Category: Swedish

IFFP 2015: Bannerhed and Lee

RavensTomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (2011)
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (2014)

The Ravens is narrated by Klas, who lives on his family farm in the 1970s. He watches his father Agne toiling away, and dreams of a different life for himself. Klas loves nature, but has no wish to inherit the farm; he can see what the work has done – is doing – to his father, and doesn’t want to fall into that trap of obsession and despair; though at times it seems that something similar might be happening to him. The arrival of a city girl, Veronika, offers Klas a glimpse of what life could be; though the reality of Veronika’s life may not be as golden as Klas’ perception of it.

In terms of the IFFP longlist, Boyhood Island is the most obvious comparison to The Ravens; Bannerhed’s prose comes across as more ‘crafted’ than Knausgaard’s, but I like some of the effects Bannerhed creates. Agne’s perspective remains distant from us, even as he becomes more and more troubled; which makes those moments when we do see how much he has been affected by his illness all the more forceful. Klas’ descriptions of the natural world stand out among his narration as the moments when he is most at peace. I think there’s a good chance that The Ravens will make an appearance on the IFFP shortlist, and I wouldn’t mind if it did.


Jung-myung Lee, The Investigation (2014)
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

In 1944, a guard, Sugiyama Dozan, is found hanged inside Fukuoka Prison; a more junior guard, Watanabe Yuichi, is tasked with investigating the death. All is not quite as it first seems: Sugiyama’s lips have been sewn shut, and this feared individual has a poem tucked in his pocket. What’s going on? Watanabe’s investigation comes to centre on one of the prisoners, the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (a real-life historical figure); gradually, Watanabe uncovers the extent of what has been happening at Fukuoka, and why Sugiyama lost his life.

I’m torn over The Investigation. On the one hand, this is a book about the power of words and literature – poetry’s capacity to change minds; the tension between Watanabe’s love of reading and his new duties as prison censor; the importance for the Korean prisoners of holding on to their own names and language. I’m naturally sympathetic to a novel like that.

However, for a novel whose plot is so celebratory of language, the prose feels rather… ordinary. There’s also a touch of novel-as-history-lesson about The Investigation; this can be interesting – and it often is, in this case – but it’s not really what I want from a novel, especially one up for a literary award. I can’t really see The Investigation going any further in the IFFP: it’s OK, but so are many other novels; compared to the rest of the longlist, it’s one of the weakest titles for me.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

"He can only speak through a book and they only listen through it"

Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

EnquistThere’s something disconcerting about meeting a veteran author’s work for the first time in what is effectively a fictionalised autobiography. You have the sense of coming to know that author more deeply than others whom you might have read for years (though of you course you don’t know them, or at least can’t be sure what you know), but without the context that a greater knowledge of the writer’s work might bring.

Perhaps that goes double for The Wandering Pine, a book that sometimes brings you almost unbearably close to its author-protagonist’s experiences, and at other times reminds you how distant it remains. Per Olov Enquist was in his early seventies when the book was first published in Swedish in 2008, though the events narrated run up to about 1990. It’s written in the third person, which has an immediate fictionalising and distancing effect; the obliqueness of its structure and style only add to that.

The first part of The Wandering Pine is one of the finest depictions of childhood that I’ve read in a long time – albeit one of a very particular childhood. The young Per-Ola, as he’s known, grows up in a village in northern Sweden; his mother is the deeply religious village teacher; he doesn’t remember his father, who died when he was six months old. There are vivid flashes of life, such as the great expedition to visit family each Christmas (a bus journey in the darkness, then though the forest on uncle’s sleigh). But Enquist’s main focus is the personal, and his book shines as it depicts Per-Ola trying to make sense of the competing forces at work in the world around him. For example, out of duty the boy invents a sin for Saturday confession, because he feels that he never has any real sins to confess. Later, he struggles to reconcile the piety of the local revivalist movement with his own burgeoning sexual awareness and the (to him) obvious links between sexuality and the movement’s emphasis on ritual: “You had to bow your head in the anguish of sin, and only in silence feel the irresistible draw of the warm, the forbidden…Where everyone else found warmth and security, he found only guilt and anxiety” (p, 96). Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation comes into its own when treating such personal themes, as they become undercurrents in the text that bind together disparate scenes.

Per-Ola may feel that he can’t find his way in the world, but there is one thing above all that gives him a measure of security: “it becomes natural for him to feel no fear when he writes. But only when he writes” (p. 82). Indeed, it’s striking that there is so much in The Wandering Pine about writing in comparison to, say, Enquist’s personal relationships. This is very much a  chronicle of a writer’s life, in the sense that writing is how its protagonist engages with the world, and his problems and concerns are largely mediated through the act of writing.

The middle of The Wandering Pine concerns the beginnings and continuing success of Enquist’s writing career. I have my reservations about this section: it is not that it doesn’t work – on the contrary, there are some quite effective passages, such as when P.O. (no longer Per-Ola) decides to write a novel about a particularly contentious aspect of recent Swedish history, and discovers that many potential pitfalls lie in wait. But for me, this stretch of the book just doesn’t have the same intensity as the opening. I think it’s because the subject matter feels less fundamental, more concerned with the ‘busyness’ of life.

But the final section of the book heads into darker, more deeply personal territory, and regains the strength of the beginning. The hints are oblique at first: a comment that “he knows he is sinking” (p. 313); or an abrupt shift in circumstances – P.O. living alone in Paris, writing about a childhood home he never had, in more sustained detail than anything we’ve come across previously. The truth emerges: P.O. is an alcoholic. This section then becomes in some ways an inversion of the beginning: periods of treatment slip from the narrator’s memory, driving the scenes apart where at the start they were drawn together. A scene where the treatment centre inmates are forced into painful confrontations with their relatives stands in opposition to Per-Ola’s childhood, where the hurt came from what he did not have the opportunity to say to his family. This whole period is a bleak one for P.O., but he does come through; and he knows his life has turned around when he can visualise – what else? – his next book.

The original Swedish title of this book, Ett Annat Liv, can be translated as ‘Another Life’, or ‘A Different Life’ as it appears in the text of the English version. This is a reference to P.O.’s desire to hold on to his true self when being subjected to treatment (which he regards as an intrusion) for his addiction, and the new life he feels he that he gains on recovery. The Wandering Pine, on the other hand, is how Enquist describes himself as a reporter at the 1972 Munich Olympics – the tall but unobtrusive observer. The English title gives the book a different emphasis: the author as quiet documentarian of his own life, rather than the central transformation indicated by the Swedish title. In the end, I think the two titles sum up the different sides of Enquist’s book: a journey through a life that we experience as passengers, but with a vivid sense of what it was to live that life – in fiction, at any rate.

The Wandering Pine is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

John Ajvide Lindqvist, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ (2011)

Six months after his partner Annelie died in a road accident, our narrator moved with his son Robin to a cheap house in the forest; he got rid of the things he thought were unnecessary, but soon regretted being so rash in destroying Annelie’s things. All that remained was her old piano, which he now insists Robin learn to play. But what is the strange music that the narrator hears his son play, and what does it have to do with the murderer who once lived in their house. This is a great story (excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy), as Lindqvist ratchets up the tension and the sense that the narrator is losing his grip on reality. What makes the tale for me is the wonderful uncertainty or whether the supernatural explanation for events is valid, or whether it’s all in the mind of a desperate father.

Rating: ****

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s website

Tim Davys, Amberville (2007/9)

This is the first book I’ve read for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge; I thought I might start my posts on the challenge with a few words on why I selected the books I did. It’s quite straightforward with Amberville: anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I have a soft spot for odd books, and this was the most obviously odd title on the list – a noir thriller with a cast of stuffed animals.

The story goes like this: Eric Bear has a happy life, married to the beautiful Emma Rabbit and with a good job in advertising. But, in his past, Eric was involved with some shady characters, one of whom now comes calling – Nicholas Dove, who has heard that his name is on the Death List, which means (if the tales are to be believed) that the Chauffeurs will shortly come to escort him on the ultimate one-way journey. Dove demands that Eric find the Death List and get his name removed from it, or Emma will be the one who pays the price. The job should be straightforward enough, because the Death List is just a fable; but Eric gets his old gang back together all the same – and, of course, the truth proves more complicated than anyone thought.

So, this Scandinavian crime novel (the author is Swedish; ‘Tim Davys’ is a pseudonym) is far from the norm, and could have been ridiculous – but it’s not. What is perhaps most striking about Amberville is that Davys tells his tale with a completely straight face; one might laugh briefly at the thought of, say, a stuffed dove walking around with two stuffed gorillas for heavies, but not for very long, because it’s not funny at all in the context of the story – it’s deadly serious. Davys creates his world with such integrity that one can’t help but take it seriously. His control of voice is also superb, switching between different characters whose voices are all distinctive, no matter how brief their turn at narration (and here, I must also acknowledge Paul Norlen’s excellent work as translator).

Driving the plot of Amberville is a mystery – is there a Death List, and, if so, who’s behind it? – which is deeper for reader s than it is for the characters, because we have more questions to ask: what is this place, Mollisan Town, inhabited by walking, talking, living stuffed animals? What goes on behind the scenes to make it all work (the inhabitants of Mollisan Town know that the young animals are manufactured somewhere and delivered to the city in vans, but no one thinks to question any further)?

Well, Amberville is the first novel in a series (though that’s not clear from the edition I was reading), so the answers aren’t all forthcoming here. That’s not a problem in itself, but I do think it has a knock-on effect – it seems to me that the major revelations for this volume are made some time before the end, leaving the rest of the book to be mostly i-dotting and t-crossing, which feels somewhat anti-climactic. This is unfortunate, because most of the rest of Amberville is pacy and engaging (with an added helping of speculation about the nature of good and evil, courtesy of Eric’s brother Teddy).

My misgivings about the conclusion of Amberville make me feel a little less inclined to find out where Davys takes his series; but the momentum of the earlier parts of the book is considerable. It’s worth a look, I think.

Some other reviews of Amberville: Jane Bradley at For Books’ Sake; Presenting Lenore; Mike Krings; Mur Lafferty.

Johan Theorin, The Darkest Room (2008/9)

The manor house at Eel Point, on the Swedish island of Öland, has had a dark reputation ever since it was built using salvage from a shipwreck. There have been a number of deaths associated with the place over the years, and the latest happens shortly after Joakim Westin moves in there with his family – his wife Katrine drowns, apparently accidentally. A young police officer named Tilda Davidsson looks into events, and starts to wonder if Katrine’s death really was all that accidental – whilst Joakim’s subsequent experiences might well lead him to wonder if the tales of the house’s being haunted have some truth to them.

The Darkest Room is Johan Theorin’s second novel set on Öland (both translated into English by Marlaine Delargy), and it has certainly made me interested in going back to check out his first, Echoes from the Dead. On the downside, I don’t find the prose to be quite as atmospheric as I think the story needs it to be, such that the details of what happens worked more to spur me on through the book than did particular turns of phrase – but those details are quite enough to make for a worthwhile read.

I particularly appreciate the way Theorin uses the investigation into Katrine’s death to illuminate character: Tilda has been dumped by the man with whom she was having an affair, and deals with it by throwing herself into her work, trying to establish a rational explanation for events. Joakim, on the other hand, is having to cope both with his grief at losing Katrine, and with trying to explain to his children that their mummy isn’t coming back; and he starts to take a kind of refuge in the possible supernatural explanations for the voices and other strange occurrences about the house.

Theorin also creates some memorable secondary characters, such as Mirje, Katrine’s flamboyant artist mother, and Tilda’s sprightly great-uncle Gerlof, with his tales of the past. The ending ties up the threads of the plot enough to be satisfactory, but leaves enough dangling to leave one mulling certain things over. Yep, I’d say The Darkest Room was a good read.

Some other reviews of The Darkest Room: Maxine Clarke at EurocrimeIt’s a Crime! — Andy Plonka at The Mystery ReaderMichael Carlson
Johan Theorin’s UK website

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