The Conqueror - excerpt
I—the Professor—do not know whether or not to call this the irony of fate. Jonas Wergeland escaped disaster that time, but nothing could save him from the media earthquake triggered by his arrest and later trial—not surprisingly perhaps, seeing that Wergeland himself was the instigating factor. The public hoped, of course, for as long as they could, hoped that something was wrong, that someone, somewhere had made a terrible and most unfortunate mistake. Rumour had it that Jonas Wergeland remained silent—and, others added, unmoved—and he refused to make any sort of statement to the police. He had accepted the lawyer appointed to defend him without demur and would not hear of engaging one of the big-time lawyers whom Daniel was sure would be able to help him.
I think everyone, including myself, awaited the trial in such a state of suspense that you would have thought the honour of Norway was at stake. At times, the interest in the case could almost be compared to the hullabaloo surrounding the winter Olympics at Lillehammer that would shortly be coming to a close. It seemed as though higher powers wished to reward the Norwegian people by treating them, for a short time—en masse, as it were—to not one mammoth spectacle but two: a thought-provoking reflection of Jonas Weregeland’s theory that Norway was “a nation of spectators.”
I do not know whether it is possible to say anything about the proceedings in the High Court beyond all that has already been reported, all that has been written, all the pictures that have been published—not least those risible sketches from the courtroom, like illustrations from cheap crime magazines. One can ask oneself whether there was anything about Jonas Wergeland that did not come out during the trial—a kind of inverted version of This Is Your Life—thanks to the prosecution’s dogged efforts to prove his guilt. The most surprising part was probably the fact that Jonas Wergeland also chose to remain silent, as if he considered this his best mode of defense, or his only mode of defense: something which lots of people naturally interpreted as a black mark against him. Nonetheless, there was no doubt: through everything that came to light, everything that was relayed by the media and greedily watched, read, listened to and, not least, discussed everywhere, Jonas Wergeland seduced the Norwegian people anew.
By the time the case came to court a number of books about him had already been published, with titles such as The TV Demon and All That Glitters: superficial, hastily penned “biographies” produced with only one aim in mind: to make money. Well, it was a very tasty story, almost worthy of Shakespeare himself: the vertiginous plunge from the peaks of distinction to the pit of hell. And yet the trial managed, indirectly mind you, to produce fresh details, whole stories in fact, primarily of the murkier sort, the relevance of which was skillfully argued by the prosecution—everything from a boyhood story about the theft of a stamp album to that of an embarrassingly degrading taxi ride about a year before the killing. The prosecutors also received plenty of help from Gjermund Boeck, Margrete’s father, and William Røed, Jonas’s uncle who, in their respective capacities as the Norwegian king’s ambassador and a director of Statoil presented their testimonies with great authority: his uncle, known within the family as Sir William, impeccably attired in a blazer with a gold silk cravat at his throat, painted a particularly lethal picture of what he called “Jonas Wergeland’s complete lack of character.” Few would disagree with the newspapermen’s refrain: “If anyone in modern times has been put in the stocks, then it’s Jonas Wergeland.”
[. . .]
All in all, a lot of things seemed to be taken to the extreme, blown totally out of all proportion. The whole sensation industry that fed on this case lent it the character of a farce, of something unreal. More and more people had the feeling that something was fundamentally wrong. For a start, the motive seemed unclear. Why would Jonas Wergeland kill his wife? This seemed even more inconceivable to all those Norwegians for whom the thought of Jonas Wergeland and Margrete Boeck conjured up a picture of the ideal couple, snapped at premieres and parties, a regular feature in weekly mags and newspapers year after year; the television personality and his wife, a dark beauty who also happened to occupy the highly respected post of consultant physician.
“Do you know what the most surprising thing of all is?” my guest asked on the fourth evening on which she visited me, clad in her usual elegant black and as earnest as always. “The most surprising part of all this washing of dirty laundry in public was one question that was never asked. Obviously because it had nothing to do with the case. And yet it gets to the very nub of the matter. Because, if it were true that Jonas Wergeland possessed all those failings and evil inclinations, how could a whole nation fall under his spell? And that being the case, does this not say everything about Norway, the cultural level of this country in the last decade before the millennium? That such an individual could wangle his way to such enormous power and popularity, I mean?”