Semitic guilt is child's play next to the Nordic kind

Share this article

LAST month, Edvard Munch’s famous Scream, and less famous Madonna, were stolen at gunpoint from the museum named for the artist in Oslo. Mum’s first words, when I told her, were: "Norwegians would never do that. The thieves must have been foreigners.They were probably Swedish and slipped across the border." I told her they apparently shouted in Norwegian. "A lot of those Swedes can speak Norwegian," said mum. "And Norwegians don’t shout."

For many outside the Norwegian diaspora, it is hard to grasp the importance of the Scream. To most people, it is just a creepy painting college undergrads hang on their dorm-room walls. But to a Norwegian, it is like a mirror-image, a reflection, if you will. It looks ugly to you. But to us it’s like Alice through the looking-glass. We may be tall, blond and blue-eyed on the outside. But our inner Norwegian looks just like a shrieking skeleton with a tumultuous sky behind him, unaware that the United Nations thinks Norway is the greatest place on earth.

Apart from the high Norwegian suicide rate, there is Norwegian guilt. I often tell Jewish friends who complain about parental mind games: "You think you know guilt? Let me tell you, Semitic guilt is child’s play next to the Nordic kind. Child’s play!" Norwegians are taught to never brag, never boast and also, never fail. And by fail, I mean, get an A-minus in something, have a bad thought, or not conform in some way. Of course, success to Norwegians also means not standing out. At all.

Mum has always taught me that there are famous Norwegians to look up to, such as ... um ... well, I used to think Paul Bremer was one. This is because when he was first appointed head of the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority, I read that he spoke Norwegian. I naturally assumed that only a Norwegian would speak Norwegian. I told mum he was Norwegian and she said: "That’s why he’s so handsome." It turns out I was mistaken. One of Bremer’s first diplomatic postings was in Oslo where, it is safe to conclude, he had time for Norwegian lessons. There are, mum tells me, only about 400 words in Norwegian, so one can learn it quickly. Other famous Norwegians? Sonja Henie, but we don’t like her because she was nice to Hitler. And we’re all pleased Hans Blix is a Swede.

If the Scream thieves are Norwegian, I hope they haven’t knocked back too much glog in celebration of their victory. The Scream was painted on cardboard (Norwegians are frugal, and I gather Munch was no exception), easy for drunken revellers to damage. Pundits and anchors have opined that no-one would want the Scream on their living room wall. This is true. Especially not a Norwegian, who sees it every time he walks past a pane of glass.

• Rondi Adamson lives in Toronto

Back to the top of the page