Review: Roy Jacobsen’s Borders
by Jeff Amos
Roy Jacobsen’s Borders begins with the whimsical anecdote of a miller’s attempt to construct a small footbridge over the Our River between Luxembourg and Germany, but swells into a tale of history, family, and identity in a community of fluid borders. Set primarily in a small valley in the Ardennes—the rugged landscape of dense forests and tall mountains spanning Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and France and the location of Hitler’s invasion of France and the Battle of the Bulge—Jacobsen weaves multiple narratives into a dramatic and surprisingly compact tale consumed with difficult questions of identity and memory.
“All machines go backward, for man has more memories than visions, more habits than foresight,” the narrator tells us, and this idea reverberates along various narrative threads. Robert, the son of a Belgian nurse and an American GI she rescues after the Battle of Clervaux, finds a father-figure in Markus Webel. Markus, once a Wehrmacht radio operator who has, since being wounded in the war, faked blindness, lost his estranged son, a young man devoted to Hitler, in the Battle of Stalingrad. And Léon, the son of a Luxembourger farmer, is conscripted into the German army, his service bringing him to attack his own country. Histories, folktales, religious fables, and brief anecdotes are woven through these narratives deepening and clarifying this community.
Jacobsen’s writing, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, marries the warmth of a storyteller’s yarn with the tangled prose of philosophy and the stark realism of a war correspondent. His sentences are often journeys through complicated ideas; trains of thought and images, time, even landscapes are bound together. A typical sentence, for instance, finds Markus “torn from a dramatic, fireworks-like sleep” as an older man, but soon carries us backwards in time to the Russian front and a meditation on the justness of God. These long sentences move with the energy of water—fluid and powerful, substantive but difficult to hold for very long—to be suddenly punctuated with moments of precision and clarity.
Multiple distinct storylines and broad historical, political, and philosophical context make the reading tough going in places. The book asks the reader to hold onto numerous threads at once. It is not always obvious how a story of, for instance, William of Orange’s conquest of Leiden will relate to Robert’s desire to understand his origins or Markus’s desire to save his son from death at Stalingrad. But the reader is rewarded as these threads are brought together in a satisfying conclusion. The rich layering of so many ideas, so many major historical moments, is as dizzying and compelling as a high-wire act.
One of Jacobsen’s primary concerns is truth. Or rather, its impossibility in the shadow of memory. In the early pages of the book Jacobsen introduces himself, the author, as a character, goes to lengths to prove the authenticity of his account by incorporating letters and museum artifacts, and makes references to interviews he’s conducted with his characters. But later he calls these efforts into question, telling the reader they must decide what is true for themselves. This anxiety is reflected by the characters when Markus asks Robert, “Who is the real you in all the fragments that are floating around in your memory?” Or Robert’s mother who, when trying to write all of her memories of her American GI, exclaims, “Have I dreamt this all up? I can’t remember a thing!!”
These are characters who struggle with their history, to make sense of their experiences. But unreliable memories are all we have, Jacobsen seems to say. Markus tells Robert that all stories are in some way a lie, in part because a storyteller is “fickle and unreliable and has his own highly personal manner with regard to sensibility and memory.” But perhaps this isn’t unusual. After all, as Robert realizes early in the book, “Who doesn’t fabricate an image of their own life, and of others too? Who doesn’t cling resolutely to the world we can live with?”
288 pages, $16