In case the author’s name and the determined self-revelation of her prose has left anyone in doubt: yes, she is married to Karl-Ove Knausgård. - Anna Paterson

Linda Boström Knausgård, Grand Mal, Modernista, 2011.

A collection of short stories that twists and turns everyday life with great concentration.
In the first story of Grand Mal, the narrator introduces her family, her children, while sitting at the breakfast table, to someone who sees them for the first but also for the very last time. This someone seems to exist outside the fragility of time and space, and has power over them and their well-being. The second story of the book is about a girl who meets the enchanted Vitbjörn King Valemon, who lives as a bear during the day and as a man during the night. The girl gives birth to a daughter but loses sight of her in the woods, in the dream. But who is it that she is separated from, using her hunting blade? “The choice between her and him is always her. Then what am I doing here? With blood on my arms?” The voices of generations of parents are incarnated in the body of the narrator. This gravity towards belonging and love, family, is challenged by raging desire and immense wrath. The tension between the different forces of the book becomes electric, as if the narrator’s body might explode in a single seizure, a grand mal. The narrator tells us that we are just as exposed as her. What are we supposed to do with ourselves now that we see this so clearly?
The book ends the same way it started, with a woman addressing someone, this time a daughter who is facing a dangerous border. A border that may be the border of death.