Mathea Martinsen is an elderly woman. A widow, with no children, she is facing the end of her life alone. Even before her husband Epsilon’s death she suffered from social phobia – unable to approach people and unwilling to leave her apartment. All her interactions require advance planning and extensive mental preparation, whether it involves speaking to a grocery clerk or greeting her neighbor’s son. More often than not she’s unable to follow through.
The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is a short and wacky book. Mathea’s optimism is irrepressible. As she describes how her social awkwardness eventually became a source of conflict in what seems to have otherwise been a harmonious marriage, she remains oblivious to what she has revealed. It becomes apparent to the reader that the responsibility weighed on Epsilon towards the end. Only after his death, when she finds herself truly alone, does Mathea try to form connections and carve a place out for herself in the world.
She sets out to do it in her own unique style. She repeatedly calls telephone information and requests her own phone number – in case “…Information keeps statistics as to the most requested and most loved person in the nation, a Top Ten Requested Numbers”. She fantasizes about having her individuality and talents recognized by complete strangers at the Senior Center. Of being appreciated, even feted, by her neighbors. She attempts to bury a time capsule. Yet for all her big plans, the closest she comes to success – to making a friend and forming a relationship – is with the homeless man she passes each day in the park who asks her the time.
There is a scene in Rainer Marie Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge where the narrator encounters an old man. The old man has horrible, uncontrollable flatulence – and in a moment rife with pathos he states that he had been prepared to grow old, but had not been prepared for the humiliation. Skomsvald has written a novel that captures that emotion… though obviously in a more lighthearted spirit.
There’s no one in the foyer. The flier for the community gathering is still up, and so is the one for the get-together at the senior center. I feel sick again. There are a bunch of new fliers too. “Bodil is lost,” one says. Bodil is a guinea pig, and there’s a picture of Bodil from happier times. The bulletin board is obviously something my neighbors pay attention to, and maybe I should hang a picture of myself with the caption that I’ve gone missing: “Has anyone seen this old woman? Reward offered. Call Mathea Martinsen.” At first I treat the idea like a joke, but then it hits me that it deserves some serious consideration. So I seriously consider it. But then I see Bodil’s picture again, and there’s no way I can compete with Bodil: those mischievous, marble eyes of hers guarantee that no one will take any notice of me.
I found The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am very funny. Mathea is determined. She moves through life in a peach wedding dress; carrying a collection of teeth in a plastic bag, knitting ear warmers and baking rolls for parties she will not attend. She completely lacks any sense of self-pity. Skomsvald (with an assist from her translator) has given Mathea a narrative voice that crackles with life, spunk and a strange dignity. I found myself cheering the little old lady on – though to what end I couldn’t say. Perhaps the absurdity of the human condition, in the style of Waiting for Godot, is what this author intended to convey. If so she has succeeded in a way that is more accessible, and much more fun, than Beckett’s play.
Translated from the original Norwegian
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press, Champaign (2011).
ISBN: 978 1 56478 702 6