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Naja Marie Aidt - Bavian («Baboon»)

By calling her collection of short stories, «Baboon», Naja Marie Aidt has peeled off a layer of civilisation already before one has begun reading. And the brutishness that shows itself underneath the well polished but fragile facade of the characters turns out to be a recurrent feature in the stories. About the title she says in an interview in Information, May 3, 2006, «Baboon (...) is a word with many facets, and they are both comical and intimidating. Baboons differentiate themselves from other monkeys by living in a very strict hierarchy, and furthermore they are carnivorous and extremely aggressive.»

That extremely aggressive behaviour is also very human is demonstrated in several of the stories, for example in «Torben and Maria» which is not, as one might think, about two lovers, but about a single mother and her son. The story begins with a description of atmosphere which, at the same time, is a characterization of Maria, «What can be said about Maria? (...) That as a child she loved gazing out across the level fields at dusk in February? When her eyes rested there on the deep sky, the grey, grey light, until it was so dark that she could see her own face, the green lamp on the table behind her, and further back her mother leaning against the door, smoking. The window, a black mirror. Maria. She beats her little child until it stops screaming. It is a boy. His name is Torben.» In this quotation it is shown how loneliness, feelings of exclusion, want, lack of love and lack of someone to identify with can lead to violent and callous, 'baboonish', behaviour.

Quite literally there is no baboon in the book, but in the story, «Mosquito Bite», a confrontation with this otherwise harmless - creature makes the main character's bottom surpass any ape's in terms of burning red swollenness. And that is only the beginning of his troubles. Later on he is hovering between life and death thanks to the extremely rare and just as extremely aggressive infection he has contracted from the mosquito. He pulls through, but after his very long sickbed he no longer has a life to return to.The question is, however, whether his previous life really was something to return to at all, considering the fact that, before his illness, it was a good example of what you might call a 'pseudo existence', a form of life that we often meet in Aidt's fiction. The person living like this has a glossy facade - and sulphurous flames within.

Scratching the Surface
With this young man, as with most of the other characters in the short stories, everything seems fine at first sight. They are 'in control'. But then something happens. In some cases it is a small, often a ridiculously small, banal thing, such as for example a mosquito bite, but this little thing triggers a chain reaction that ends up devastating their lives. The reason why everything goes so absolutely wrong is that the smooth existence is really just a thin varnish over inner putrefaction. Naja Maria Aidt uses her characters to point to the fact that there is something violent, bestially destructive in all of us, and that it lies in wait to destroy all that we have built up. «Mosquito Bite» is the closing story, and in the opening story, «Bulbjerg», we find something similar which makes the notion that our existences can suddenly collapse a general theme in the book.

In «Bulbjerg», father, mother, (adopted) son, and dog are out for a bike ride in the Danish summer. This ought to have been an idyllic experience, but they lose their way. «Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a surprising landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, windswept, small trees writhing under a huge, open sky. We gasped joyfully for breath as if we were coming up for air after being much too long under water. We stopped and looked around (...). Even the smell here was different, salty and fresh, the sea must be very nearby now. But we had lost our bearings long ago. We were driving in a circle». This description of the landscape contains the euphoric experience of the grandiosity of nature, but at the same time a suggestion of a lurking catastrophe through the mention of writhing trees, and the lack of oxygen after time under water. And after this the atmosphere rapidly turns extremely tense. It is hot, almost menacingly hot, the boy is frightened and hysterical, the parents get more and more frustrated, and surprisingly quickly work each other up in a spiral of hatred for one another, hatred that has been there all the time, even though they, in a way, function quite well as a family. In actual fact, a case of adultery is involved, actually two cases, but the crux of the matter is that this relationship suddenly turns from being something that works fairly well, with everyone being civilised and not admitting to any serious conflicts, into a raw, bestial struggle for survival - at the cost of the other person. And none of this would have happened no truths would have been revealed - if this family had not lost their way on their outing.

Obscure desire
Losing one's way is a recurrent theme in the book. It occurs on different levels, from the concrete in «Bulbjerg», to a child's getting lost in the world of adults in the story, «She Doesn't Cry», where a little girl without understanding why - becomes a butt of laughter for her father and a friend of his, just at the point when she feels in touch with their world. We also see examples of an individual getting lost in society, as in «Candy», where a woman and her husband are unjustly accused of shoplifting and are treated in an absurdly humiliating way, and there are several stories of lovers losing their way in desires, yearnings and want. This is, for example, the case in «Starry Sky», where a woman meets the perfect man. Their sexual happiness is described in detail as divine, absolutely mutual, and even continuous. The birth of their child is in no way a limitation to them in that respect. But in the long term it turns out that he is also interested in other men, which severely damages their 'optimal' sexual relationship. In the story, «Wounds», something similar is at stake. A first person narrator has travelled to a foreign city to be alone. There are wounds, both on the outside and on the inside, from a terminated relationship that need time to heal. The narrator meets a woman who, in a discreetly flirtatious way, is both fascinating and repellent at the same time - and tries to get away from her, but - getting lost in conflicting feelings of wanting and not wanting - ends up getting intimate with her instead. In the end, something in the consummation of desire comes as a complete surprise to the reader, and to the flirtatious woman.

Closely related to the problems of different kinds of desire is the condition of hiding something, or hiding yourself, from others, often the ones who are closest to you. Thus a non-in- nocent playing hide and seek is another recurrent trait. The characters lie, cheat, and spy on each other, at the same time as they love and desire one another. They want all their needs fulfilled, and they try to make contradicting emotions and lust function together. They usually fail, and a catastrophe occurs. Along the way there have been many moments of satisfaction and fulfilment which, in a way, are encouraging to read about, but there is no consistency, and the characters end up feeling lonely, empty, and distant. And that is what 'pseudo existence' is: a smooth, functional surface that rejects problems, but with an abyss of inadequacy and despair underneath.

The reason for this depressing development in the stories is to be sought in the selfishness of the characters, who focus solely on fulfilment of their own needs, and their confounded insistence on coping with and being in control of everything. They strive to become super-individuals who can do anything they want, and they see no reason whatsoever why that should not be possible. But this is a dangerous attitude because it will only work for the very few. All the others fail, and are suddenly confronted with their own fragility, vulnerability, and incompetence. Having to face that breaks them.

In her previous collections of short stories, for example «The Watermark» from 1993, Naja Marie Aidt focused on downright outcasts, and their significant problems in a wellorganised quid pro quo society. This time she writes about ordinary people who are often bursting with competence and are very determined to secure themselves 'the good life'. But she demonstrates to us that these well qualified people are every bit as lost in a hyper-modern society where everyone is responsible for his/her own success, as the mentally ill and the drug addicts that she used to write about. Fortunately up till now we have not had to identify ourselves with those people. But this time we do. That is the intimidating perspective in «Baboon».

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