Category Archives: Scandanavian Literature

Review: Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom

I received an advance review copy of this title from Graywolf Press.  This title was published in the original Finnish in 2011 and this English version has been translated by Lola Rogers.  This is my first contribution to Women in Translation Month which is taking place all during the month of August.

My Review:
Compartment No. 6As I first started reading this book I kept wondering why a young Finnish girl would choose to attend university in the Soviet Union during the decade of the 1980’s.  But as the plot progresses it is revealed that the girl, who is never given a name, falls in love with Moscow on a trip with her family.  But the Moscow she sees on her trip as a young high school student is the pristine and official one, created and controlled by the government, and is very different than the one the girl encounters as a university student on her trip across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway.  When the girl boards the train she chooses compartment No. 6 because it is quiet and empty but her solitude is soon disrupted by a gruff and garrulous ex-soldier named Vadim.

When the girl boards the train on her way to Mongolia she seems emotionally numb and the sexually explicit and crass stories of her traveling companion don’t appear to penetrate her malaise.  The author cleverly emphasizes the girl’s mental aloofness by blurring certain details that we would expect from a main character.  As I have already mentioned, she is never given a name and is simply referred to as “the girl” and her speech is never directly quoted anywhere in the text.  When Vadim and other characters are speaking, traditional quotations and direct speech are used, but the girl’s thoughts and words are always summed up in the third person.  Vadim tells one tale after another of his sexual conquests, fights and outrageous behavior but the girl is too lost in her own world to have the strong reaction to him that one would expect.

As the bleak landscape of the taiga passes her by, the girl reflects back on her time in Moscow as a student where she lived with her boyfriend, Mitka.  Her memories are scattered and disjointed and it felt as though I was looking through an old photograph album with her and getting the barest details about her relationship.  As she describes her life in Moscow, it appears that she is remembering Mitka with a feeling of bitter sweetness and there is something that has happened with Mitka and his mother that has made her flee Moscow and get as far away from them as possible.  There are vague descriptions of Mitka having a severe breakdown and being in a mental institution and the girl’s subsequent relationship with Mitka’s mother.  There is also an intriguing story of a violent encounter that the girl and Mitka suffer one night in Moscow.  This is another example of the details of the text being blurred and leaving the reader to speculate about the girl’s life in Moscow.

As the girl and Vadim get farther along on their journey, they form an unusual bond of what I would loosely call friendship.  Vadim is a man who likes to be the center of attention and tell outrageous stories and the girl listens to him.  She does flee their compartment when he suggests that they have sex, but she always comes back.  Vadim performs small tasks for the girl like brewing her tea and sharing his meals and arranging for places to stay when the train stops overnight.  Even though Vadim has had a rough life and has a proclivity towards violence, even with his own wife, he is patient and protective of this strange Finnish girl.  The culminating moment in their relationship is when they reach Mongolia and she is having a hard time dealing with her government appointed tour guide.  She seeks out Vadim, cries on his shoulder and he sets about making everything right for her.

The two most interesting aspects of this book are the relationship that develops between the girl and Vadim and the amazingly detailed descriptions of the Soviet landscape from one end of that country to another during the late 1980’s.  Even though it is spring, the forests and landscapes which the train passes are empty, untouched,  snow-covered and bleak.  By contrast, the Soviet towns at which the train makes stops are industrial, dirty, and crowded and in shambles.  The people of these towns are trying to squeeze out an existence in whatever ways they are able.  The shelves of department stores are bare and the people are forced to bargain for their vodka on the black market.  One of the most peculiar descriptions are those of the restaurants they visit which have “closed” signs on the doors but are crowded with people and the girl enters anyway.  This brings us back to the conclusion that nothing is as it seems in this brutal, cold and bizarre place that is the Soviet Union.  The author must have visited this place at some point in order to capture such vivid details in her writing.

For those interested in post-Soviet literature then Liksom’s book is a must-read.  Looking at this strange place through the eyes of a foreigner provides a unique lens for us to get another glimpse at the last days of the Soviet Union before it dissolves into oblivion.

About the Author:
R LiksomRosa Liksom was born in a village of eight houses in Lapland, Finland, where her parents were reindeer breeders and farmers. She spent her youth traveling Europe, living as a squatter and in communes. She paints, makes films, and writes in Helsinki.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature, Travel Writing

Review: The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist

My Review:
The Parable BookThis is the story of an author who is looking back and assessing his life through a series of lesson, or parables, he has learned which have particularly shaped his spiritual life.  The author’s name is Perola and his life appears to have an uncanny resemblance to that of Enquist’s himself.  When the book begins Perola is lamenting the speech he delivered at his mother’s funeral and decides he wants to write a better one to hand out to his relatives.  He reminisces about his childhood with his mother who was his only parent for most of his life.

One of the few possessions Perola has left of his father is a notebook full of poetry and personal reflections.  But the notebook was half-burned because his mother threw it into the fire and decided to save it at the last minute.   This notebook is also missing nine pages which his mother tore out.  The author spends a great part of the book comtemplating why his other decided to save the notebook at the last minute and what might have been contained in those missing nine pages.

Perola is brought up in a very religious environment and he is even on track to study religion and become a reverend.  Since Perola is now an old man who is sick with a bad stomach and heart, he contemplates the parables he learned that changed the course of his life.  One of his earliest memories is of a sickly Aunt Valborg who is asked by an uncle why she doesn’t pray or go to church anymore.  Aunt Valborg’s answer is simple yet has a profound effect on Perola’s life and is something he remembers until his dying days.  She says, ” I know for certain there is nothing there.”  Aunt Valborg had prayed to The Saviour and her only answer was a resounding silence and at that point she no longer regarded herself a believer.  This simple statement that he overhears his aunt say is the first crack in the surface a foundation of religion that Perola’s mother tried to establish.  It shocks him because he never realized that not to believe was even an option.

The pivotal point of the book during which time Perola knows that a devout, religions life is not the correct path for him is when he has his first sexual encounter with a much older woman.  Perola is fifteen and he visits a fifty-one year old woman who is renting a cottage in the village.  Perola is at first nervous to be around her but he is put at ease when they discuss books and have lemonade.  And she very slowly and tenderly introduces him to the world of sexual intimacy.

This scene in the book is not salacious or inappropriate; the woman and Perola both serve a need for each other and this experience further shapes his non-religious awakening.  Perola describes this sexual experience in religious terms during which he has a epiphany.  But this moment of clarity actually turns him away from religion instead of driving him toward it.  According to the beliefs he is taught, he should feel guilty about what has happened between himself and the woman on the knot free pine floor.  But instead he feels like his experience has invited him to step inside what he calls “the innermost room” and begin to experience the meaning of life.

This is a truly literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable.  Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book.  Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side.

For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read.  So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K.  I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

About the Author:
P EnquistPer Olov Enquist, better known as P. O. Enquist is one of Sweden’s internationally best known authors. He has worked as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. In the nineties, he gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician.

After a degree in History of literature at Uppsala University he worked as a newspaper columnist and TV debate moderator from 1965 to 1976. Because of his work he soon became an influential figure on the Swedish literary scene. From 1970 to 1971 Enquist lived in Berlin on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and in 1973 he was a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has been working as an independent writer since 1977.

Enquist’s works are characterized by a chronic pessimistic view of the world. They always describe the restrictions imposed by the pietistical way of living, especially in March of the Musicians (1978) and Lewi’s Journey (2001). He gained international recognition with his novel The Visit of The Royal Physician (1999) where he tells the story of Struensee, the personal physician of the Danish King Christian VII. Many of Enquist’s works have been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally.

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, Scandanavian Literature

Review: Clinch by Martin Holmén

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.  This was published in 2015 in the original Swedish and this English version has been translated by Henning Koch.

My Review:
ClinchHarry Kvist is an former boxer who lives in the decrepit, dirty and seedy city of Stockholm in the 1930’s.  The city is full of tramps, prostitutes, and bootleggers as well as poor and destitute citizens who have been affected by the economic collapse of this decade.  Kvist himself leads a hard life by serving as a collector of debts to those who have defaulted on payments.  His specialty is repossessing bicycles which is easy money for him.  When the novel begins Kvist is collecting on a debt from a man named Zetterberg who owes a few thousand kronor.  Kvist scares Zetterberg by giving him a good beating that is not enough to kill him, but enough to leave him with a few scars as a “reminder” to pay the money he owes.  When Zetterberg is found dead the next day, Kvist is the prime suspect and he is immediately picked up by the police.

Kvist spends a few rough nights in a disgusting jail cell covered in urine and lice.  He is given a working over by the detectives and after they don’t get any information out of him he is released.  He spends the next few days hunting downs leads about Zetterberg’s murder and trying to find a prostitute named Sonja who is the only person who can provide him with an alibi for the time of the murder.  Kvist’s detective work takes him to bars, gangster hideouts, slums and brothels.  The best part of the book is the author’s ability to fully capture the squalid, dingy and oftentimes dangerous city.  The streets are an interesting mix of pre-industrial Europe and the slow progress towards modernization.  Horse carts still plow the streets and deliver coal, but cars are also driven through the crowded and dirty city.

The plot about the murder is slow to advance throughout the course of the book.  However, Kvist’s contact with the seedy underbelly of the city make for some thrilling scenes.  His always has a desire to use his boxing skills and he gets into several fist fights with other gritty characters.  He is also shot at and chased after and there is rarely a dull moment in Kvist’s life.  But even though there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the book, Kvist is not a murderer or a psychopath.  He can be sensitive to the needs of others, especially women who are in a tough spot or emotionally distraught.  He is even nice to animals and feeds the starving strays on the streets of Stockholm.  All of these details give us a multi-dimensional character with whom, even when he is violent, we can sympathize.

Kvist’s sexuality and his experimentation with both males and females gives the book an added layer of interest and sophistication.  Kvist has several encounters with different men at the beginning of the book which is very dangerous for him since any type of homosexual act is illegal at the time.  But Kvist’s sexual preferences are not an “either, or” choice.  He also hints at the fact that he has a daughter and makes comments about the type of woman that attracts him.  He spends quite a bit of time in the second part of the book sleeping with an actress who was trying to contract him for his collection serves.  The exploration of his sexuality, which is not usually done in Noir fiction,  adds another brilliant dimension to his character.

I am excited that this is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy about Harry Kvist and I am eager to read the next two installments which are coming out in the next year.  This is noir writing as its best and you won’t want to give this book a miss if you are a fan of this genre.

About the Author:
M HolmenMartin Holmén is a Swedish writer based in Stockholm. He was orn in 1974. He teaches History, Swedish and History of Culture and Ideas at an upper secondary school in Stockholm two days a week. He is the author of the Harry Kvist trilogy.

 

 

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Mystery/Thriller, Scandanavian Literature, Summer Reading

Review: I Refuse by Per Petterson

This title was published in the original Norwegian in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Don Bartlett.  Graywolf Press has just released the title in a paperback version.

My Review:
I RefusePetterson presents us with the story of Tommy and Jim who grew up together under difficult circumstances in the same small town in Norway.  They lose touch with one another and a chance meeting on a cold morning on a bridge brings them back together and causes memories of their troubled childhood to flood their lives.  The story alternates between 2006, when they are middle-aged men and the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when they are teenagers.  Since their early years are full of tragedy, we get the feeling that for the rest of their lives they are fighting a constant emotional battle, pushing back against the darkness and continually having to say “I Refuse” to unpleasant circumstance.

Tommy’s mother abandoned her family when he was a small boy and she left his abusive father to care for Tommy and his three younger sisters.  Tommy’s father beats his children on a regular basis by kicking them in places that do not leave visible marks.  The children console themselves by gathering in their bedroom and comparing bruises.  One day Tommy’s father goes too far and beats him so severely that Tommy’s bruises take weeks to heal.  This is the first time in the book that Tommy steps up and says “I Refuse” to his father’s abuse as  he takes a bat and breaks his father’s ankle.  After this day Tommy’s father disappears, leaving the children alone to fend for themselves in the world.

The first part of the book is full of foreboding and gloom as the author foreshadows the fate of Tommy and his siblings.  After Tommy’s father disappears, their house is boarded up and the children are dispersed among different families  Tommy’s youngest sisters, five-year-old twins, are taken to a neighbor’s house to live.  Siri, his other sister and his closest friend, is taken to town to live with another family.  Tommy himself is taken in by a man named Jonsen who is a lonely bachelor that shows pity and compassion for Tommy.  But this man is not just being kind to a troubled teenager; we learn that Jonsen has more details and intimate knowledge of Tommy’s mother and her story.

Although on the surface Jim’s story appears to be less tragic than his best friend Tommy’s, his emotional wounds run just as deep.  Jim is raised by a Christian mother who sends him to a Christian school.  She never speaks about Jim’s father and Jim has no idea who he is.  Growing up with no male role model seems just as damaging to Jim as an abusive father is to Tommy.  Jim’s emotional state is fragile and all it takes for him to have a breakdown is an innocuous incident on a ice skating outing with Tommy.  Jim’s mental illness causes him to disconnect from his best friend and the saddest part of the story is the parting of these two friends.

In the end, it is Tommy who is able to resist the evil and dark forces that have surrounded him for most of his life.  Tommy becomes a successful businessman and at the end of the book there is even a sweet love story for him.  Jim, on the other hand, who appeared to have a bit more of a stable home life is no where near as resilient as Tommy.  Jim has a successful career as a librarian but a series of panic attacks force him to take a leave of absence from his job and he spends long periods of time alone and in bed.  In the end Jim cannot muster the spirit to say “I Refuse” and he gives into the darkness.

This is my first Per Petterson book and I enjoyed every aspect of it: the writing, the characters and the alternating narrative.  I am eager to read more of his novels.  Please let me know if the comments what other Petterson books you recommend!

About the Author:
Per PettersonPetterson knew from the age of 18 that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t embark on this career for many years – his debut book, the short story collection Aske i munnen, sand i skoa, (Ashes in the Mouth, Sand in the Shoes) was published 17 years later, when Petterson was 35. Previously he had worked for years in a factory as an unskilled labourer, as his parents had done before him, and had also trained as a librarian, and worked as a bookseller.
In 1990, the year following the publication of his first novel, Pettersen’s family was struck by tragedy – his mother, father, brother and nephew were killed in a fire onboard a ferry.

His third novel Til Sibir (To Siberia) was nominated for The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, and his fourth novel I kjølvannet (In the Wake), which is a young man’s story of losing his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster in 1990, won the Brage Prize for 2000.
His breakthrough, however, was Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses) which was awarded two top literary prizes in Norway – the The Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Booksellers’ Best Book of the Year Award.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature