Chapter  1

”Jesus is close to you”

 The man in the light blue sweater says that he is sure that Jesus is close to me. He has risen from his chair in the audience and come over to me. I am at a desk in the library, where I have been busy putting my signature into copies for sale of my new crime novel ”Mordet på Woldnes” (”Murder At Woldnes”). Now the last of six or seven customers has bought the book. I am free to talk.

         The man in the light blue sweater repeats the words he has spoken in our common mother tongue, Norwegian: ”Jeg er sikker på at Jesus er nær deg.”

         I do not know what to answer. The man is somewhat older than me. I am 63. He is in his late sixties or early seventies. His hair is white.He has mild manners and is softspoken. I had noticed him in the audience, where he seemed to be listening carefully to what I was saying, and was laughing at the right places. I guess he is a working class pensioner.

         Now he says that as a practising Christian he was glad to hear me speaking. He adds that he thinks there is hope for me, and that he also thinks that things will work out well for me.

         I answer politely: ”Takk skal du ha” (”Thank you very much”).

         We are in Halden, a small industrial town in the county of Østfold, in south-east Norway, very close to the border with Sweden. The scene is Halden Bibliotek (Halden Public Library). Some local enthusiasts, or ”ildsjeler” (”souls on fire”) as we call them in Norwegian, have taken upon themselves to arrange Kulturnatt i Halden (Cultural Night in Halden). Part of that event is a reading by different authors in the library, on Saturday night, the 5th of April 2008. I have been the first author out, starting at nine o’clock. I read from mye crime novel, and started with the opening chapter, where I describe how my hero, Vilhelm Thygesen, responds to the news that he has got cancer of the prostate. He reacts quite desperately. He asks himself that, in such a situation, he should perhaps seek the comfort and consolation of the Christian God. But he has never beleived in God, and decides that even if he is now hard up, he cannot change his belief. He must go on being a godless person, ungodly, impious.

         I have made it no secret that I myself, the 2nd of June 2007, got the diagnosis cancer of the prostate. Yes, the doctors at the county hospital in Fredrikstad, Østfold, diagnosed cancer, a malignant, cancerous tumour in the prostate gland. The day after, June 3rd, I started writing the crime novel, transfering my own disease to my hero, Thygesen. I wanted ”to write the cancer off me”. It was a kind of therapy, and the therapeutics worked for me, in the way that they diminished my fears and gave me an outlet for my thoughts.

         Like Thygesen, I had to consider my religious position. Since boyhood I had been an atheist. Had the disease lead me closer to belief in God? This had happened to friends, also atheists, when confronted with mortal diseases. To test out my atheism, I wrote a whole book, ”Brev fra de troende” (”Letters From Believers”). On February 13th 2008 the book was published on the internet, on my brand new homesite on the web, ””. My conclusion was that I am still an atheist. The book created quite a stir in the Norwegian public, with several newspapers interviews. The reponse from readers, especially Christians, was much larger than I had expected. By Easter time, more than 5000 visitors to my website had checked out the book. Many of them sent me emails, letters, religious pamphlets or books, including the Bible.

         I mentioned the internet book and its conclusion for the audience in Halden Bibliotek. There were 50 listeners. Not bad on a Saturday evening in a Norwegian smalltown. The crowd listened in serious silence to what I said about my atheism. Halden town is not more or less Christian than other towns in Eastern Norway. Up to 90 percent of the Norwegian population is formally Christian, but there are not – by far - that many true believers, or practising Christians. In recent opinion polls in Norway a large minority answers that it does not not believe in God, and an even larger minority answers that it does not believe in eternal life. This minority is normally well represented at literary events. But there are always some Christians, too.

         Now one of them speaks to me.

         I ask him how he could be glad to hear me speaking, when I stated quite clearly that I am still an atheist.

         He answers that he thinks all hope is not lost for me. He tells me that I have to look out for Jesus.

         I want to reply that I do not believe in Jesus as the son of God, but I keep my words back. I am tired after my lecture, and do not want to enter into a confrontation with this friendly Christian working class oldtimer.

         Luckily our conversation is interrupted by a young female journalist and a male photographer from the local newspaper Halden Arbeiderblad (Halden Worker’s Daily). I say goodbye to the man in the light blue sweater, and he says godspeed to me.

         The journalist asks a couple of routine questions about the event, and the photographer takes some snapshots. I exchange a few words with the young woman who has arranged the bookselling at the library for the local bookshop Andersen-Libris. She says that attending literary events like this makes her job meaningful. That’s sweet words for an author to hear.

         I am pleased with everything, and for once I am pleased with myself. I would like to stay, but have to leave. I walk out in the Halden night. The April rain falls lightly. The town is quiet, considering it is a Saturday night and the time is half past ten. In a few hours there shall be more life in the streets. The town is known for its young car drivers, called ”rånere” (named after male pigs). They cruise the streets in old American or Swedish cars, sometimes making burnouts that make half of central Halden smell of burnt rubber.

         Halden, on the Swedish border, was founded as a garrison town by the Danish rulers of Norway, to defend the country against attacks from the eternal enemy, Sweden. On a mountaintop rising above the town a fortress was built in the years after a Swedish attack in the year 1658. The fortress was named after the Danish king Fredrik the 3rd, Fredriksten (Fredrik’s stone). The border town was also named after the king, Fredrikshald.

         The main buildings of the fortress still stand. By night the walls and the bulidings are floodlighted.

         Seen from the streets where I walk Fredriksten seems to be floating like a golden castle in the darkness of the night sky.

         At Fredriksten they fought each other, the Christian armies of Denmark-Norway and Sweden. In the winter of 1718 king Karl the 12th of Sweden, the warrior king, led his troops in a siege of Fredriksten. King Karl was shot to death by a bullet that hit his head. The bullet was probably fired by a soldier inside the fortress. But some historians argue that the king may have been shot by one of his own officers or soldiers, in a Swedish army that was tired of waging war.

         In the year 1814, when Norway got independence from Denmark, the Swedes again besieged Fredriksten, in an attempt to force Norway into a union with Sweden. The fortress was never taken by the Swedes, but given to them after a treaty was signed that granted the union between Norway and Sweden. The Swedish army withdrew from Fredriksten in 1815.

         When, at the turn of the century, Norway wanted to break out of the union, the situation between the two countries heated up. In the years after 1900 war was looming at the horizon. Modern guns were placed at Fredriksten as part of the Norwegian defence. But the working classes of both countries wanted no war between peoples that were brothers. In 1905 Norway could leave the union in a peaceful way, and got its full independence. The guns at Fredriksten were taken down. Today the fortess is a historical monument. 

         I watch it. Strongly I feel the presence of history. But do I feel a divine presence? The words of the man in the light blue sweater are singing in my ears. ”Jesus is close to you”. He put it that way. He did not say that I was close to Jesus. I take it that he, in his imagination, could see that God, represented by His son, was in my vicinity, closing in on me. I cannot imagine that I have ever felt a divine presence in mye life. I do not believe in salvation, or in a life after death. I am a non-believer, and I do not think that this can be changed.

         That’s how I am.

         Why, then, when my mind seems to be unchangeable, am I writing about religion and faith and doubt?

         And why, for heaven’s sake, am I writing in English? I am a Norwegian writer. I should stick to my language, shouldn’t I?

         I have to put my atheism to a test. The best way to test it is, in my opinion, to measure it against the religious beliefs of common people. I listen to the common Christian woman and man. I read their emails, and reply to them, shortly, but politely. I read their letters, but do no have the time to reply to most of them. I page through the pamphlets sent me from various Christian communities.

         I write in English not so much to get a wider audience than what Norway’s 4,5 million inhabitants can offer me. I woke up this morning, Sunday the 6th of April, and thought: I have to write, and I’ll do it in English. Why? To obtain a distance to my material. The use of  a foreign language gives me a certain distance. I have had the feeling that my Norwegian is worn out, like old clothing used to long. Sometimes I have been so fed up with my use of my language that I have stopped writing. To write in English gives me a sense of freshness. Also, there is a resistance in the foreign language that sharpens my mind.

         The use of English in Norwegian cultural life shold not be reserved for pop singers and rock artists. Sometimes an author may use the most widely used language of the world to convey his opinions.

         I am perfectly aware that my English is crude. I know quite a few English words, but my idea of how they can be put together may not correspond to how the Queen’s English should be properly written. I tend to write ”Norlish”, which is what we call English written in a Norwegian manner. I learnt my English at school, as a sailor and during a two year’s stay in Zambia in Africa. I speak English like a sailor, experts say, and maybe I write like a sailor. I easily see that my sentences are clumsy and unpolished. It doesn’t matter much, I think. What is important is the message.

         Readers, Christian readers, will hope that my final message will be conversion to Christianity. I do not think i shall convert. It is not the plan. I am testing my points of view in an attempt to stand firmer in my atheism. I am weakened a bit by the disease, and by all the mental problems you get when having cancer. But I hope I am not feeble-minded, that I am able to stay upright as a disbeliever.

         The letters I get, by email or snailmail, are friendly. I am not condemned. I am not told that I am an infidel who would go to Hell. But in many of the letters there is a substantial missionary zeal. People write to tell me that they pray for me. They want my salvation.

         I do not think that I have a comparable missionary zeal, that what I do is proselytism.

         I do not write to recruit people to atheism. I write to clear my own thougths. If , in that process, I can give some inspiration to other unbelievers, and challenge  Christians (or Moslems, Buddhists), it’s allright with me.  

         I went along the streets of Halden. The night air was smelly. It was the poignant smell from the town’s dominant factory, a huge paper mill called Saugbrugsforeningen (The Sawmill Union). The smell of mashed timber, a faint odour of sulphur.

         An earthly smell. No smell of Heaven in Halden.

         I found my car, a pickup, an old diesel powered four wheel drive that I have had for 16 years, on the parking lot behind the local headquarters of Landsorganisasjonen i Norge ( The National Trade Union).

         In the cold and rainy night I drove home along the road from the Swedish border in the direction of our capital, Oslo, the European highway, E6. My destination was not Oslo. I drove for an hour, leaving the highway at Rygge airport and then heading for Larkollen. That is the village where I live, on the Oslo Fjord, and hour’s drive from the capital.

         Back home I went out in the garden and had a pee. A pee under a big tree. The tree is a beech, and when the leaves come out they are red. I have learnt from my Norwegian-English dictionary that the English name for such a tree is copper beech. In Latin the name is ”Fagus sylvatica, forma atropunicea”. All such trees in the world stem from a mother copper beech tree that was found in Sondershausen in Germany in 1760. Rapidly trees that were the offsprings of the mother tree spread in gardens and parks all over Europe, also in the northern country of Norway where beechwood thrives along the southern coast. In Norwegian we call the tree ”blodbøk”, which means blood beech, because we think that the leaves are red as blood.  

         So why not call it The Blood Tree? To me the big tree, one of the biggest of its kind in Norway, is a tree of life and of death. When, later in spring, the leaves start to unfold it is a sign of life. When I die I want my ashes to be put down in the soil under The Blood Tree.

         I woke up Sunday morning. It was a rainy day, with a temperature of only four centigrades.

         I did my ritual one hour training session at the rowing machine an at the stationary, indoor bicycle. It seemed to be a good day for writing, and I wrote this. Now it is whisky time.



Chapter  2