Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt
(English Translation by Owen F Witesman, Oneworld:2018)
Some books leave me speechless at the end. I mean this quite literally. I’m not making a metaphorical “there are no words” comment about the quality of what I have just read. I am instead trying to report a physical phenomenon, a feeling in my throat and lungs that comes only rarely, just after a last sentence is read, and a book is closed, when I’m left with a dazzling void of complicated feeling that renders me mute. After a while the words come back, and my feelings about the book begin to shape themselves into language.
So here is this novel, Oneiron*. In it seven dead women find themselves together in a placeless place, a white void with only the clothes on their backs. At some point they notice they aren’t breathing. Not long after, they realize they are dead. They share their stories. They help one another. They bear witness to the one another’s final moments. These seven women are remarkable only in the way that every human being is remarkable. The stories of their final moments before death are haphazard and sometimes violent and always meaningless. The women have nothing in common, not even a common language. But even so these women make themselves into a caring community, in this strange afterlife, where nothing is ever explained, either to these seven characters, or to the reader. As in real life, the characters, and through them the reader, need to take it on faith that their experiences have purpose.
Oneiron is one of those books that stunned me into silence at the end, and when words did come back, they were from I. Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Oneiron is not a religious book. God has no place in the afterlife Lindstedt creates. I’m not a religious person. Yet somehow this novel embraces a life philosophy that reminded me of Paul’s teaching. The novel suggests that caring for others–even in the flawed ways these strangers reach out and care for one another after death–is the most vital motivating impulse that gives meaning to our lives.
*from Greek ὄνειρον, oneiron, “dream”