Friday, September 3, 2010

The Castle in the Pyrenees

Tomorrow morning (4 Sept) I am at the Brisbane Writers Festival, where I will be in conversation with Jostein Gaarder, the author of Sophie's World (1991) and now The Castle in the Pyrenees (originally published in Norwegian in 2008, the English translation this year).

The Castle in the Pyrenees tells the story of a middle-aged couple who meet, after thirty years apart, on the very same hotel balcony (in a fjord in Western Norway) where their intense relationship had ended all those years before, because of a mysterious event, one they promised never to mention again.

Steinn and Solrun have since married, and had children, but after meeting on the balcony they begin an email correspondence, one that leads to a discussion of spiritual beliefs, science, cosmic consciousness, and also, eventually, the mysterious event they had vowed to leave behind them. They have quite different views on all of these topics. But as the correspondence progresses, they seem to draw nearer to each other's position, and they also come closer to facing what troubles them most about their shared past.

It's a thrilling and beautiful work. Like Sophie's World, the novel is a vehicle for philosophical and scientific ideas, but the characterization of Steinn and Solrun is rich and humane: thirty years on, they are still in love, and as unable to escape their feelings for each other as they are the event that divided them. They have never recovered from their break-up, and at the same time they have never really broken up.

The ideas are wide-ranging, but arise naturally through the relationship between the characters. Stein is a scientist who explains the past and his beliefs through the material language of his field, which is climate change; Solrun is convinced that there is life for the soul after death, and wants Stein to believe in something that science doesn't acknowledge.

I got to meet Jostein Gaarder at the opening night of the festival, and the two of us tried not to discuss the novel in too much detail, as far as we could saving the best for tomorrow. But I'm hoping the session will be as much fun as our conversation on the opening night, because the topics deserve it: the relationship between environment and spirituality, storytelling and perception, and love and belief.

Jostein's certainly managed to bring these together in his novel.