Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Winter Tales - Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen (1885-1962)

Originally published in 1942, this collection of 11 hauntingly surreal stories share an undercurrent of heartache, loneliness and the never ending quest to find ones soul mate.  Her characters are often drifters or a diaspora in and of themselves, constantly searching the earth for a kinsman or the place they can call home. Sometimes they meet these kindred spirits in the shape of a lover or friend or even a falcon that changes form and repays a kind deed.

Her protagonists occupy worlds impenetrable by those around them, hidden dream worlds, inaccessible to the uninitiated "as the world of music is to the tone-deaf." These worlds encompass the natural and the supernatural, they are worlds of reality and the incorporeal, a blend of the mystical and fantasy.

In the case of Rosa, the heroine in the  short story "Peter and Rosa," nobody could tell where her world lay; "neither did the substance of it lend itself to words, the others would never understand her, were she to tell them that it was both infinite and secluded, playful and very grave, safe and dangerous. She could not explain, either how she herself...was very likely the loveliest, mightiest and most dangerous person on earth. Sometimes, she felt, she was expressing the nature of the dream world in her movements and her voice, but she was then speaking a language of which they had no knowledge."

Rosa has grown up alongside her cousin Peter, who although once was a kindred spirit and rugged playfellow, over the last few years as they have both grown older has become preoccupied with his own hopes and dreams and has left Rosa to fend for herself in her own enigmatic dream world and whether or not she resents this, she casts him as the clumsy, dirty, scratched-kneed boy unrecognizable to her playfellow of old.

"She could no longer, she felt be sure of her dreamworld. Peter might find the "Sesame" which opened it, and encroach upon it, and she might meet him there any day."

She fantasizes about him going to sea and there meeting a dreadful but purely accidental death, although this scheme is unlikely, she sighs to herself, one can always hope.

And then one day Peter sneaks up to her room as he used to do as a child, sits at the end of her bed and unburdens his soul with his hopes and dreams. A creator can only be proud of what he has created when it has fulfilled its purpose. A maker of flutes must wait to hear his flute played before he can say "yes, I created that, and it is good." Peter has been waiting to fulfill his destiny, but he has been trapped here, promising to submerge himself in his studies and pursue learning with Rosa's father, he feel like he is suffocating and ultimately that God, his maker, can not be satisfied with his creation. He pauses, the air is pregnant with the expectations of infinite possibility, finally, he says, in order to chase my destiny and fulfill my purpose I must go to sea! I was created to be a sailor and every day that I'm away from the sea a small piece of my soul dies...

Rosa, for the first time, speaks: "I have often wished that you would go to sea..." (Failing to mention the rest of her wish...)And at this unexpected and amazing expression of sympathy, Peter for a moment recognizes in Rosa the friend and ally that for a long time he had failed to value...and all the while she had "been faithful, she had thought of him and had guessed his needs and his hopes." As he climbs back out of her room he is filled with the joy and excitement of the promise of the sea, and simultaneously the surprise of Rosa, that she has begun to fill his soul. "The sea had become a female deity, and Rosa herself as powerful, foamy, salt and universal as the sea."

The next day, word that the ice in the sound has begun to break up reaches them and Peter and Rosa decide to run down to the harbor to have a look, they get to the water and the ice has begun to thin dangerously along the shore, but they manage to scramble on, their feet getting wet as they climb over the sheets of ice. Rosa realizes this is the last day she will have with Peter, and after years being unappreciative of his camaraderie, the thought of losing him now is devastating.  "Since she had only this hour of life left to her, she must, within it, enjoy, experience and suffer to the utmost of her capacity. She bounded onto the ice as swift as a boy..."   As they stand as far out as they have dared to go and look around them, they are lost in the world of hopes, dreams and the immortality of youth, only to realize the ice floe they are standing on has separated and they are drifting out to sea. As the slow realization of their fate dawns on them, the flow cracks and they are flung together into an electrifying embrace, their souls and bodies aching to be touched, they sink beneath the icy sea. 

Out of all the short stories that I've read thus far, this one seemed to be the most autobiographical. After a disastrous marriage to the unfaithful Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, Karen Blixen is left on their coffee plantation in Africa, as she attempts to put her life back together she develops a friendship with Denys Finch Hatton, an African safari guide. Perhaps they slowly realize they are both dreamers? Perhaps they realize they occupy a world, which few have access to...slowly their friendship becomes a love affair and then one day in a terrible plane crash he dies.

Blixen gives Peter and Rosa the only gift she wishes she could have had, the opportunity to die next to your loved one, the moment of looking into their eyes and realizing the next incomprehensible journey into an unknown world, is ultimately an adventure you make together.

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