By Jens Bjørneboe
Published in Norway in 1969, Powderhouse explores the themes set forth in the first novel in Jens Bjørneboe’s infamous History of Bestiality trilogy, Moment of Freedom: what is the nature of evil and why does man behave so inhumanely to his fellow man.
Powderhouse is set in a private and highly unorthodox asylum for the criminally insane in Alsace. Jean, the narrator, lives in a small cottage on the hospital grounds where he works as a groundskeeper, when he isn’t writing his monumental opus, “The History of Bestiality.” Jean, like Bjørneboe himself, is one of the few people who has the courage to look the universal madness straight in the eye. Described in his native Norway as “one of the most important books which has been written in our generation,” Powderhouse is not an easy read. Filled with a dark energy, it paints a frightening picture of human barbarity.
The patients in the asylum are a motley collection, and their treatment is unorthodox to say the least. Part of it consists in composing and delivering a series of lectures on subjects dear to their hearts, such as the history of witch hunting and the most humane methods of execution. The doctors too have their own troubled histories, and Jean finds rich material in both groups for his study of the follies and evil of which mankind is capable. Yet he is not a gloomy philosopher, but also a sensualist, and the book is relieved by passages of lyrical beauty as he enjoys velvety summer nights, the taste of black bread and white wine, and the gentle caresses of his lover.
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