- The Fear of "das Volk":Karl Ove Knausgård's Reactions to Terrorism
Looking at the obituaries of the seventy-seven people who were killed in the terrorist attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utøya (22 July 2011), I am struck by the way they refer to the attacks as a "tragedy." This is by far the most frequent term used to describe what caused the deaths of so many people, many of them children and teenagers.1 That these obituaries, written immediately after the attacks, refer to "the tragedy at Utøya" and describe the loss as "tragic" makes perfect sense. However, further elaboration is needed if one wants to go beyond the term's everyday use and deeper into the political meaning of the events. This is where Karl Ove Knausgård comes into the picture, as one of the Norwegian authors who tried, very early on, to come to terms with the attacks and to understand them from a broader perspective.2 He, too, begins with the word "tragedy" as part of his attempt to get a clearer grasp on the events: "Det var en nasjonal tragedie," Knausgård states in [End Page 390] an essay that was first broadcast on Swedish national radio in August 2011. He then continues:
Men det var ikke som de andre nasjonale tragediene vi har vært med på. Det var ikke som Alexander Kielland-ulykken. Det var ikke som Scandinavian Star-ulykken. Det var som dem en katastrofe, men ingen katastrofe som skyldtes materialtretthet eller brann, det var heller ingen naturkatastrofe, det var en katastrofe i det menneskelige.(Knausgård 2011d, 32:20–32:28)3
(It was a national tragedy. But it wasn't like the other national tragedies we have experienced. It was not like the Alexander Kielland accident. It wasn't like the Scandinavian Star accident.4 As in these cases, it was a catastrophe, but not a catastrophe that was caused by structural fatigue or fire; it was no natural catastrophe either; it was a catastrophe in the human domain.)
According to Knausgård, these events were "tragedies" not because they were the expression of contradictory values embodied in disastrous natural or mythical forces that couldn't be resisted by human powers, as the more classical meaning of the word "tragedy" suggests. In a more modern sense, they were tragedies because they were violent acts that targeted innocent civilians. The attacks were ideologically motivated and intentionally carried out; they were political through and through, and, as Knausgård points out in his essay, they have to be understood as part of a broader social framework. He moves from the word "tragedy" to the expression "national catastrophe," thus quickly narrowing it down to a catastrophe "in the human domain" (as opposed to the natural or the mythical domain) and, by so doing, he already indicates a movement toward a more complex, socially oriented approach to the events.
This article investigates what Knausgård gropes for "in the human domain" by looking into the dynamics of his own reaction to the terror attacks and the various resources he mobilizes in his attempt to come [End Page 391] to terms with what happened. The two texts that I will focus on are the already mentioned radio essay and the reflections on the terror attacks as they were presented 3 months later in the sixth and final book of his novel Min kamp (My Struggle). I will follow the chronology of these publications and investigate Knausgård's processes of writing and rewriting as an investment in literature, conceived of as a place in which to come to terms with the violent events and with his role not only as an author, but also as part of a collective "we." It is precisely the tension between these modalities that is at stake and that will be considered problematic: Knausgård's own literary voice is caught in a tension between the "I" and the "we."
"I Have to Talk about This"
Knausgård's radio essay was first broadcast in Norwegian on Swedish radio, on August 14, 2011, as part of the...