Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fire & Ice: The Past & Present Collide in Sweden

Swedish author Henning Mankell has become well known of late thanks to the BBC's adaptation of his acclaimed Kurt Wallander series (which I must admit to not having seen). "Italian Shoes", however - the book of his that I have chosen to represent Sweden - is a one-off story spanning a year in the life of a 66-year-old former surgeon living in self-imposed exile on a small island in the Swedish archipelago, having botched an operation twelve years earlier and taken early retirement as a consequence.

At the time that we are introduced to our main protagonist, he lives alone on the island save for a cat and a dog. The tale involves the very unexpected return into his life of a woman he once loved and deserted thirty-seven years back who now has a terminal disease, and three other women of widely differing circumstances who have a profound effect on his sense of being: and upon whose lives he has - sometimes unknowingly - made a significant impact.

Mankell is a natural story-teller and his latest novel is rich in all manner of emotions. Loneliness, regret, mortality and failure are just some of the issues covered here, told in the first-person throughout with a wonderful sense of comic timing in spite of the generally depressing themes. The central character Frederik Welin has only one friend - a hypochondriac postman, who makes the most of the fact that one of his customers is an ex-medical professional - and even then he doesn't like him very much, and hasn't invited him into his lonely abode in all of the twelve years that he has been delivering and collecting the post.

That I cannot really reveal more about the intricacies of the plot itself is a testament to Mankell's compelling narrative ability - there is plenty to describe, but I would be spoiling the book for potential readers if I tried to focus on any individual elements...(and perhaps this is a reflection of Mankells' credentials as a detective story writer).

What I can say is that Mankell is adept at describing the environment, in this case the often frozen sea and snow-covered terrain of a desolate region of Sweden, but he is even better at characterisation and dialogue. While the topics central to the main characters' lives are largely sad and downbeat, the overall impression from reading the story is surprisingly uplifting, and full of moments to make you smile if not laugh out loud. It must have been challenging to have chosen to write in the first-person about a man who is basically selfish and inconsiderate, because it then means that any impressions about him have to come in the form of responses to his self-centred behaviour from the characters around him - there is no judgement in the narrative as it is played out in diary-like style with only occasional snippets of inner reflection. The prose is easy and uncomplicated (compliments must go to the outstanding translation by Laurie Thompson) yet moods and events change very abruptly without any forewarning.

I cannot think of a genre into which this book fits, but it is certainly a very intelligent piece of work by Mankell, full of serious and profound issues that will make you pause to reflect and consider, yet relieved on countless occasions by moments of spirit-raising humour. I believe that anyone reading this will take something positive away from it, something to reflect on looking both backwards and forwards in time.

As this novel ends where it begins - on the Swedish archipelago - I retrace my steps from there to Stockholm in order to travel to my next destination of Norway.

I decide to take a train from Stockholm Centralstation: an impressive C19th edifice of a similar design to St Pancras in London. I board the SJ Intercity 625 at Stockholm Central at 8.29 in the morning and just over 6 hours later (at 14.36) I find myself in Oslo's main station for a one-way fare of about 460 Swedish Krona (about £40). The train is efficient and modern: with large seats, air conditioning and great on-board food facilities... I have to say the exterior view is even more impressive - as the train sweeps through a landscape which is both snowbound and desolate, yet majestically beautiful (save for the regular punctuation of industrial centres and commercial parks).

However, I arrive well-refreshed for the Norwegian leg of my journey in the capital of Oslo, which is a challenging psychological drama entitled "Stella Descending" by native author Linn Ullmann.

I look forward to updating you on this leg of my journey soon!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Serious Literature about a Danish Clown

Certain readers may remember Danish author Peter Høeg, in relation to his earlier novel “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow” (1992) which achieved well-deserved international acclaim in translation – as well as a film adaptation (as "Smilla's Sense of Snow").

Despite this success, Høeg acquired a reputation for being hard to place in terms of literary style, and subsequent works: “Borderliners” (1993), “The Woman and the Ape” (1996) were not so well received by critics.

Always protective of his privacy, Høeg virtually disappeared in 1996 after the luke-warm reception of “The Woman and the Ape”. He re-surfaced in 2006 with “The Quiet Girl”, his first novel in 10 years. At the time of its publication, reception in Denmark was mixed at best, and the novel was generally disregarded as being either too complex or too post-modern.

Personally I think this novel represents a significant return to form for Høeg. Complex and post-modern this novel certainly is; but it is also enjoyable and rewarding. Whilst often baffling in terms of its convoluted plot and bewildering mix of philosophical musings and full-on thriller plot-lines; I can honestly say that this was one of the most enjoyable novels on my journey so far.

So where to start with a description? Well…

Kasper Krone, the unlikely hero of Peter Høeg’s new novel, is a clown. His story is set in a contemporary - yet alternate – reality: a Copenhagen shaken by earthquake and flood. This novel is an equally unlikely page-turner: the thriller as philosophical novel and post-modern comedy.

As per convention: the thriller aspect hurtles along; accelerated with conspiracy, incident and - often unlikely - plot twists. Trying to make sense of these (along with the reader) is the main protagonist Kasper, who is not just any clown, but an international star performing in circuses across Europe and the United States (although this back story is always very much kept out of the main plot).

His act apparently includes the pathos of the violin and the music of Bach. Able to quote from Kierkegaard or St Mark as required, Kasper is erudite and self-confident to an almost hypnotic degree.

His dark side, however, sets the action in motion. Gambling debts, unpaid bills and tax evasion have caught up with him, and bureaucrats from Denmark and Spain threaten to have him thrown in jail. Coming to his rescue is an order of nuns, willing to negotiate a settlement and seek a pardon in exchange for his help with a group of unusual children gathered under their care. He is called in to help because, in the surreal world of this novel, God, whom he refers to as SheAlmighty, "had tuned each person in a musical key, and Kasper could hear it." Not only do people have a kind of aural signature, but also life itself is a great symphony, composed by SheAlmighty, inaudible to all but Kasper.

The children under the nuns' protection are able to manipulate their aural aura in strange and significant ways. When acting in harmony, they can create a power strong enough to move extremely large objects - perhaps linked to Copenhagen's devastating earthquake? Byzantine forces of good and evil, particularly the shadowy Konon Corporation, want to channel that acoustic-kinesthetic energy, but only Kaspar can truly come close to understanding the mysterious power of the children.

When one of these children goes missing and is reported kidnapped, Kasper must find her. As mentioned above, you can skate quickly on the surface of the story of his hunt for this 'quiet girl', and feel that Høeg is deliberately overstating the case. Coincidence abounds. Credulity is stretched and snapped.

Late in the story, for example, Kasper, wheelchair-bound from a gunshot wound and a broken wrist, and his companions - his father dying of cancer, his literally legless sidekick, his long lost but now returned lover and an African nun with a black belt in Aikido - sneak below Copenhagen's main sewage station to slide through pipes 200 feet under the harbour and into the evil Konon Corp's super-secure headquarters. The novel is stocked with nuns and thugs, real estate speculators, monks and tax collectors and dozens more who accelerate and add vivid colour to the deliberately over-the-top plot.

But like the mystical music always there beyond our hearing, the essence of the novel hides within the object of Kasper's quest. The missing 'quiet girl', KlaraMaria, is an old soul in a 12-year-old body, who balances the frenzy and chaos of Kasper's life. The hero is on an existential quest, and through this quest he finds his own answer to the riddle of love and faith.

That Høeg splices together so many conventions should come as no surprise to readers of “Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow”.

Treat “The Quiet Girl” as a thriller, and you'll sprint happily to its unexpected and enigmatic ending. Treat the novel as a something more, and you may find yourself re-reading this book more than once to enjoy its many layers.

Whichever path you take (and it may well be both!) - ignore the critics: this is a wonderful novel.

Anyhow, the path I am now taking is on my global journey, and will take me from Denmark to Sweden, and on to the novel “Italian Shoes” - which despite its name is set in the Swedish Archipelago and is by renowned Swedish author Henning Mankell (best known in the UK for his televised detective series featuring the fictional Kurt Wallander).

As a first stop off, I take a direct flight from Copenhagen into Stockholm Arlanda airport for just €70.20, leaving Denmark 18.05 and arriving in Sweden at 19.15 (whilst less scenic than taking a train or coach; it is certainly quicker and cheaper...).

An onward journey into the remote location of this novel is required, so I charter a boat from Blasieholmskajen in central Stockholm and head out to a remote island in the Archipeligo...