If, upon meeting you, I were to tell you something that you later found out to be not true, chances are that you would not trust me after that. You might even call me unreliable. But if you were to know from the start that I am a storyteller, would you still feel the same way afterwards? This is the kind of predicament that Jakop Jakobsen — the main character in Jostein Gaarder’s An Unreliable Man — is locked in with you, the reader.
Halfway through the novel, which is also a letter that the main character is writing to a friend (Gaarder must have something for epistolic relationships; his well-known Sophie’s World featured one, too), the reader learns that Jakop has been blending fact with fiction. In fact — pun intended — there’s been more of the latter.
Jakop tells his story primarily through recounting select funerals of the many that he has attended over the years, of people whose lives — he says — he has been a part of, with whom he has had some bond of fellowship. It’s quite touching to see how this simple teacher and lecturer of mythology and language has had such significant moments with so many different people, and that he takes the trouble to attend their funerals, to pay his final respects to their memory.
Recently translated into English from Norwegian, a novel explores human loneliness, the power of words and what it means to repose trust in others
Touching indeed, but not true.
Most of those people Jakop has not even met. If he has, he barely knows them. But if someone were to ask him about the nature of his acquaintance with the deceased, he would tell a fascinating story about their encounter and about how well they got along. Now, it’s one thing to attend — habitually — the funerals of people one has never met. It’s another altogether to imagine having known them, having been a part of their life.
Why would someone do that? Why risk the danger of being found out (which is exactly what happens)?
You start to feel a little betrayed when you discover that so much of the story — up until the point where you find out about Jakop taking liberties with reality — has been fabricated. As if your innocence in believing a character in a novel has been taken for granted. But as the story goes on and when Jakop tells his reason for doing so, you are almost compelled to forgive him.
More than funerals, however, Jakop has a fascination for language. In several places throughout the book, you find him breaking out into a soliloquy on the origin of a particular word and the development of its meaning through the course of history. His reason for his obsession with language is akin to his motive for attending funerals: loneliness. In both cases, Jakop wishes to be a part of something, to feel like he belongs somewhere, whether that be in the midst of a family that is grieving the departed or by linking his words back in time through all their variegated forms in different cultures. “I have no living children or grandchildren,” says Jakop, “and I have no living siblings or parents, but I have living words in my mouth, and of these I can quite clearly see a multitude of relatives over the entire Indo-European language area.”
The novel has its moments of intrigue and wisdom, and there’s something valuable to be gleaned from Jakop’s narrative. But my contention is that it seems a bit too didactic at times. One of the weaknesses of An Unreliable Man is that, in places, it reads more like an essay on the archaeology of language. And you wonder if you’re reading a novel at all. Also, almost every time our main character speaks with someone — whether that encounter be real or imagined — he does so through the matrix of being a philologist, as if academia is the medium of contact he has long-established, regardless of the situation he finds himself in, or the interests of the other. For me, personally, this is more qualifying of the title “Unreliable” than Jakop’s penchant for tales.
The novel can also be seen as a critique of the isolation and individualism present throughout the world.
I believe there is a certain solipsism ingrained within academia, one that perhaps every field of knowledge is prone to, and one which has to be overcome deliberately by going beyond language games and storytelling, which — fascinating as they may be — are only a band-aid for loneliness. Of course, to accomplish that, to really overcome solipsism and loneliness, one would need a relationship of trust. One that inspires trust within us. It’s not for nothing that Jakop is writing this letter and thus explaining himself to the only character in the story who not only accepts him as a storyteller, but also invites him into just such a relationship of trust where he can tell his story in full. This is something that has never happened to him before.
To his credit, Jakop does begin to be more honest about himself and, instead of presenting an imagined narrative, or thinking that he needs to be somebody else in order to speak his mind, he begins to open up about his past and about the challenges that led him to be so insecure within himself. He also has fewer breaks into his assumed role of lecturer, and thus becomes less didactic and more organic that way. Nevertheless, I feel that his newly forming conviction is still only paper thin by the end of the novel. And that’s one major drawback of presenting a uni-dimensional narrative, or a single-perspective story.
All in all, the novel — which was written originally in Norwegian and translated recently into English — can also be seen as a critique of the isolation and individualism present not only in Western society, but everywhere throughout the wonderfully globalised-yet-disconnected world. And if you have any interest in the study of language or Norse mythology, there will be plenty of points of interest in this book for you. But more than anything else, it’s a story about the ‘truths’ we tell ourselves and what happens when someone else finds out about them.
The reviewer is a lifelong learner and part-time teacher of the humanities
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 4th, 2019