‘In The Distance’ by Hernan Diaz

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★★★★

Diaz explores every minuscule aspect of loneliness in this story. He shows: how terrible loneliness can be, how loneliness can protect you, how loneliness can be a prison difficult to escape, how you can alone in a crowd and how you can survive such solitude.

We are sometime during the gold rush in America, and an extremely tall and extremely strong young man is wandering through the Wild West. He has become a living legend; people call him the Hawk and his origins are a mystery.  But the Hawk did not set out to become the stuff of myths. All he wanted was to find his brother. The Hawk’s life begins on a poor farm in the Swedish forests. Life seems to stand still there, nothing happens and the family seems almost completely isolated from the outside world. The father decides to send his two young sons, Håkan and Linus, alone to America in hope that they will escape poverty. The boys set out, but in the crowds on the docks of Portsmouth, they get separated. Håkan boards the wrong ship; it is not headed fir “Nujårk” (New York) as he thought but to San Fransisco. It is an absolute disaster for Håkan; he does not understand English, he has no money and he has lost Linus, the person that was supposed to look after him. Upon arriving in California, there seems to him only one possible course of action – to walk across the continent to New York and find Linus.

We follow Håkan as he attempts traverse mountains, desserts and plains. The Wild West, he travels through is really wild. It is filthy, barren and hardly any humans are around. Håkan can travel for months without encountering a single trace of human life. Håkan has to grow up really quickly – and man, does he grow! He becomes a giant of a man, as big as a human can be. He acquires knowledge of medicine, trapping and survival on the plains. Life out there is animal-like, death is commonplace and Håkans great ability to heal and to kill often brings him into contact with the fragility of life. 

On his journey to find Linus, the huge Swede meets an eclectic array of people: scientists, a woman mafia-leader, Indians, religious murders and prospectors. But wherever he goes, he is always an outsider. He sometimes spends time with people, participates in difficult times in their lives and even become crucial to their survival. But rarely does he connect with them. People are amused by his size or terrified by the stories about the terrible Hawk. The title of the book is really apt; his brother, friendship, love, human connection, all these things are far off into the distance for Håkan. His feelings of always being alone and being lost are as immense as the prairies he journeys across.

“Nothing left behind in the wilderness could ever be retrieved. Every encounter was final. Nobody came back from beyond the horizon. It was impossible to return to anything or anyone. Whatever was out of sigh was forever lost.”

On a side note: I can very clearly remember how English sounded to me before I learned to speak it. It was just a stream of very liquid vowels and unchaining tone. But I have never been able to reproduce the sound of what it sounded like to me out-loud. Diaz captures the sound of English for an outsider brilliantly on one early passage in the book:

“Frawder thur prueless rare sour per thirst. Mirtler freckling thur.”

How can you not love that!

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