Thursday 18 January 2018

Books: Portrait of a killer who stole a country's innocents

One of Us, Asne Seierstad, Virago, €25.50

Monstrous acts: Mass killer Ander Behring Breivik makes a gesture as he arrives in court.
Monstrous acts: Mass killer Ander Behring Breivik makes a gesture as he arrives in court.

Aine O'Connor

In Norway, on July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik carried out his meticulously planned assault on his own country. Seventy-seven people, mostly teenagers, died and many more were seriously injured on that day. Breivik was very annoyed at any suggestion that he was insane. After years chronicling murderous struggles in other lands, including the best-selling Bookseller of Kabul, Norwegian journalist and author Asne Seierstad turns her meticulous mind on a horror much closer to home.

The full title of Asne Seierstad's book is One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. It opens with a prologue, the story told from the point of view of a teenage girl in wellingtons who is running from a murderer. She is one of many fleeing gunshot she can not only hear, but the effects of which she has already seen and will shortly succumb to. There were people left alive on the tiny island of Utoya and it is on their harrowing testimony, and Breivik's own account, that the author has based this version of events.

Although he rejected any suggestion that he was insane, Anders Breivik had been an unusual child in an unusual family. His mother, to whom Seierstad spoke on her deathbed, had in turn come from a dysfunctional family in rural Norway. A single mother ill-equipped to raise her two children, she struggled to cope, and adamant that her son in particular was difficult, she sought often to have him taken into respite care and considered giving him away permanently until her ex-husband, Anders' father, sought to take him. Strangers could have the boy but his father could not.

Seierstad uses reports from social services, interviews with old neighbours and testimony from Breivik's trial to pull together the account of a socially awkward and occasionally cruel child who wanted to fit in and sometimes very nearly achieved it. She interweaves this with stories from the backgrounds of his victims. The teenage lovers in the 1980s, with their mullets and fringe flicks who would go on to parent precious children only to have them stolen by Breivik. The Iraqi refugees who weathered Saddam's terror and a difficult transition to Norway only to have their precious child stolen by Breivik.

Seierstad's account is incredibly thorough. She manages to conjure a very evocative picture of Norway's most recent history, and she does so unflinchingly. The picture she paints is of what it is like when politicians are brave enough to legislate according to principle rather than according to what will garner votes. It's a system that moves a country forward but creates inevitable tensions as it turns out the country famous for its egalitarian ideals is as peopled by prejudice as any other.

Norway had been an insular and almost exclusively white country up until the 1980s, when the influx of refugees and migrant workers began and gathered speed. Breivik's opinions, his sense of belonging and exclusion, his vision of Islam, right-wing politics, feminism and left-wing politics were all formed during this time of social change.

Having failed to find a sense of belonging in graffiti gangs, right-wing political associations and life, he moved back to his mother's home where he played World of Warcraft for five years and decided to wage solo war against the world. He rented a remote farmhouse, did physical training, amassed weapons, built a bomb. His political manifesto railed against "cultural Marxism", the Islamisation of Europe and feminism. And as she describes the advancement of Breivik's planning the author also recounts the events that slid his young victims into his path. Their plans for this great summer adventure, their dreams, their deaths. The image of mobile phones ringing in cold, dead teenage hands as news broke of the awfulness that had taken place.

The detail Asne Seierstad has collated to tell this truly moving and terrifying tale, and the account of the trial, is quite extraordinary. She did not meet Breivik, they exchanged letters which she published, but she paints a clear picture, making a real person out of a monster. She also creates a powerful testimony to the victims, both those who died and those left behind.

Sunday Indo Living

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment