Dorthe Nors: “Karate Chop”

12/09/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in A Public Space 14, 2011. (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.)

Annelise is a social worker with an analytic mind, always looking for the reason behind a trauma, a weakness. In her own unique case of bad relationships, her inability to to believe that a person “could be in possession of disturbing knowledge about himself and still have no wish to change,” she looks toward their motive by looking inward for the “error”: was it her father’s choice not to visit her in the hospital when she fell off her bike at age ten? (“It was by no means unlikely that some encoding of basic insignificance and a tendency to neglect one’s own needs had taken place then and left its mark.”) Was it her brother’s fault, for the porn magazines she found under his bed and the athleticism he forced her to engage with (in sports): “Maybe she just didn’t understand how to deal with male sexuality.” Or was it her mother’s endless quiet, the beatings she allowed to occur, one assumes of both herself and Annelise, although the story is deliberately vague on anything exact or excusable. Beatings “didn’t necessarily turn them into thugs, masochists, and murderers,” and what works in Nors tale is her attempt to find a universal explanation for something that’s more fluid from individual to individual, each of us broken, as it were, in his or her own way.

There’s a lot of data to sift through, despite the short length of this story, and the narrative tone adds a variety of clues, as well, what with the third-person remaining as neutral as Annelise, never willing to blame the violence done to (or by) her on anybody. “It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he had told her was a source of suspicion.” Her education doesn’t allow us to excuse her naivety, and yet her inability to self-correct is a flaw most of us, especially these men, have, so how can we not sympathize? “She was no good at not loving them, even if there were no obvious reason to do so.” There’s plenty of implication, too, about these things we cannot bring ourselves to say: instead, Nors darts within childish things, like a metaphor of coloring books to explain this final act of violence, the one that has left Carl Erik’s bruises across her body and his semen in her anus . . . and which, as it turns out, has led to Annelise murdering Carl Erik.

Any individual you happened to meet was nothing but a potential, an outline to be colored in and assigned content. She had read about it in respect to young girls and their propensity to overfunction–the need to change, control, expound upon. But you can’t do that, and eventually you pick up the felt-tip with the most in it and color everything in. Maybe that was why he hit her? Maybe her bruises were just a way of coloring outside the lines? Maybe the reason he turned her onto her stomach, pressed her into the mattress, and fucked her from behind as she sobbed and felt her legs grow heavy was to make her real and living by being sloppy, and seen from the opposite viewpoint what she did afterward while he was asleep was the same, outside the lines, outside them all, even if the result as it lay there in a mess of blood and comforter seemed to be anything but alive.

This is not the most original of stories, but the psychological texture, poetic descriptions (there’s also a nice section comparing men to lizards), pacing, and characterization, all tightly wound up within a very limited amount of space, makes it effective and chilling. I don’t quite understand the relevance of the title — karate is not self-defense, that’s judo — but that’s just nitpicking.


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