My Dear Fellow Countrymen

The threads he was tying together had to do with having ambition, with the mystery inherent in that a person can be moseying along one day, perfectly content with life, only the next to be seized by an unquenchable urge to do something, be someone, make a name for himself. Where does this impulse come from? Could there be a little steel coil inside the body which can suddenly be wound up like the spring inside the workings of a clock? And furthermore: is it possible to determine the precise moment when a person chooses his main path in life? In Jonas Wergeland’s case it is. And, I hasten to add, to avoid any misunderstandings: it was not me who talked him into it.

To questions from well-meaning relatives as to what he wanted to be when he grew up, throughout his childhood Jonas always answered without hesitation: “A pilot!” or “A chef!”—thanks to Uncle Lauritz and Three Star Larsen, Ørn’s father, respectively. In time, however he came up with a more original occupation, one which invariably made those selfsame relatives smile: “I’m going to be the Father of my Country,” he would say. Now this idea had not been plucked completely out of thin air: Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen lived in the same building as Aunt Laura on Sofienberggata in the Tøyen district of Oslo. To be the Father of one’s Country, to lead the people, seemed to Jonas a promising, and by no means unattainable, future calling; to stand before a sea of people and say, as Gerhardsen had done, with a slight catch in his voice: “My dear fellow-countrymen.”  And though this may have been a childish notion, yet it speaks of an exceptionally high level of ambition, a dream of achieving something great, which cannot be put down to his aunt’s Tøyen address. The explanation must have lain to as great an extent in his mother’s stirring stories—have patience, Professor, I’m getting there—not to mention his grandfather’s incessant stream of yarns, in which Jonas was always the hero, a fabulously well-equipped dragon slayer.

Jonas was sitting on his own, up in the little quarry in the forest hard by the People’s Palace, which doubled as the local cinema. According to the calendar it was the end of April, the snow had melted and the sun was getting stronger. All around him buds were bursting open; he almost thought he could hear the sound of popcorn hissing in oil just before the popping starts. He pulled off his jersey, sat there in just his shirt, a Davy Crockett T-shirt that would soon be too small for him. Jonas had spent most of his time alone since Little Eagle went away. He was considered to be a bit of a lone wolf, and the sort of unpredictable, aggressive wolf you didn’t dare tease. Jonas sat on a ledge in the middle of the quarry, sat there drowsing in the hot sun with granite crystals glittering all around him. The slope of the mountain formed a natural amphitheatre; Jonas sat there, peering down at an empty stage. In fact, had he been in the mood for it he could well have pretended that he was standing among the market stalls on Youngstorget in Oslo, about to make a speech, as practised as another Demosthenes with pebbles in his mouth: “My dear fellow-countrymen.”

The particular attributes of this spot made it something of a holy place for the local community. The stone for Grorud Church had come from quarries in this area. Jonas might well have been sitting in a matrix for the church where he had been christened, the spire of which he could just make out above the treetops. The scouts often used the granite amphitheatre on ceremonial occasions, for rites which could bring a lump to many a young lad’s throat, on St. George’s day for instance, or for the swearing in of new scouts, when the place was decorated with flags and banners and candles and the stone sides resounded with the murmurings of “Isolemnlysweartodomybest . . . ”

Jonas was feeling down in the dumps. For the first time in his life he was truly depressed. The previous weekend they had had a visit from Sir William and family, who would shortly be leaving for Africa. And during Sunday dinner, the usual cold roast with brown sauce, his uncle had turned to the subject of Veronika and her rare gifts. “Mark my words, one day that girl is going to make it big,” he intoned, while Jonas’s cousin kept her eyes fixed coyly on the tablecloth. “What about me?” Jonas was foolish enough to ask, to the obvious, malicious glee of the Brothers Grimm. “You, Jonas,” Sir William had replied at length, after adjusting his silk cravat—as if he, this heartless individual, was for once considering biting back a spiteful remark—“you’ll never amount to anything. You’re the commonest little mongrel I’ve ever met, you’re a perfectly ordinary little boy and you should be content with that.”  Although none of the others took this as anything more than a jovial quip, or at least: no more than just another of his uncle’s almost pathologically crass remarks, his words had echoed in Jonas’s head for the rest of the meal: “Perfectly ordinary.”  The words ran round and round his head in a never-ending loop, like an electric headlines sign. “Perfectly ordinary . . . common . . . ”

Jonas knew why Sir William’s summation of his character had affected him as it had. It was because he had realized, only at that moment, in fact, that for him, Jonas Wergeland, to be ordinary was the worst of all possible fates. At the same time it had dawned on him that his uncle was right. He was ordinary, he was common. And not only that: he was as common as common could be. He had known it for some time, although he couldn’t have put it into words. His only talent lay in his voice. And maybe an extra vertebra in his spine. Hardly the makings of a Father of the People. The best he could hope for was to be an announcer at the Eastern Station. Better, then, to be like Ørn, he thought hopelessly. Better to be a loser. Sooner a ‘Fail’ than a ‘Fair to Middling’.

So here he was, sitting in the amphitheatre, in a granite grandstand, as if in illustration of his fate: he was to be a spectator, he was doomed to be a spectator for the rest of his life. He slumped back, feeling flat, felt himself becoming one with the bedrock, grey on grey. The sun was so hot that the air actually smelled of sun, of spring, of stone. The living world seethed round about him, like in a laboratory, giving him a sense of tremendous pressure, a feeling that something stupendous was about to take place. He sat, or sprawled, there, filled with a burning desire to be transformed.

This yearning, or rather, this heartfelt prayer, could be traced back to a crucial flash of insight which he had been granted not long before—he must have been in a particularly receptive state, antennae working frantically, after his uncle’s prophecy. In biology class their teacher had been talking about diamonds, told them that diamond, the hardest of all substances, was a mineral consisting of pure carbon, as was graphite—except that graphite was very soft. “Carbon is, therefore, polymorphous,” the teacher said. Although Jonas did not know the meaning of this expression: that carbon could crystallize in different ways—in other words that diamond could be formed only under great pressure, while graphite was a low-pressure variant of the same substance—he got the main point: that carbon could assume a number of forms. This had brought him much-needed comfort—to know that plain, ordinary graphite, as he knew it, for example, in his own pencil, when subjected to a different level of pressure could become a diamond—become what the Greeks called ‘adamas’, meaning invincible. Was there any reason why he might not contain similar potential?

How does one become a conqueror?