If you thought that Scandinavian fiction was all dark, sometimes grisly (northern) crime fiction – think again. BorderKitchen in the Hague, recently organised a literary evening devoted to three of Scandinavia’s rising literary stars. With hardly a weapon in sight, if you exclude Norwegian author, Johan Harstad’s focus on the Vietnam war in his latest 1200 page offering, Max, Mischa and the Tet Offensive! Jokes aside, this novel has been nominated for the 2018 European Literature Prize and is reminiscent of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Rushie’s Midnight’s Children in the inexorability of its excess – descriptions of characters and places that run to two and three pages. Each is a small tour de force that can be enjoyed without concern for the broader narrative sweep. But if we’re talking about plot and theme, this novel provides what one might be tempted to call a European perspective on ‘Nam. The protagonist, Max, is Norwegian and considers himself always to be so in spite of moving to the US when he is thirteen. The novel explores Max’s conflicting sense of identity within the context of the Vietman war which for many on both sides of the Atlantic was brought into their living rooms with the newly arrived television, making an indelible impression on many of this generation. The character of Mischa is refreshingly atypical. Described by Harstad himself as awkward, even ugly, the kind of person you fall in love with in real life, she manages to avoid falling into many of the clichéd roles that so many love interests often find themselves struggling against.
Female protagonist, Sonja, is the focus of Danish writer, Dorthe Nors’s novel, Mirror, Should, Signal. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is built around the curiously European phenomenon of learning to drive in mid-life. In Sonja’s case, she is forty and embarks on what the author describes as ‘this existential journey’ of placing your life and those of other’s in the hands of your driving instructor. However, Nors explained in her discussion of the book, that this rite of passage for the 40 year old protagonist is in fact linked to a desire to explore the increasing disconnect between urban and rural spaces and the need to return to the country side and re-connect, with the distant rye fields of northern Denmark. Talking about her book and writing career, Nors’s sharp, self-deprecating humour is quick to surface. Her writing too is infused with a healthy dose of comic irony and is perhaps what helped bring her collection of short stories, Karate Chop to the attention of the New Yorker magazine back in 2013.
Short stories are the chosen genre of Norwegian writer, Gunnhild Oyehaug, whose quirky sense of humour finds ample scope in Knots, a collection of what have been described as playfully surreal stories that draw on all manner of popular art forms for their form and subject matter. One such story uses brief, humorous descriptions of a series of polaroid pictures which capture the antics of three Martians, involved in a threesome. However, the author spoke with us of her most recent novel, WAIT, BLINK due for release in English in June. As the name suggests, the visual provides a strong conceptual framework for what has been described as ‘a perfect novel for our time’ (Dagens Nyheter, Sweden). Oyehaug draws on the 21st century’s love affair with the visual in film, social media and the notion of the male gaze to produce what reviewers in Denmark have described as both ‘a feminist call to arms’ (Politiken) and ‘an unreasonably funny’ novel (Weekendavisen). Who can resist such descriptions?
Look out for our next review of the work of American writer, Rachel Kushner, who will be visiting the Hague in June. Souwie Buis 12th May 2018.