oriana's Reviews > The Conqueror

The Conqueror by Jan Kjærstad
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Mar 10, 09

bookshelves: read-2009, the-new-new-new-new-thing
Read in February, 2009

after reading: This is an incredibly difficult book to review. Between the metanarrativity and the densely complex storytelling style and the historical trivia, not to mention structuring it all as a very intellectual whodunit (kind of)... well, it's difficult to even unravel what I think, let alone write it up in a tidy little review. So please bear with the untidiness, at least.

The Conqueror is the second volume in a trilogy (the first is The Seducer and the third, which comes out next year, is The Discoverer) about Jonas Wergeland, an astonishingly famous (in the world of the novel) television personality. Jonas is the creator of the television series Thinking Big, which celebrates great Norwegian men and women, each episode focusing on one person – explorers, composers, ballerinas, scientists, etc. The descriptions of these televisions shows, which are liberally sprinkled throughout the novel, are meticulously detailed, brilliantly shaped with cinematic language and such a wealth of description that you have a strange sense of watching TV while reading a book. Which is incredible. The other amazing thing about the descriptions of these programs is that – as near as I an Wikipedia can tell – they are about real people, real Norwegians who really did do incredible things. I of course can't speak for the reading experience this would be for someone more savvy, or more local, but for me, who had heard of none of these people before I came to these books, the experience was revelatory, giving me a social history lesson along with my fiction. Amazing.

But actually, the television programs are not what these books are about. They are about Jonas Wergeland, as vast and varied a person as you could ever hope to read about, the kind of person whose life has been so rich, so rife, that it is almost unbelievable to think about all the experiences that have been crammed into one lifetime. Or maybe not... maybe it's more a demonstration of the power of looking at seemingly mundane events and finding the incredible in them, of turning them over and over in your hands and extracting meaning which elevates them far beyond what they seemed to be. I felt this way when reading The Seducer especially, that such a charmed life is only possible retrospectively, once all the glut of meaning has been imposed upon those small events.

The Seducer felt a bit like a hagiography, if I'm being honest. It was stunning, certainly, but the picture it painted of Jonas Wergeland was very nearly too much to bear. This was tempered slightly, of course, by the fact that the entire book was in flashback, and the 'present time' was Jonas having returned from a business trip abroad to find his wife Magrette, the love of his life and another of the most fascinating characters I've ever read, brutally murdered.

And brilliantly, The Conqueror completely turns the tables. See, in this one, a professor is commissioned to write a definitive biography of Jonas Wergeland, once the most famous man in Norway, after the media circus surrounding the trial Jonas stood after being accused of brutally murdering his wife. (The Conqueror even goes so far as to mention The Seducer meta-ly, describing how the previous biography of Jonas had been so overly adulatory that no one took it seriously.) This book, then, gives the dark side of the minutia Jonas Wergeland's life, with the same meaning-applied-via-hindsight brilliance, the same examinations of a life brimming over with experiences, but this time as many bad ones as good, as many creepy wrongs as glorious rights.

All this, and I haven't even really gotten to the most important aspect of this book yet: the language. I haven't talked about the way all these stories unfold, like the memories of a stoned or half-asleep person, one tale sliding into the next and into the next, before the first is finished, or following a minor aspect of one thing off on a trail quite somewhere else. But lest you get the impression that this is sloppily done, no no no. All of these half-stories weave themselves into a crazy tapestry all the time, like those pictures of faces that are made up of a million tiny pictures of airplanes and fruit and furniture. Much is made in this book, in fact, of the nature of stories, and the order of stories, and whether, if a life is broken down into its composite stories and then reassembled with exquisite care, would it be possible for it to have a different shape, or even a different ending? If you stack up all the piano compositions and ice sculptures and trips to Japan and drunken nights just so, is it possible to wind up not having murdered your wife?

And The Conqueror saves answering that question until the very last pages. In fact, the truth is that it is saved (I can only assume) for the next book, because it is not... quite... definitively stated here. And believe me, you (the reader) will spend all 480 pages convincing yourself that things are going to work out. Because Jonas is the most complex, riveting, stormy and sensational character I have probably ever met.

(P.S., did I mention the sex scenes? There are plenty, and they are dizzyingly good. The sexiest intellectual softcore I have ever come across.)


before reading: So Open Letter, the incredible new small press all focused on books in translation, had a raffle for a proof of this book, the second in a trilogy – the first book of which I read by total accident maybe four years ago and was I just blown the hell away by – and get this: I won. I won! I have never won anything like that before.

So once I cleanse my palette from World War Z , this is so next.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Monica (new)

Monica Amazing review.


message 2: by Tara (new)

Tara I'm with Matt and Monica. I would've never picked up this book ordinarily. Now I'm going to rush to my next browsing tab and pick it up. Thanks for another awesome review!


oriana Gosh, thanks you guys. I felt like I did a really dreadful job of reviewing this intensely complex book, like I didn't even scratch the surface of its awesomeness. For example, I never mentioned the recurring motif of the dragon, did I? Like how Jonas swallows a button as a child (which he believes to be made of a dragon's horn) and never poops it out (even though he watches for it for days) and is convinced for the rest of his life (only sort of in jest) that it has lodged in his spine, a magic button, which warns him of danger and opportunity. Or the part where his stunning cousin Veronica Røed ties him to a bed, naked, and tries to have her way with him. Or the part about the radio plays or the stamp collecting or the ice sculpture or the Turkish bazaar he visits where he begins having prophetic dreams....

Anyway, I hope some of you guys will read this soon and do better jobs of reviewing it than I did!


Manny Great review! Thanks. And I'm totally sold too... in fact, so much so that I think I'll try reading the series in the original. Words I may live to regret :)



message 5: by Tara (new)

Tara Hey Oriana, I have a question. I purchased The Conqueror from Open Letter, but I didn't see anyplace to get The Seducer. I tried to get it through my university's ILL and it didn't come up there, either. Any suggestions for how I might get the first book?


oriana Hi Tara! I just did a quick search on addall, my favorite place to get used books, and lots of copies came up: http://used.addall.com/SuperRare/Refi...

If you wanted to buy it new, I'm not sure. My copy is from a British press, or maybe even Canadian, and I got it at the used book store I used to work at...

So glad more people are going to read these books!!


oriana Manny wrote: "in fact, so much so that I think I'll try reading the series in the original. Words I may live to regret :)"

Manny, goddammit! How many languages do you know anyway?? You put the rest of us slackers to shame...


Manny The problem is that I don't really know Norwegian. I can sort of wing it because it's so close to Swedish, but it's a bit of a stretch.

All the same, I have managed to get through a few Norwegian novels, and this series sounds totally brilliant...



Manny I just ordered the first one in Norwegian. Will report in due course!


message 10: by Eric_W (new)

Eric_W This is a great review. Detailed without spoiling; enthusiastic without being hagigraphic. I was totally unfamiliar with this author. Thanks for rectifying this oversight. I see Amazon has several used copies also.


message 11: by Tara (new)

Tara Thanks Oriana! A new wonderful place to buy books, I love it!


message 12: by Conrad (new)

Conrad Yup, reading Seducer soon. Another great review, Oriana.


oriana Aw, awesome. Thanks Conrad!!


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