Thursday 22 March 2018

Book review - One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway

Eilis O'Hanlon on a seminal account of the Anders Breivik massacre

Anders Behring Breivik clenching his fist as he arrives at the courtroom for the first day of his trial in Oslo
Anders Behring Breivik clenching his fist as he arrives at the courtroom for the first day of his trial in Oslo
Norwegian Special Forces landing by boat on the shore of the island of Utoeya
Asne Seierstad, author of the Bookseller of Kabul and an acclaimed foreign correspondent, was ideally placed to memorialise the story of the atrocity

Some dates are fixed into a country's collective memory for all the wrong reasons. September 11, 2001, most notoriously, or March 11, 2004, known as 11-M in Spain in remembrance of those who died in the Madrid train bombings.

In Norway, it's July 22, 2011, the day when a 32-year-old man called Anders Behring Breivik set off a bomb outside the Prime Minister's office in Oslo, killing eight people, before driving the short way to Utoya Island, where he gunned down a further 69 victims, mostly teenagers attending a Workers' Youth League summer camp.

Breivik was inspired by an extreme right-wing ideology which wanted to rid Europe of Muslims and Marxists and "cleanse" the Nordic gene pool. The July massacre was part of the first phase of a plan which would, he trusted, culminate in the overthrow of liberal-minded governments and the establishment of rule by "cultural conservatives".

It was the worst massacre in western Europe since World War II, and Breivik, who was declared sane at the time of the killings, is likely to remain in prison for the rest of his life.

Asne Seierstad, an acclaimed foreign correspondent for 20 years, was ideally placed to memorialise the story of this atrocity. A Norwegian native herself, she knew well what extremism can do to people, having lived in Afghanistan immediately after the September 11 attacks, an experience which formed the basis of her most celebrated work, The Bookseller of Kabul, which has sold over two million copies.

She calls this latest work the "hardest book I have ever written", partly because it was about her own people - hence that title One of Us - and also because of the scale of the slaughter which Breivik unleashed.

Every word in her book is based on eyewitness testimony, interviews with friends and families of the victims, and Breivik's own account of his thought processes before, during and after the murders.

The account of the actual massacre, as it unfolds, is grippingly tense, full of heartbreaking detail, such as the fact that Norway has only one police helicopter and the crew were on holiday at the time. The pilot reported for duty anyway after hearing of the explosion in Oslo and was told he wasn't needed. In fact, numerous requests had been made for helicopter back-up. Then there was the delay, amid all the confusion, in passing on crucial information about the car which Breivik was driving. If acted upon quickly, it may have stopped so many children dying.

At the heart of the book is a long, unbearably painful description of the shooting spree on Utoya. Seierstad deals, relentlessly, in facts and the facts are the stuff of nightmares.

Victim after victim falls to Breivik's cold rage. He carries weapons that can kill at a distance of two kilometres. Here he uses them at point-blank range.

A girl dies with her pink phone still clutched to her ear. Another is shot as she screams. Breivik fires into her open mouth. Her lips are undamaged, Seierstad records, but her skull is shattered. Outside the smell of "rain, earth and fear" is swiftly replaced with that of "blood, vomit and urine".

There is heroism as well as tragedy. Andrine Johanssen, who was 16 at the time, is hit in the chest and falls into the cold water. Breivik takes aim again. She expects to die. At that point, a 17-year-old by the name of Henrik Rasmussen, a boy she's never met before, leaps out from his hiding place to interpose himself between her and the shooter.

He is shot three times, the third time in the head. Andrine, miraculously, lives.

Afterwards, when it's all over, and Breivik has given himself up, police who are left to stand guard over the dead hear the victims' mobile phones going off and "see the displays lighting up over and over again. Mum. Mum. Mum. Mum. Until the batteries gave up, one after another".

Seierstad follows the story, through the trial, and her own contact with Breivik, still deluded enough to think himself a misunderstood hero, but she doesn't make the mistake of coming to any pat conclusions about why he really did it. That remains unknowable. A father who cruelly cut Anders from his life at the age of 15; the 12 hours a day he spent playing World of Warcraft on his computer, insulated from reality in an online world where he is all-powerful.

All are factors, but not explanations.

She delves deep into Breivik's troubled childhood, showing how a hip-hop and graffiti aficionado became a right-wing activist and internet game addict, and then an entrepreneur, Freemason, and self-styled master warrior who sought to "save Norway" from the threat of Islam and multiculturalism.

Counterpointing Breivik's strangeness is the harrowing normality of the victims. Seierstad writes with equal intimacy about his victims, tracing their political awakenings, aspirations to improve their country, and ill-fated journeys to the island.

Setting out to recreate the lives of these young people, repeating conversations they had with one another, does raise certain problems. The book never strays from the facts, but turning them into narrative involves using devices more familiar to the novelist than the non-fiction writer. "As Lene moved her pen up and down the sheet of paper, her bangles jingled."

This technique feels slightly intrusive and voyeuristic, and sits jarringly with the unembellished verisimilitude of the rest of the book.

It's a small quibble to make about such a powerful work. One of Us doesn't have the depth of Gitta Sereny's study of child killer Mary Bell, and it's not as obviously literary as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, to which it's being compared, but it's hard to see how, as a definitive account of what happened that awful July day, it could ever be bettered.


One of Us: The Story of Anders ­Breivik and the Massacre in Norway

Asne Seierstad

Virago Press, hdbk, 526pp, £16.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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