Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Redbreast

Jo Nesbo tries and largely succeeds in blurring the lines between crime fiction and literary fiction. There is murder and police and something like a procedural in The Redbreast, but this Norwegian writer is plumbing the depths of individual psyche and also political consciousness.

Most good crime fiction tries to do this, but some succeeds more than others. In a posting last year on Nordic crime fiction, I reported that I had gotten bogged down in Redbreast because the hero, Harry Hole, disappeared from the early pages as the author developed a back story set in 1944 on the Eastern Front.

So I started over in a more receptive frame of mind and let the back story play at its own rhythm. It is of course vital for understanding the action set in contemporary Oslo. It is something of a challenge to an English reader because the unusual Norwegian names, while not as bad as Russian, are difficult to hold onto. It is further complicated by the fact that characters have similar names, names similar to their birthplaces, nicknames, identity switches and, one begins to suspect, multiple personality disorders.

Nesbo lays out his plot in a leisurely but well-paced manner. Harry remains largely sympathetic, though he does rub you the wrong way sometimes. There are more murders, including a nasty philanderer who messed with the wrong woman at the wrong time and one victim whose murder is still left partly unsolved at the end of the novel -- a thread to be continued no doubt in the next installment in the series.

These Nordic crime novels do convey the curious charm of Scandinavia, these northern countries that are a fascinating blend of European culture and frontier ruggedness. Can spring feel so good without the rigors of a dark, cold winter? Oslo and Norway, more so than Stockholm and Sweden, carry those echoes of Vikings and Atlantic harshness.

Like Stieg Larsson in his Dragon Tattoo series set in Sweden, Nesbo is fascinated by Norway's Nazi past and neo-Nazi present. Dark undercurrents of fascism run through Norwegian society then, during the war, and now. Even Americans who know what Quisling means are probably unaware that he was a Norwegian official who headed the collaborationist government during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Norwegian resistance, in Nesbo's portrayal, was a feeble movement that gained mythic proportions only after the Nazi defeat.

All of this creates a rich environment of conspiracy and political betrayal that lends impetus to the narrative in Redbreast. A full cast of well-drawn characters, not one but two love stories, a villain who is evil but still arouses a touch of sympathy, some nail-biting suspense, murder and gore -- it's all here in a well-written and well-translated 521-page package.

Having sampled and enjoyed detective stories from in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, I suppose I should look for some Danish and Finnish detectives. I'm betting publishers have looked for and found equally talented authors in these countries to produce crime fiction that by now, given how trendy Nordic is, has found its way into English. Watch this space.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Vagrants

I ordered this book the day I read that Yiyun Li had won a McArthur Foundation genius grant and found myself immersed in a mind-bending trip back to the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1970s.

Given the place of China in the world today, it is an amazing glimpse into a corrupt and regimented world, a 1984 for the Asian brand of totalitarian rule. It depicts the deracination of culture where people are firmly rooted in tradition and even superstition. The only people truly at home in this world are the rootless vagrants, Old Hua and his wife, who return to their wandering ways after the unfortunate events in Muddy River narrated in the novel.

It is an ensemble cast of characters, though the main narrative thread is the relationship between Nini, a young handicapped woman, and Bashi, a dangerously amoral outsider. It is framed by the executions of two idealistic young women who automatically become counterrevolutionaries when they become disillusioned with Mao's revolution.

These are small characters in a small provincial town and yet they embody the epic sweep of the Cultural Revolution, a hypocritical leap forward that marked the end of any socialist pretenses in China. It shows simple people who have been deprived of their moral compass through the oppression of the Communist regime -- whether the cynical depravity of Old Kwen, entrusted to bury the executed Shan Gu, or the innocent treachery of Tong, a six-year-old whose biggest concern is the disappearance of his dog Ear.

Shan Gu, a model revolutionary during her teens, has her execution for counterrevolutionary activities brought forward so that her kidneys can be harvested for a well-connected official in the provincial capital. It would be hard to find a more horrifying metaphor for the exploitation of a helpless populace by a corrupt regime. Shan Gu's subsequent further posthumous mutilation before her burial completes the picture of moral bankruptcy.

By an odd coincidence, The Vagrants is the second book in a row for me featuring a deformed and crippled young woman in a prominent role. Like Mikkelina in Arnaldur Indridason's Silence of the Grave, Nini lacks the looks and charms of a nubile young woman, but that does not stop her womanly yearnings. But if women in general are helpless and vulnerable in the two societies portrayed in these novels, this is especially true of a crippled woman. In both cases, they are the survivors, however, and a testimony to human resiliency. The portayal of Nini's modest longings is almost unbearably poignant at times and makes her in some ways the true heroine of this story.

Yiyun Li's other published work is a collection of short stories, and the interweaving strands in this novel owe much to her skill in depicting these small self-contained narratives. We come to know Teacher Gu and his wife, Tong and his drunken father and long-suffering mother, the odd Bashi and the sympathetic Nini, the news announcer Kai and her husband Han and platonic lover Jialin. The trajectory set in motion by the execution of Shan Gu is clear in advance and yet told with exquisite care. The naive and foolish hopes of the young and the vain efforts of the mature to remain indifferent all become enmeshed in an oppressive and stifling environment without honor or justice.

Oddly enough, the least visible characters in the novel are the vagrants of the title, the Huas. The childless couple moved around restlessly, taking care of unwanted infant girls, until they settled for a time in Muddy River. It turns out to be a brief respite before they feel compelled to resume their vagrant life.

The novel depicts a life of simplicity and extreme poverty that nonetheless has its own dignity to the extent it can escape the ravages of regime. A hungry Nini scrapes the flour paste off of posters for nourishment and Teacher Gu squirrels away a precious Parker pen for decades.

It is a heartbreaking work and so relevant for our times. Material conditions have improved in China but the fundamental injustice, and presumably corruption, of the system remain intact. The recognition for Li's fiction, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize for imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo keep us from forgetting that fact.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Silence of the Grave

Channel surfing one evening I came upon the Icelandic film Jar City and was intrigued by the stark landscape and Nordic chill of what I learned was a film based on a novel by Arnaldur Indridason. This book continues the series.

As is the case with Wallander and other Nordic detectives, Indridason's Inspector Erlendur is a flawed, unhappy man who has a knack for solving crimes. The environment is bleak and intense, and in Iceland, there is a frontier element missing in the more prosperous Sweden, Denmark and Norway. It helped to have seen that landscape in Jar City -- hard to imagine how the American remake that is in production can match the Icelandic original.

What makes Silence of the Grave compelling as a novel, however, is not just atmosphere, but the deep-running psychology of a 60-year-old incident -- I hesitate to say crime -- that Erlendur tracks down when a skeleton is discovered on the outskirts of Reykjavik during construction of a new housing development. The portrayal of a wife-beating brute and the effect of his abuse on his family is intense and hard-hitting. The suspense is maintained by the painfully slow unearthing of the skeleton by an archeological team. After all, what hurry is there getting to the bottom of a death that clearly occurred decades ago.

I have the feeling it is not a great translation, but it's hard to know if a certain stylistic clumsiness is in the original or is due to the translator. The characters and atmosphere, the boldness of the plotting, more than compensate in any case, so the book is decidedly gritty.

The parallel development of Erlendur's character, his relationship with his daughter, the troubling secrets of his own past add another layer of psychological texture that makes the book very satisfying to read. Indridason takes a page out of Henning Mankell's book to make Erlendur's assistants mildly interesting in their own rights.

So Iceland is well represented in the new wave of Nordic crime writers. The harsh environment of these countries touching the Arctic Circle is anything but cozy, and strips society and the characters of the novel down to the essentials. It helps that the writers are not without talent and that we are now getting access to them in serviceable translations.