I read this English translation of Gunnar Gunnarsson's (Danish-language) original alongside the Icelandic text (also a translation) that I was assigneI read this English translation of Gunnar Gunnarsson's (Danish-language) original alongside the Icelandic text (also a translation) that I was assigned for a class on contemporary Icelandic literature. I'm glad to have finally read this story, although I don't love this English translation. Since I'm only comparing it with the Icelandic translation, I'm not sure how it compares to the original, but when read side-by-side with the Icelandic text, it feels pretty heavy-handed.
For one thing, the religiosity was ratcheted up several notches. This is story is a Christian parable or allegory and, of course, there are religious references and symbols and even a number of Biblical passages throughout the text. There's no need to further emphasize that by adding in extras like 'they too were living creatures of God' when the original—I'm assuming—just reads 'they were living creatures.'
As another point, in the Icelandic text, the dialog flows as part of the paragraphs and isn't differentiated with quotation marks or indents. This is typical in Icelandic fiction and something that's only done for effect in English, so I wouldn't expect the formatting to necessarily be followed in the English version. But the dialog is chattier, a little over-jolly, even, and just feels awkward and forced. Things are said outright which are maybe only alluded to in the Icelandic version. ("You are an impossible man, and you had just as well know it," the main character, Benedikt, is chided by a kind neighbor woman who is worried that he's going to over-stretch himself looking out for others instead of himself. This sentence isn't in the Icelandic.)
The overall tone of the English translation doesn't work for me, but again: I can't guarantee that it isn't the more 'accurate' of the two translations I read. I just happened to prefer the Icelandic version more. ...more
By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.
Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.
The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,
when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago...
There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)
But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.
It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:
It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”
When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.
If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting....more
I'm reviewing this collection this month and am hopping around among the various sections/stories (there are actually a lot of big name authors included), so I'm just going to list some brief impressions of the stories as I read them so as to not totally muddle them in my head.
Part I: (Men and) Women
*Women in Copenhagen: Decent. Fairly good atmosphere, and an interesting enough back story, but little comes of it. Credibility is somewhat stretched in the very first paragraph of the story, with the lines, "You have arrived in Scandinavia. You have just entered a long, bitter winter. Here there are no free rides. Here you are left to your own fate." I'll give you that the winter's are cold, but c'mon with the abandonment bit. Me thinks the welfare state doth protest too much.
*One of the Rough Ones: Bleh. Very harsh story, very violent. Young women/sexual abuse/etc. It would be hard for me to determine honestly if this is a good story. It's just not for me. I skimmed.
*Australia: Pretty good. Yet another example of scary immigrants in Denmark (this time, Polish/Eastern European sex traffickers and drug dealers), which is irritating, and it does veer into a more visceral sort of violence at the end, which again, I'm just not a fan of. But I actually thought a lot of the characterizations were strong. There are multiple characters who all get some form of narration from their points of view--a small time 'clean-up man' and member of the prostitution syndicate who's saved up a great deal of money so that he can run away and start over; a Polish prostitute named Adina who has escaped and is hiding out in the apartment of one of her Danish patrons; a young Moldavian girl who has been sold in prostitution by her parents (but not yet actually handed over to the prostitution ring); a brutal pimp searching for Adina. And everyone looking for an escape route. The ending resolves well, although I actually suspect that there was a misprint of two characters' names. There's a change-of-heart twist at the end that doesn't really make sense given the men in question. But either way, it's got a good ending.
*All I Want Is My Baby, Whoah Whoah, Woah Woah Woah Woah: Inner monologue of a would-be psychopath. Slightly more interesting because the narrator is a woman, incensed because of an insulting pick up attempt--someone tells her that she looks like Keith Richards and she just loses it. Lots of dramatic language, but not actually much here.
*A Fine Boy: Okay? Not much here, but again, some good atmosphere. Also a fine bit of 'real Denmark' detail: a major plot point hinges on a character leaving her child outside in a stroller while she's working inside at a restaurant. This is a thing--really. Scandinavians leave their babies outside, unattended, in their prams all the time. Even when it's cold or rainy. They just tuck them under their blankets and cover them with little plastic wind guards and don't fuss about it.
Part Two: Mammon
*When the Time Came: Pretty darn good, with some flaws. More good atmosphere, localized and relevant immigration/racial tension and themes, and a nicely contained story with decently drawn characters. The immigrant characters get perhaps a more surface-level treatment and/or motives, but there's still some sincere empathy throughout.
*Sleipner's Assignment: Very good. So far, my favorite in the collection. Love the rundown, shady PI and the fact that he scales gothic-style apartment buildings--like climbs straight up the side of a building in the name of surveillance. Good tension and allusion to possible violence without needing to actually get brutal. Bears noting that the author, Georg Ursin, published his first (crime) novel at the age of 71.
*Debt of Honor: I started this one and stalled--it was a bit muddled. But then again, it's a story by Klaus Rifbjerg and he is, firstly, kinda a big deal, and secondly, not the most straightforward of authors, so I need to go back and try it again.
*When It's Tough Out There: Oh boy. Full veto. This one is really, really bad. Woman seeks revenge on her husband, who she has discovered is a brothel owner, by becoming a prostitute in his brothel. Oh, and her mom was a prostitute and died from an overdose when she (the narrator) was a child. Also, weird racial undertones. Also, terrible dialog. No. Just no.
Part Three: Corpses
*Savage City, Cruel City: This story was actually written in Swedish, and takes place in Malmö, which is actually the third largest city in Sweden (by population), but is kind of considered a suburb of Copenhagen because of its strong ties to Denmark, both culturally (it was, back in the day, a Danish territory) and economically. Malmö and Copenhagen are also connected by one of the longest bridges in Europe, so there is a lot more cross-over between it and Copenhagen now than there even used to be. All of this is very interesting context, and there is a sort of prose poem quality to the language and the pacing. Also, one of the main characters, a drunk detective named Nils Forsberg who is going through something of a spiritual crisis, has a lot of potential. I'm not sure that it really came together as well as it might have, but not a bad effort.
*The Elephant's Tusks: Meh. Starts with a lot of potential, and more good atmosphere. But nothing comes of it, and the ending is not only strange and a little gross, but kind of irrelevant and pointless.
*The Booster Station: Very Good--my second favorite in the collection after "Sleipner's Assignment." The author's bio reveals that the story was written by a "New Dane" (the incredibly loaded Danish term for immigrants or Danes of different ethnicities)of Turkish descent, although it doesn't have any of the racial or ethnic signifiers that carry so much weight and dread in the rest of the collection. It's very much like Stand By Me: two teenagers find the body of a young woman by some train tracks and convince themselves (briefly) that they are going to be heroes by catching the culprit themselves. As one boy becomes more obsessed with this plan, the other begins to have doubts about not reporting the crime immediately. Tautly paced, good characterization, lots of dramatic developments--some of them very unpleasant, but not gratuitous.
That's all but the last two. I'll probably finish those shortly, but will also have an overall review shortly. ...more
Although Nordic crime fiction has gained an incredible prominence on the world stage, Denmark has never been at the forefront of this movement. Among countless others in the field, Sweden has its Henning Mankell, Stig Larsson, and Sjöwall & Wahlöö; Norway its Jo Nesbø and Helene Tursten; Finland its Matti Yrjänä Joensuu; and Iceland its Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdadottir, but contemporary crime authors from Denmark have yet to gain renown as part of this current wave. One could speculate, however, that Danish authors are having their moment now: 2011 has seen the publication of English translations of The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, and Call Me Princess by Denmark’s “crime queen” Sara Blaedel.
Call Me Princess finds its tough, sailor-swearing, workaholic police detective Louise Rick tracking down a brutal serial rapist who targets women he meets through online dating websites. Having gained his victim’s trust after weeks of email correspondence, the rapist sets up what appear to be a perfectly chivalrous date. After a long, fancy dinner, the perpetrator returns to the woman’s apartment, where he then subjects her to mental and physical abuse. When Call Me Princess opens, one of this man’s victims has reported the crime. Just a few weeks later, the perpetrator murders his second victim, making it even more pressing that Louise and her colleagues make an arrest.
The story itself clips along at a reasonable speed, interspersing scenes of the ongoing investigation and its myriad dead-ends with short interludes in Louise’s daily life—her close friendship with ambitious crime beat reporter Camilla Lind (who ever so conveniently has started dating someone she met online) and Louise’s failing relationship with her live-in boyfriend Peter. The dialog sounds a bit tinny and the characters are by-and-large rather flat, but as Barbara Fister remarks in her review of the novel on this site [http://reviewingtheevidence.com/revie...], in its efficient-but-shallow approach, reading Call Me Princess is much “like watching an episode of a fairly entertaining television mystery.”
Unfortunately, there are two significant problems that loom over the story. For one, the plot is pervaded with head-smacking coincidences and the kind of farcical investigative ploys that anyone who has watched a few episodes of Law and Order will recognize as completely unworkable. For instance, police detectives don’t take civilian crime victims to help stake-out their attackers mere weeks after a crime has taken place. The most obvious reason is that this sort of situation would be dangerous for both the police officers and the victim. Moreover, this kind of set-up is completely devoid of empathy towards a person who has just endured a serious trauma.
This latter point brings us to the other, more disheartening problem about Call Me Princess. This is a novel written by a female author, about a female police officer who is investigating a string of heinous crimes against women. Given this, one might expect a substantial level of empathy throughout the book. But while Blaedel does attempt to make the reader feel for the victims—for instance, by relating both of the rape episodes from the women’s perspectives—her detective Rick is one of the more emotionally tone-deaf agents of the law that I’ve read in quite a long time.
Louise gestures towards compassion when dealing with rape victims—stiffly noting in one instance that the woman has “been through a terrifying experience”—but is unaccountably upset when the victim involved can’t render a full description of her rapist or articulate a full account of events just hours after she’s been attacked. There’s an explanation for this: we’re told that Louise avoids “…empathizing too much with other people’s sorrows and emotions,” in order to keep her work separate from her personal life. This makes sense, certainly. But Louise’s struggle to be understanding towards others bleeds into her personal life as well: into her relationship with her boyfriend, and also with her best friend Camilla. Struggling to be compassionate seems to be a major part of Louise’s character development in this series, so perhaps this weakness is meant to align her with the typical police detectives that abound in the genre: married to their work, solitary, unyielding in their morals and motivations. But more often than not, it just makes Louise Rick a difficult detective to root for....more
This is volume 214 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, a worthwhile and staggeringly large project if I've ever heard of one. I've used both thisThis is volume 214 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, a worthwhile and staggeringly large project if I've ever heard of one. I've used both this volume and the one on 20th Century Norwegian writers, both of which have been very comprehensive and helpful. Great resource. ...more
So far, this book has come in handy for at least one long piece I've written about a Danish author. I didn't totally agree with the editorial take onSo far, this book has come in handy for at least one long piece I've written about a Danish author. I didn't totally agree with the editorial take on the author in question, but the information was still extremely useful, comprehensive, and contextual. Looking forward to skimming through this volume more. A lengthy, but certainly illuminating project. ...more
Right off, let me say that the Trail We Leave is really a splendid book. Jumping between a very empathetic style of observation and a sense of humor wRight off, let me say that the Trail We Leave is really a splendid book. Jumping between a very empathetic style of observation and a sense of humor which really delights in the obvious absurdity of personal relationships, this is one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time, hands down. (The last really wonderful collection being Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, for what it's worth. And Ten Little Indians had its high points, too, for that matter, but I digress...)
The author, Ruben Palma, has an interesting back story to be sure. According to his bio in the back of the book, he grew up in Santiago, Chile, graduated from high school in 1971, and, after dabbling in "esoteric and eastern philosophies" "participated actively in what he believed was a libertarian, leftist movement" which he eventually left because of its "authoritarian nature." Palma became an army deserter after the coup in 1973, and became a refugee with the United Nations' protection. The next year, at the age of 19, Palma moved to Denmark. After 25 years in his adoptive country, Palma then actually started writing in Danish, the product being the aforementioned (and very highly acclaimed) story collection.
Most of the stories deal with the experience of (mostly Chilean)immigrants in Denmark in some measure--although some diverge slightly from this formula. We meet a Chilean man whose relationship with his Danish girlfriend is completely and absurdly upended when his language instructor sends an amorous postcard to his home. There's another man who flees to Finland over New Year's after some particularly complicated relationship issues, where he meets a man from Bangladesh who is trying, futilely, to win the affections of a Finnish foreign aid worker he met while she was working in his hometown. A little girl practicing her Danish lines in a school play while remembering her home town of Playa Verde.
The thread that runs through each of the stories is one of disjuncture and alienation, the turbulent negotiation of learning to integrate in a society so entirely different from one's own, of wanting to become something (and someone) new, while still desperately hanging on to what one once was. And while the experiences of the characters are all exquisitely unique and completely specific to them, Palma not only captures the "borderland," or the "strange places between a country forever lost and a new one," (as the translator writes in his notes) but also the very sticky process of identity creation and revision that everyone goes through.
The complications of identity creation are best articulated in "The Return of Roy Jackson," one of the best stories in the book. In it, Artemio Sandoval, a Columbian expat in Denmark, recalls a moment in his boyhood when he decided that he would be a writer one day:
The child Artemio had just written another story about Roy Jackson: his own fictitious cowboy who rode through wild landscapes while he shot at Indians and bandits. In 'The Return of Roy Jackson,' as the story was called, the hero, after many years' absence, had returned to his home town and freed it from the iron grip of a tyrannical villain.
The child used to end all his stories with a drawing, and full of excitement, he concentrated on making the very first stroke: a light, horizontal line drew Roy Jackson's jawbone, and from there he assumed his full shape gradually...
Suddenly, the child's mother came in, and her usual flurry seemed to fill the whole room in a flash...She stopped and smiled; her youngest child was far off in his own world when he bent over a piece of paper with pencil in hand. She went over to him, hugged him, closed her eyes and stared into the future...'Some day you will be a famous author, my Temito'...'
And so, even through all of the dramatic events that eventually bring Artemio to Denmark, he still retains this idea of himself as an author. But things aren't so simple. At first, he must transition to his new country. Then, he must decide what project deserves the majority of his attention. His writing goes nowhere. Time passes. Artemio takes on the persona of an author without ever really writing anything--"His clothes, movements, voice--his whole being took on a kind of literary appearance. Little by little people in his circle of acquaintances referred to him with a certain respect as "the author" or "the one who writes." But he's stopped writing all together.
There are a lot of developments and turns in the story which I won't give away because you should really go out and read it yourself, but suffice to say that eventually, decades later, Artemio realizes that it was never writing that he really loved--it was drawing. And so his whole life, he's been working towards becoming this person--and towards making people know him as this person--who he never really wanted to be. It's devastating and liberating all at the same time.
The topic of immigration is a really fraught one in Denmark--a country which has been accustomed to having a coherent national identity, comprised of common traditions, and language, and culture. To become a citizen in Denmark, one has to renounce her former citizenship. It's not a country that has much experience with the so-called 'hypenated' identities that the US does. There are no 'Chilean-Danes'--a whole national debate has raged for years over what to call immigrants (I've believe they are still settled on "New Danes," as the term, though who knows how long you have to live there before you can just be considered an 'Old Dane.')But again, although The Trail We Leave speaks to this very unique transitional experience, it will surely resonate with a much wider audience. I hope that we get more of his work in English in the future. ...more
It is my pre/post New Year's resolution to have read this book by the end of next year and, with any luck, to understand at least 35% of the audio booIt is my pre/post New Year's resolution to have read this book by the end of next year and, with any luck, to understand at least 35% of the audio book as it is being narrated. A very long-term project......more
I was able to read this one out loud, which was an immense ego boRead via the International Digital Children's website: http://en.childrenslibrary.org
I was able to read this one out loud, which was an immense ego boost. The translation read quite fluidly I thought, although my Danish tutor did point out that the subject matter wasn't terribly Danish. Or as she said, "They're not really dino people..."...more
Although a number of these stories were at least reminiscent of ones I am already familiar with--including variations on "Show White," "Cinderella," aAlthough a number of these stories were at least reminiscent of ones I am already familiar with--including variations on "Show White," "Cinderella," and "Hansel and Gretel"--I really enjoyed this collection. I'm not terribly well versed in folk traditions and hadn't actually realized what an overlap there is between different countries and their oral fables and stories.
Perhaps the aforementioned overlap is most notable (and unexpected)in the story of "The Enchanted Farmhand." It's the tale of a farmhand who finds out that the rich woman he works for has a magic salve that transforms her into an eagle. He tries it out on himself only to turn into a donkey. Unable to get one of the magic apples that will turn him back into a human, the poor farmhand is stolen by bandits, sold to a farmer, and whipped and worked mercilessly until he's able to come up with a clever trick to appease his master. Then, through a random and convenient twist of fate, he's found by the woman with the salve and transformed back into a human. This story is a derivation of a Greek story which was used as the basis for a story in The Metamorphosis and also Apuleius' The Golden Ass.
The narrative conventions in these stories was also really interesting. Magical plot elements are created and utilized as the story calls for them, and there's never any effort expended to justify them. Nuns suddenly have the power to grant wishes, old beggar women wander around dispensing magical advice and giving wonderful gifts to hapless princesses. People fall into ponds and can breathe underwater. Having preceeded the-suspension-of-your-disbelief, these stories are purely and without question the product of the teller--whatever the storyteller says goes, and the reader (or listener) just has to accept it without question.
The morality of these tales also varies--most likely because they were collected from various parts of the country and some are from oral traditions, while some were gathered from pre-existing written texts. Sometimes curiosity is rewarded, sometimes it results in the death of all your future children. Sometimes strangers will give you wonderful gifts, and sometimes they are your stepmother in disguise and trying to kill you. Not exactly words to live by.
But there is one absolute that could be taken away from these stories: never, ever, ever go wandering off into the forest......more
I love Ole Lund Kirkegaard. His books--okay, at least the two I've read--are delightful: tangential, imaginative stories about mischievous children whI love Ole Lund Kirkegaard. His books--okay, at least the two I've read--are delightful: tangential, imaginative stories about mischievous children whose everyday, hum-drum lives get shaken up by crazy adventures--if only for a moment. In Otto er et Næsehorn (Otto is a Rhinoceros), Topper, the son of a sailor who spends most of his days on the high seas, finds a magic pencil. At first, it seems that everything that is written with the pencil disappears. So Topper decides to draw a huge, yellow rhinoceros on his mother's living room wall. But this time, instead of disappearing, the rhino (who Topper names Otto) comes to life and starts eating all the furniture. Hilarity, as you might expect, ensues.
Finishing this book was doubly satisfying because it was one that I had tried to read not that long ago, with little success. During one of my first Danish classes, I asked the instructor if she could recommend any Danish children's books that I could look for. My logic was that I essentially learned English by reading a lot--why not try the same thing with Danish? I didn't expect to understand everything, simply get a sense of the way sentences are constructed and maybe learn some whimsical vocab on the way.
Anyway, when I asked, this instructor looked at me oddly and then just said No. She said it would be too advanced and wouldn't do me any good. A little pressing on my part and she finally told me about this book, and to her credit, even let me borrow her own copy--although when I returned it, she simply said, "It was too hard, wasn't it?"
So it is with no small amount of a satisfaction that I can now say that, no--Otto er et Næsehorn is not too hard. It might be peppered with very old-fashioned Danish sayings (the sort of things that little old grandmas exclaim on occasion) and Kirkegaard has a weird way with punctuation (no question marks?), but it is another mischievous, imaginative, ironic offering from a wonderful storyteller, which is, again, simply delightful.
I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through an inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California's Southern Library Facility, you really madI obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through an inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California's Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.
This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to "Show!" and "Not Tell!" But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthly, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel's protagonist:
"Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing...It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called "rump-cooler," that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body..."
The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.
It's wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won't have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don't seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California--you have excellent taste.)
As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,
"There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no "depressing realism." The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: "do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?" The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or "debate." The choice also has the advantage of bring to students' attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching "cannon." He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses."
While the English book market is (comparatively) flush with Swedish, Norwegian, and now, Icelandic crime novels, it seems that Denmark's translated faWhile the English book market is (comparatively) flush with Swedish, Norwegian, and now, Icelandic crime novels, it seems that Denmark's translated fare tends to favor more genre-bending prototypes(think Christian Jungersen's The Exception or any one of Leif Davidsen's poli-pop-thrillers). Translated Danish 'crime-fiction,' displays less of an interest detectives and cold cases, and more of an interest in the psychology of its main characters and the circumstances that brought them to their extra-societal actions. Gross generalizations, of course, but until we get a better market for translated fiction--or I'm able to read in Danish--this is the best explanation I can offer.
I discovered Anders Bodelsen because his book Taenk på et Tal (English: Think of a Number) was made into a film starring the excellent Elliott Gould. And happily, it seems that my suspicions about Danish crime fiction do apply here--according to DanishLiterature.info (the state-sponsored literature database and journal), "Bodelsen´s preferred genre is the individual-psychological short story and the social-realistic thriller...In his two most successful books, the thrillers Tænk på et tal (The Silent Partner, 1968) and Hændeligt uheld (One Down, 1968), Bodelsen deals with the ordinary middle-class person who becomes a criminal. According to the author, the key-word is identification. 'Could it have been me?'"
The story opens just before Christmas, when solitary, apathetic bank clerk Flemming Borck uncovers a plot to rob his bank. (It's a convoluted set-up, so we'll just leave it at that.) After doing a little rookie recon, Borck identifies the would-be bank robber as a faux shopping-mall Santa Claus, and counter-plots to steal the money himself and let Santa take the blame. This works out about as badly as you might imagine, and our bumbling protagonist spirals further and further away from the carefree, laconic lifestyle he had hoped to ensure for himself.
In Flemming Borck the reader is offered a relatively sympathetic character--a man who almost arbitrarily decides to steal upwards of 170,000 kroner and then can't figure what to do with it. A good portion of the book is spent with Borck trying to retrieve the money he's stolen and hidden, and the most scathing criticism leveled at him throughout the novel is that he's an "amateur." For the brief moment that everything is going right for maladroit Flemming Borck, however, we can all feel good. He's got money to spare, an exotic retreat from his hum-drum life, and the excitement of having a secret--of being capable of something more daring than anyone thinks he is.
It's no surprise that the novel was made into a movie--Andersen's handling of suspense and scene-setting is distinctly cinematic. (The closing scenes, set in Tunis, practically jump off the page as film stock.) Andersen truncates action and hops from character to character, allowing his readers the pleasure of a panoramic perspective and the ability to predict the many shortcomings of Borck's off-the-cuff plotting. However, this panorama is often distorted in the service of suspense, and Bodelsen's sometimes dodgy prose can complicate situations to the point of confusion.
In the height of his success, during a long vacation in the Mediterranean, Borck thinks to himself, "Three weeks in the sun with a beautiful girl, a cool house for his siestas, wine you uncorked without giving it a thought: what more could you wish for?" That such simple desires come at such cost is then what Think of a Number really asks us to consider. ...more