Bought in the only actual bookshop (as I refuse to call the local branch of WH Smith a bookshop) of Abingdon-on-Thames out of fondness to support a la...moreBought in the only actual bookshop (as I refuse to call the local branch of WH Smith a bookshop) of Abingdon-on-Thames out of fondness to support a laudable independent business. And because I've got a fascination for bildungsroman novels set in poor pre-oil Oslo. Call it a hang-up.
Unfortunately, I should have known that Roy Jacobsen is no Jan Kjaerstad nor Lars Saabye Christensen. Furthermore 'Child Wonder' suffers from a weird four-handed translation by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw.
What's the purpose of having two translators, I wonder? Especially considering how Mr Shaw's speciality is Danish (to the point he wrote a Danish-Thai-Danish dictionary!) and not Norwegian bokmaal. I reckon how bokmaal itself is but an adaptation of written Danish with merely 106 years of history, but - for goodness' sake - it's not Danish. Nor Thai.
I don't know who's actually to blame for the mess they made with this book, but I'd like to discover who had the brilliant idea of NOT translating Mr, Mrs and Miss so that characters are called, say, herr Syversen and fru Amundsen. Was that supposed to make one think of a play by Ibsen? So why 'Uncle Bjarne' is not 'Onkel'? And 'Mother', 'Mor'? Lack of inspiration? Mere distraction?
My distant Norwegian memories shook, rattled and rolled when the butcher boys Don&Don called 'legendary restaurants' the sportsstue (literally 'sports lounge', technically cafes for skiers) of Sinober, Soerskauen and Lilloseter. Really? I mean, we have a scene of anticipation for a Sunday ski-excursion in the forests of Lillomarka and later a working class kid in ski overalls swallowing waffles in a no-frills sportsstue and Don&Don chose the expression 'legendary restaurant' to define it. Go check a better dictionary, guys; possibly not a Danish-Thai-Danish one.
Ah, and thank you to Don&Don for having left "the 1961 edition of 'Hvem, Hva, Hvor', an almanac" with its original Norwegian title. Which is, I am sure, extremely understandable for the standard Anglo-Saxon reader. Who? What? Where? May I add 'Hvorfor', why?
'Child Wonder' is no masterpiece, but nonetheless a decent novel which I would like to enjoy without frowning too much. It's a pity that I cannot rely on Don&Don in order to do that. I hope Roy Jacobsen had the chance to have a look into this Frankenstein of a translation. (less)
I had a brief but very deep romance with Oslo in the summer of 2005. It was my first experience of life abroad all by myself and this made it unforgett...more I had a brief but very deep romance with Oslo in the summer of 2005. It was my first experience of life abroad all by myself and this made it unforgettable even though it lasted for less than five months.
I remember how I left the town on the first snowy day of that autumn only to come back a year later, but without the same motivations to stay. It's now six years since the last time I've been there. And - herregud! - I miss that place quite a lot.
To me, Oslo is much more than the capital of Norway and one of the most expensive cities in the world (but with an awesome quality of life). Oslo means memories. Which I will not recall here.
(Please be advised that I actually deleted the twenty lines of Memory Lane I had written down below. Lucky you!)
Suffice to say that I was so mesmerized by the time I spent in Oslo that I kept a sort of Norwegian diary while there covering up around 600 pages of notes, impressions, observations, fictional dialogues and a good deal of frustrated romantic impetus. Back to Italy, I tried to make a novel out of those diaries, but somehow the plot overrun me involving too many things I didn't know that much about. And drafts after drafts of chapters of a novel titled "Line Three" found room in a drawer.
Now you know the reason why I will never be a good reviewer of "The Conqueror". Because Jan Kjaerstad here wrote what I was not able to accomplish. And rightly so. Had I spent 500 months instead of only 5 in Oslo, perhaps I could feel ashamed. Not only Kjaerstad made what I couldn't make, but he did it 10 years before my clumsy "Line Three". And finally, he delivered a novel built on childhood episodes which equals to ensnare me under a spell. Curse you, Jan Kjaerstad!
You see? I simply cannot be impartial in looking at this book. On the one hand I'm very envious about it and on the other quite charmed by a novel who brought back a ton of Oslo-related moments.
True, "The Conqueror" is known to be the second part of the so called "Jonas Wergeland Trilogy", but given the impossibility of putting my hands over the ouverture of "The Seducer", I can say that this book could work by itself. Try it, if you don't believe me.
This is a novel revolving around Oslo and pretty much all you could call typically and quintessentially Norwegian. From politics to television, from pop culture to geography, from local habits to the way Norwegians see themselves and Norway in this wide world. I mean, don't be surprised if you don't know a good half of the 20 great Norwegians that Jonas Wergeland chose for his programme "Thinking Big". And there are some subtleties that seem to work only in Norwegian like "fra hytte til hytte" which becomes "from hut to hut" in English, but doesn't explain the social and cultural importance of this way of saying and way of trekking in Norway. And the reason why the novelist and Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun doesn't deserve to be printed on any Norwegian banknote (you will find that part in the book) is that he became a Nazi collaborator in his elderly years making him an enemy for his nation. To name just the first two references which came to my mind.
Nevertheless, if you read the English translation don't believe the Scottish translator when she calls the district of Bygdøy "an island". Please be aware that, as stated by this reader and confirmed by the Oslo resident Mr Irwan S, Bygdøy is actually a peninsula.
A key point now. Jonas Wergeland here calls his compatriots "a nation of spectators" meaning that they're never invited at the high tables or in the control rooms of planet Earth, but quite enjoy having a look at them comfortably sprawled out on a sofa or on a stressless chair. This sort of Peeping Tom attitude means that Norwegians are also accused by the protagonist of this novel of merely witnessing dramatic events without trying either to shape or to stop them.
I would call these accusations of being lazy and craven a bit too harsh. After all Norway hosts only 5 million people and what these few Norwegians can do in a world scenario of 7 billion human beings? Norway should be content of having had sons and daughters like Ibsen, Nansen, Amundsen, Grieg and Sigrid Undset (all of them are given a programme by Wegeland). That's not too bad, I think, but not enough for Wergeland - and I suspect for Jan Kjaerstad too.
Uh, I forgot to tell you. "The Conqueror" includes plenty of sex in pretty much all the combinations you can wonder. And, I must add, most if not all of this sex, targets Jonas Wergeland giving you the impression that Norwegian women always take the initiative. Don't jump to the same conclusion too fast! To be honest, more than a "conqueror" Jonas Wergeland in this book is "conquered", sexually and wistfully.
To make a long story short, this novel is not a masterpiece overall, hence I cannot reward it with a five stars rate. But this is the kind of book that means an awful lot to me. Now you know why I had to write this neverending review. A review which will not be very helpful to you, I'm afraid. Apologies for my biased effort! (less)
What are Six Norwegian Men doing on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
This question may sound as the beginning of a funny joke or as a riddle,...moreWhat are Six Norwegian Men doing on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
This question may sound as the beginning of a funny joke or as a riddle, but in fact is the story behind the Kon-Tiki travel. Thor Heyerdahl was certainly a dreamer, but not a stupid. He surrounded himself of practical and tough men for his "suicidal expedition" with the aim of proving his own theory about colonization of a bunch of the most isolated islands of this world.
The book turned out to be less scientific and didactical than I thought and is the kind of story I would have loved to have for bedtime when I was a child. "Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft" looks like a very relaxed and even ironic account of 96 days spent navigating all the way through ocean with a balsa wood made raft. The six men enjoy quietness and isolation, symphatizing with fish and living the ocean like a friendly place.
I would like to underline an important aspect: when they did it. It was 1947. No gps for orientation. No internet for communication. No possibilities of being rescued by helicopters. No technology at all, except for a primitive radio system. When the Kon-Tiki men did this trip their knowledge of the same Pacific Ocean was really fragmentary. Yet they were excited and very much confident about that "crazy flight".
I appreciated their approach to the whole expedition and enjoyed the narration without focusing on literary style that much. Heyerdahl was an explorer and not a novelist and he never tried to pretend to be a writer. He simply tells us what those Six Norwegian Men were doing on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And that story is interesting enough.(less)
What I like and dislike at the same time in modern Norwegian literature is the straight and essential style used by young novelists such as Erlend Loe...moreWhat I like and dislike at the same time in modern Norwegian literature is the straight and essential style used by young novelists such as Erlend Loe and Frode Grytten. It's a kind of writing that is a thousand miles away from most of the Italian literature I like.
Where Italian authors try to be impressive at any rate using a rich style and many cultural influences even in referring to extreme situations, Norwegian novelists don't seem to care. I mean, they simply put themselves in the shoes of a character without any need to investigate that much on everything else.
Short sentences. Self-humour. Undramatic introspection. Music and television as a source of inspiration for absurd reflections. And a kind of perpetual Peter Pan syndrome lived by the main characters. These are the ingredients of the "Modern Norwegian Literature Recipe". Johan Harstad doesn't make any exception. Mattias, the protagonist and narrator of "Buzz Aldrin" could easily be the elder brother of Loe's "Naiv Super". The two characters share an enchanted and melancholic way of looking around, keep on reminiscing their childhood and live in their own world made of subtle reflections in unexpected moments and speechless situations. They are both romantic and anacronistic fellows.
Yet, whereas Loe insists too much in using a childish way of behaving for his Naiv Super guy, Harstad aims to give to his fragile Mattias a deeper personality. Besides, the young Stavanger-born author has the brilliant idea of setting his novel in an out-of-time place like the Faer Oer islands. An interesting choice, indeed that is particularly fascinating for a non Scandinavian audience who has a vague picture of this tiny archipelagus with no trees at all and punctuated by sheeps. There Mattias loses his way and then tries to put himself together.
As for the modern Norwegian literature, what I miss more is a feminine point of view on the same topics of isolation and personal reconstruction. Harstad does something, but not enough on this side, writing on one of the characters of Buzz Aldrin. And yet, I am sure he will surprise me pretty soon with something better. (less)
Reading 'Beatles' was another long walk I took down Memory Lane. Bless Lars Saabye Christensen for setting another novel in that specific area of Oslo...moreReading 'Beatles' was another long walk I took down Memory Lane. Bless Lars Saabye Christensen for setting another novel in that specific area of Oslo I remember so fondly!
The English edition I owe boasts that 'Beatles' is 'The International Bestseller' and in fact this is the book that made Mr Christensen famous in Norway and abroad. Not to mention that a few months ago I spotted a hoodie eagerly leafing through this same book at a bus stop in the sleepy English town of Hereford (just don't ask me how I ended up there!). Actually this single readerspotting would be enough to confirm that 'Beatles' did indeed become a bestseller. I guess the title helped, though.
Published in 1984, when its author was only 33, this novel has been translated into 16 languages, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and - surprise surprise! - is going to become a major Norwegian movie that will have its premiere on February 2014. Apparently the chief reason why it took so long to bring 'Beatles' onto the big screen is that the prerequisite to have the movie made was to ensure that the Fab Four songs would have been in it. And it tooks ages (and money) to get that.
Putting its International Bestseller reputation aside, as I wrote above, 'Beatles' is one of those books having a very personal meaning to me. Just like it happened with 'The Half Brother' - the first novel by Christensen that I read - most of the action here is set in a two mile radius from Majorstua, one of the main intersections in West Oslo. Call me weird, but spotting toponyms such as Blindern, Bygdøy Allé, Solli Plass, Slemdalsveien, Chateau Neuf and Uranienborg Park made me actually happier than the countless references to The Beatles themselves.
With a plot taking place between 1965 and 1972 and with every chapter titled after a Beatles' song (plus a couple of McCartney and Lennon solo career singles), Christensen wrote a wistful and clever novel. The four protagonists - Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola - idolize the Fab Four to the point they identify themselves with them thus becoming Paul, John, George and Ringo. Even though their own dream of making a band called The Snafus is perpetually postponed due to the lack of music instruments, the four Oslo kids grow up listening in almost religious awe to each and every Beatles LP and EP. As it happens, their tastes in music do evolve over the course of the years leading them to 'discover' Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, and the blues. But the Beatles stay untouchable and every rumour implying that the Fab Four are on their way to split up is returned to sender by the boys in disbelief.
Aged only 14 at the beginning of the novel, Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola are 21 at its end. As you might wonder, not only their favourite records have changed but also their passions and interests switching from football, skiing and fishing to girls, alcohol, drugs and politics. That's why topics such as the Vietnam War, marijuana planting, the involvement in the ranks of the Young Socialists and the Norwegian European Communities membership referendum in 1972 take the floor.
Gradually what had begun as the story of four easy and semi-idyllic childhoods turn into a gloomy and disillusioned tale with the odd funny moment. One by one all of the four boys fail at some stage of their young lives. Some of them fall deep into an abyss of either drug addiction, alcoholic stupour or nervous breakdown but somehow manage to come up for air, at least for a while. Just like The Beatles themselves, if you like.
And it's with this bleak atmosphere that the novel ends up. I know that Christensen wrote two sequels but it looks like they have not yet been translated into English. All in all I'm not entirely sure I'd like to read the sequels. On the one hand I prefer to leave Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola where they are, at the young age of 21. On the other hand I remember too well the disappointment I felt when reading 'The Closed Circle' by Jonathan Coe whose excellent 'The Rotters' Club' bears many a similitude with 'Beatles' (four teenagers, the 1960s turning into the 1970s, music, politics, petting).
If these translations see the light, I hope that a better translator than Don Bartlett will be given the job. Nothing personal, Don, but it's the second time that your work doesn't convince me at all after what you did to 'Child Wonder' by Roy Jacobsen. Tacky mistakes aside (in the English edition Kim comes back to Iceland and tells his crosswords maniac dad he was in a 'cold place, six letters' as the seven lettered 'Iceland' is spelled 'Island' - six letters - in Norwegian), Mr Bartlett here seems to enjoy leaving the reader in the dark. The examples of this sadistic pleasure of the translator are countless, but I will mention a couple which give you a general idea of what I mean.
Page 503. The years is 1972. Kim gets a university loan. Don meekly translates: 'Four Ibsens and the basic grant'. Any idea of what that means? You need to Google 'Ibsen banknote 1970' to find out. Which is four 1,000 Norwegian crowns (kroner) banknotes with the face of Henrik Ibsen on them. Page 493. Kim is in Iceland visiting a former girlfriend of his. First-person narrative. All in a sudden in the middle of a dialogue, Don switches to the third-person narrative ('she told him').
And then there is the issue with Norwegian addresses and cultural references. To translate them or not to translate them? - Mr Bartlett might have pondered. The problem is that he didn't make his mind up. So it happens that the magazine 'Nå' ('Now') and the newspaper 'Aftenposten' ('The Evening Post') keep their Norwegian names while the leftist newspaper 'Klassekampen' becomes 'Class Conflict' and the public television NRK becomes the 'Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation'. I wonder why. Another problem comes up with the translation of nouns. Now Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) adds up suffixes so that, say, 'Storting' (the National Parliament) becomes 'det Stortinget'. But the name of the Parliament is Storting and not Storting-et. Now, go and tell this to Don Bartlett for whom it's 'the Stortinget'.
I am sorry, I am really sorry to spoil my review by taking the piss out of the translator but I believe that 'Beatles' would have deserved a better treatment. (less)