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The Dissociated Man

By Max Dunbar.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, Åsne Seierstad, Headline 2015

Jonathan Coe’s novel The Closed Circle has a moment where a middle-aged journalist, Philip Chase, tracks down an old schoolfriend, class clown Sean Harding. Harding was renowned at high school for his wit, mischief and good humour, but as an adult, he’s disappeared off the map — the only trace of Harding is an off-shot glimpse of his signet ring in a photograph of ‘four skinheads, standing around a desk in some anonymous, sparsely furnished office, staring at the camera with dead eyes’. Chase finally locates Harding at a farm in remote Norfolk, and goes to see him. The scene where Chase is driving to the farmhouse (‘things get very quiet in Norfolk very quickly, you can leave civilisation behind in no time’) is unforgettable despite being so innocuous, the reporter heading through a bucolic landscape of silence and stillness, but with something sinister in the stillness and the silence.

At the farmhouse he finally meets Harding, who has become a neo-Nazi. Attempts to relive their shared childhood fall flat: ‘You were all earthbound,’ Harding says. ‘You were all of the earth.’ His beliefs are the usual Stormfront mashup. ‘He said the land was suffering because it was being raped and polluted by the big corporations, and it was overrun with aliens, people who had no respect for the land and no right to be here, and it was the big corporations and the political establishment who were in collusion to keep things this way… He said it was a way of perpetuating an evil, materialist culture and it was all based on usury, and of course he reckoned the Jews were behind it all.’

Chase argues, but there’s no point:

And I took one more look around the house and shuddered to think what a mean and bitter and lonely little life he’d made for himself — you know? — but I couldn’t manage to feel sorry for him. You couldn’t reach him, that was the problem, so how could you feel sorry for him? He’d put himself beyond that.

In the spring of 2011 there was a new tenant at the Vålstua smallholding near the Glomma river in rural Norway. The owner was in jail for using the place to grow hash, and had rented out the farm while he served his sentence. Soon locals noticed odd things about the new tenant. Large quantities of fertiliser arrived, but they were stored in the barn — most farmers stored fertiliser outside. The guy told neighbours, on the few occasions he spoke to them, that he was planning to grow vegetables. But you couldn’t grow vegetables round here — the soil was too stony. ‘He clearly hadn’t a clue about farming,’ one acquaintance observed. Grass was left uncut, small simple repairs went undone, the man locked everything up when in this peaceful place there was no need. An awful chemical smell hung over the smallholding, and the earth stayed fallow — as if the land itself protested the presence of Anders Breivik.

A man isn’t a murderer until he murders someone. Even at the moment where he stands over a trembling target when his finger on the trigger, it’s not too late, things can be turned around, there’s still hope. Breivik’s background was little different from most. He had a hard childhood, with a lot of petty crime and social services involvement, and when he was fifteen his father disowned him. There were disappointments — he failed to make the grade as a candidate for Norway’s right-libertarian Progress Party, and his career as a graffiti artist was stalled when he fell out of favour with the cool kids at secondary school. Breivik dropped out, drifted around, and finally became a businessman of sorts, making millions of kroner with a fake diploma scam. The police began to crack down on diploma mills, and Brievik got out just in time, but with most of his capital tied up in worthless shares. At twenty-seven he moved back in with his mother… and his engagement with the world pretty much ended. Until Utøya, Brievik was off the map.

In The Dark Net, his exploration of the internet’s nastier places, Jamie Bartlett argues that the proliferation of multiple online worlds presents a paradox. At your keyboard there’s a multiverse of opinion and perspective. But it also gives us the opportunity to bury ourselves in a feedback loop. If you have a certain view of the world, there’s numerous fora just for people who think the exact same way: you can chat on Facebook groups and messageboards, read great tracts of articles and essays, and still never be exposed to anyone who disagrees with you, or can challenge your beliefs. ‘Creating our own realities is nothing new,’ Bartlett writes, ‘but now it’s easier than ever to become trapped in echo chambers of our own making.’

Anders Breivik played World of Warcraft for years. He was immersed in it: time IRL was time wasted. On one New Year’s Eve he logged seventeen hours of continuous play. Then he graduated into online politics — politics that is also a game. He was drawn into far-right blogs and websites that raged against ‘Cultural Marxism’ and immigration. Brievik’s ‘manifesto’ was largely cut and pasted from online sources, and this extremist material also formed the basis for his self-aggrandising blather in court. When initially interrogated his first priority was to demand the use of a PC in jail. By then he had spent five years mostly online. Åsne Seierstad writes about Utøya with a novelist’s empathy. But she can’t get beyond Brievik’s mask. Perhaps there was nothing else. The guy is a nullity, a one-man echo chamber.

‘Psychopaths are always less complicated, less rewarding, less interesting than their victims,’ writes the journalist Nick Cohen. One of Us is not simply a biography of Breivik — after all, there’s not much to focus on. Seierstad writes with great compassion and flair about victims and survivors. The passages about the young people of Utøya are heartbreaking because you know what’s coming. A seventeen-year-old from Oslo, called Adrine, was fired on by Breivik. ‘He took aim at her again. Now I’m going to die, she thought. It’s over.’

Then, out of nowhere, a boy leaps at Breivik, putting himself in the line of fire:

He took one bullet – two bullets – three bullets that were meant for her. The first hit him in the hip. The next went into his back and out through his chest. The third crushed his head. He slumped down; he was dead.

He was Hendrik Rasmussen from Hadsel in Nordland.

Anders Breivik is still alive, and no doubt people will remember his name for many years, as he wanted. But I hope they also remember Hendrik Rasmussen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 3rd, 2015.