Gunnhild Øyehaug

Present Tense Machine

Can the word change the world?

Mar 15, 2023
Dimitris Passas

"But now: the parallels. What we are about to tell may alter your understanding of what language and reading can do, it may well seem to you as completely new and incredible as when God decided to confuse people by giving them all different languages at the Tower of Babel".

In a rare piece of speculative fiction, the Norwegian poet, writer and literary critic Gunnhild Øyehaug tackles some of the most fundamental questions of the philosophy of language in the guise of a metafictional story about a mother and daughter who get ripped apart because of a human linguistic slip that opens the gates of a parallel universe. The premise may sound generic and bring back memories of several works of science fiction featuring a cosmos split into an infinite numbers of alternate realities which coexist independent of one another. However, Øyehaug's pen rebukes anything derivative and her subtle writing style offers a unique vision of a universe bound by multiplicity and places her protagonists within different worlds, without nonetheless eliminating any hope for connection between her two protagonists, Anna and Laura.

The cataclysmic event that resulted in the parting between mother and child took place one Sunday afternoon in 1998 when Anna was twenty-three years old and Laura only two and a half. The schism was created when Anna misread the word “trädgård”, meaning garden in Norwegian, as the senseless "tärdgård", a word completely devoid of any meaning. At that moment Laura disappeared from the garden of the family house where she played with her tricycle and along with her everything that could indicate that she ever existed. It's like she was never born. In the distinct worlds which Anna and Laura now inhabit, both of them are unaware of the other's existence. The author tells the story of both in alternating chapters in which the reader gets acquainted with the two women, Anna in her forties and Laura in her twenties, occasionally hinting to the outcry of repressed memories that is manifested through the senses of longing and nostalgia that both of them experience without any obvious reason.

Anna and Laura are each working with language, with the former being an author and the latter a literature teacher. We read as Anna strives to write a book on the origins of languages aspiring to trace the beginnings of communication in human history. Anna, consciously writes under a pseudonym as she firmly believes that the use of a nom de plume is the most appropriate artifice that a writer can employ in order to retain the distance between their actual selves and their work. Øyehaug writes about Anna: "she likes the principle of a pseudonym because pseudonyms create a time lag between the person writing and the actual book (...) the pseudonym is one with the fictional time that exists in the literary work". As humans we are physically and mentally compelled by time and creation is one way to escape as being an artist means "to assume an eternal, genderless, and indivisible presence". As we witness Anna's thought process and consideration about her prospective work's subject, we encounter the names of popular authors, intellectuals, and artists (Elena Ferrante, Noam Chomsky, Erik Satie) who are major influences for her project.

Especially Erik Satie, and more specifically his -controversial- work "Vexations", plays a major role in the narrative, functioning as a kind of soundtrack underscoring the dramatic element and reflecting the essence of cosmos as well. We read about "Vexations": "the (musical) piece is both repetitive and fleeting (...) as if it encapsulates the effect of all existence, of all time". Satie is mentioned in both Laura and Anna's separate worlds, thus prompting the reader to see him as "a unifying force between parallel worlds, a metaphor for the myriad permutations of language and manifestation of the repetitive vicissitudes of life itself" (Cory Oldweiler-StarTribune). Satie's work echoes in a way, the worldly rhythm of the eternal flow that is both mystical in its nature and ambiguous in terms of human interpretation.

Apart from the two main protagonists, there is also the omniscient narrator who rears his/her head once in a while, leaving the reader in no doubt that he is consuming a work of fiction. This meta aspect is aptly explained by Ian Mond who writes: "In a book that's partly about the complex, even transcendent quality of language, it makes sense to have a narrator who peels away the artifice of storytelling" ( This, external to the story, chronicler seems to know everything about the characters' past and future, a God-like figure whose power is diminished by some banal comments about him/her not having dry socks, the problems created by his/her dog, Kipp, and other minute details rendering him closer to the human nature. The storytelling voice is crisp and clear and the metafictional element, which so often leads to authorial disasters, is handled expertly by Øyehaug and impeccably translated into English by Kari Dickson, well known to the fans of Nordic literature for her collaboration with authors such as Anders Roslund, Anne Holt, and Karin Fossum.

There are several symbolical and allegorical references in Present Tense Machine, the most prominent one being the biblical allegory of the Tower of Babel, a case underlining language's potential for destruction, a major theme of Øyehaug's novel. Furthermore, Laura disappearing from her home's garden can be seen as an alternative take on the Allegory of the Fall of Man and his exemption from paradise, only this time the exile is caused by a linguistic slip-up. These biblical allusions work in favor of the novel's objective that is to raise awareness of the power and pitfalls of language. Present Tense Machine is a singular work bearing the signature of one of Norway's most esteemed literary magnates. Wholeheartedly recommended!


Present Tense Machine
Gunnhild Øyehaug
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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