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The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

November 8, 2013 Leave a comment

DINOSAUR-FEATHER_L

One of the more interesting developments in the marketing field has been the increasing use of quotes on the front and back covers, and on the front end papers. Bilbo Baggins (author of There and Back Again) says this is the best fantasy book to reach the Shires! There seems to be an assumption both that all the readers will know who this Baggins person is and are likely to be influenced by his opinion. In this, I note with considerable amusement that my own words have occasionally been used as part of the quoted praise. While naturally being convinced of my own ability to judge the worth of books, I seriously doubt many people agree with the generality of my opinions (particularly those who know who I am). The reason for starting in this way is the words on the back cover of The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan (Quercus, 2013) Dinosaurens fjer translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund. The headline is, “Danish crime novel of the decade!” Not that I take any notice, but it does seem to me to trespass closer on to the territory of hectoring, intimidation and bullying. This is not just the book of the year, you see. It’s the book of the decade. Disagree with this informed judgement at your peril! Although in the defence of the British publisher, Denmark voted and knows what it likes. Yet, in the wider scheme of things, the fact the country only has 5.6 million population means their opinion counts for even less than mine (or so I believe when the book is translated into English and gets judged by wider criteria).

So what do we actually get in this package? Well, the first and most obvious element is the number of words. This tome weighs in at a chunky 448 pages, so it’s suitable for one of those long Scandinavian nights when the snow falls and the sun refuses to shine. I’m not against longer books per se, but if I’m going to wade through more than four-hundred pages, it has to prove worth the effort when the dust has settled. To make us feel there’s a big reward at the end, the author sets up the narrative with three major threads. Obviously, we start with the murder mystery with the first of three deaths the result of a rather gruesome method. So, if you’re of a weak disposition, you might want to skip over the detailed discussions. The second and third deaths are routine and not something that will disturb. The second element is an exploration of a manufactured scientific dispute as to the origin of birds. It seems some people refuse to accept birds evolved from dinosaurs. This could have been impenetrable but, as a biologist, the author makes the essence of the debate eminently accessible. The third and by far the most substantial part of the book is an exploration of the major characters and how they relate to each other.

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Sissel-Jo Gazan

Looking back on this, I’m quite surprised it all manages to fit into only 448 pages. We learn whodunnit, which side of the dinosaur debate is right, and what has predisposed the major characters to end up in this state. No mean achievement. To get us to the end, we have three points of view: Anna Bella Nor has written her PhD thesis and is awaiting adjudication when one of her two supervisors is murdered, Soren Marhauge is a police detective who has one of the best track records for solving crimes, and Clive Freeman is the Canadian end of the biological dispute. The thread that ties these POVs together is the dinosaur issue. The murdered supervisor and Freeman were the primary protagonists in the international dispute over the evolutionary origin of birds. The topic for Anna Bella’s thesis is this occasionally violent disagreement. She’s expected to side with her own supervisor and demolish the views advanced by Freeman. From this, you’ll understand that this obscure evolutionary spat could be the motive for the first murder. Indeed, if this is the reason for the demise of the eminent professor, Anna Bella may be next in line (assuming her thesis reaches the same scientific conclusion).

It would be fair to say almost all the people who feature in this book are damaged in some way. They have mostly had very unfortunate experiences as children and/or tragedy has supervened to leave real scars. To that extent, this preoccupation with the reasons for everyone’s psychological damage enables the book to satisfy the criterion for acceptance as Scandinavian noir. We are exploring some very painful emotional issues. Parents died when the children were young, or the father was psychologically abusive, or the mother had severe postpartum depression, and so on. This leads me to a gentle aside. This is not a warning as such. But you should not read this book with the expectation of a classic murder mystery. Rather three deaths occur while all the major characters are resolving their personal issues. Obviously, neither Anna Bella nor Soren Marhauge know whodunnit but, despite her erratic and angry behavior, she manages to gain the confidence of the three people who can give her the pieces of the jigsaw. The answer proves to be one of these immensely sad stories which, by virtue of the detail we’ve been given in the opening section of the book, resonates with real power at the end when Anna Bella is able to telephone Soren Marhauge and tell him who to arrest.

So now it comes down the the time when I get magisterial. The opening takes its time to set the scene. You need a little patience. Be reassured. Literally everything that comes through the first two-hundred pages becomes increasingly relevant in the second half of the book. By the time you finish, you understand why two of the three POV characters end up better adjusted people. They have all looked into the past and understand the forces that shaped them. Two can begin a healing process. One is trapped in the past and can never recover. Having reached the end, I feel a sense of rightness about the character development. You leave feeling you have actually met these people and spent a little time getting to know them. You can see hope for two of them which lifts the pervading sense of gloom in the first two-thirds of the book. I’m not convinced The Dinosaur Feather is the book of the decade in the international ranking order, but it’s certainly a very impressive piece of writing and is well worth reading!

A copy of this book was sent to me to review.

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (Soho Press, 2013) (translated by Elisabeth Dyssegaard) is the third novel featuring Nina Borg. It begins with a tantalising prologue in which a son is collecting oral history from his Ukrainian mother. The old woman tells a “fairy story” about life under Stalin. It seems there were two sisters. Both could sing like nightingales but, as is the way when tales are being told in a fairy-story style, their jealousy had an unfortunate outcome. Obviously, it can’t be a real part of this family’s history. Ah, there’s that contentious word. History is one of these slippery concepts which implies more than it’s capable of delivering. Those who promote a study of the past imply they are dealing in facts, that there’s always a “truth” about what actually happened “back then”. This claim to credibility is essential if they are to secure a steady income for their study. Except, of course, truth has always been a relative phenomenon. Indeed, the idea we can excavate enough evidence to say with certainty how or why something happened is absurd.

The best the archaeologists of the past can achieve is a number of “facts”, e.g. there were caves or buildings occupied by humans, they erected henges out of stone or built bridges some of which persist today. But the detail of who lived in these habitations, or was involved in funding the building work or managed the construction itself will often remain speculative. It’s all a game of probabilities to narrow down the speculations to more manageable levels that we can understand. In more modern times, truth in some parts of the world is certified. For example, if a vehicle carries a signed statement that a dedicated team has just washed the vehicle, it must be true even though the vehicle obviously hasn’t been touched by water since the last time it rained. Truth can be very mutable depending on who writes the certificates.

Lene Kaaberbol

Lene Kaaberbol

After her last exploits, Nina is doing her best to rebuild. She still has health problems because of her exposure to radiation and is now divorced. Magnus is the new man in her life, also divorced. They both work at the Red Cross Centre Furescø, known in the area as Coal-House Camp, a home for immigrants who are formally going through the system for acceptance in Denmark. The story is made up of three interwoven threads. The first revolves around Nina and her attempts to befriend and help Rina, a girl from the Ukraine. Natasha, her mother, is in serious trouble, accused of murder. This has produced an acute anxiety state in the girl who’s struggling with asthma.

The second thread follows Søren Kirkegard, a member of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service who, because he met Nina in the last book, gets sucked into the investigation. It more formally becomes a part of his jurisdiction when he teams up with Symon Babko, a Ukrainian police officer who’s been abandoned by Colonel Savchuk, his senior officer in Denmark. The idea a foreign intelligence officer is conducting an unauthorised investigation on Danish soil is political dynamite. The question for Søren is what features of the current case justify such an obvious breach of protocol. The third narrative strand is based in 1934/5 and deals with the family relationships in a small township in the Ukraine. It’s supposed to be a part of the agricultural revolution that will return Russian food production to sustainable levels. Unfortunately that’s not working out too well.

Agnete Friis

Agnete Friis

As the story unwinds, we’re invited to play the game of mapping past identities on to current people. The reason I can call it a game is the grandmother’s oral history in which she chose to dress up the “facts” as a fairy story. We have to distinguish the “facts” from the fantasy, and understand how the past is influencing current events. Just what happened back in 1934/5 that might justify the sequence of deaths we’re seeing today? The answer is one of these long-running tragedies that people today prefer to remain buried in the past. Should anyone begin digging skeletons out of cupboards, questions must be asked, action must be taken. Identity and reputation are indispensable property. They confer status and repel accountability. They must be protected.

This is far better than Invisible Murder, the last book. Indeed, I think it in a different league. Whereas I was ambivalent about the extent of the morality on display and thought the threat confronted was somewhat overblown, this is a more seriously realistic study of character. By the end of this book, even Nina sees the downside of rushing into burning buildings to rescue people. Perhaps more importantly, she’s also taking some action to control her OCD. Whether either attempt to limit or control her behaviour will be successful remains uncertain. But she’s prepared to consider the emotions that have produced this heightened sense of duty to her fellow human beings. She’s even humble enough to reach out to those she’s hurt in the past. In this respect, the book is a great success. There’s a strong sense of credibility in the characterisation. The immediate story is also all too believable. I’m therefore concluding Death of a Nightingale is something of a triumph. The only feature preventing me from giving this the accolade of a complete triumph is a preference the “detectives” solve all aspects of the case. Here a considerable amount of authorial omniscience is required to tie up all the loose ends. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But I think it better when the endurance of the heroes is rewarded by them ending up in possession of all the relevant facts.

For a review of another book by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, see Invisible Murder.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis

February 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Invisible Murder

Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis (translation by Tara Chace) (Soho Press, 2012) is the second books featuring Nina Borg who works as a nurse at the Coal-House Camp, an official asylum for refugees staying in Denmark. To prove her credentials as one of these well-meaning people who go out of their way to help the disadvantaged, she moonlights for The Network. Unlike the Coal-House Camp, this is an unofficial group of people who have dedicated themselves to helping Denmark’s deportees and illegal immigrants. Because these people cannot use Denmark’s health services without surrendering to the law, they are heavily dependent on people like Nina who have enough medical knowledge to keep them as healthy as possible. Her husband, Morten, does not approve of her involvement with The Network and, before he sets off for work on an oil rig, extracts a promise she will not do anything “compromising” while he’s away. Ah, if only people could keep such promises, there would be no books like this.

Lene Kaaberbol

Lene Kaaberbol

In prefatory fashion, the story begins in Hungary, where two young Roma men decide to make yet another pass through a facility abandoned by the Soviet Union at the end of its occupation of Hungary. Because of unexpected subsidence, the scavengers have the first bite of the cherry in a previously sealed lower level. As is always the way, we’re not told what they find, but Tamás sees the possibility of great wealth. This takes him to a local Roma gang boss, and thence to Budapest where he briefly hooks up with his half-brother Sandor Horvath. This proves disastrous for Sandor who just wants to complete his law degree and quietly forget his past as a Roma. Unfortunately the internet communications Tamás makes using Sandor’s computer bring him to the attention of the police and, in turn, the disclosure of his Roma origins leads to his dismissal from the university. Prejudices run deep in Hungary (and elsewhere). Needless to say, this neatly brings all the major players to Copenhagen where Søren Kirkegard in the Danish Security and Intelligence Service counterterrorism unit is soon interested in the websites “Sandor Horvath” spent time on.

What follows is a fascinating insight into current Danish culture. As one of the Scandinavian countries, it has enjoyed a reputation as being a tolerant liberal democracy, one of the “good world citizens”. Unfortunately, the decision of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper to publish drawings of the Prophet Muhammad was approved by the government and at the UN climate summit we saw heavy-handed policing to suppress peaceful protests. There are also more general straws in the wind suggesting the growth of xenophobia, particularly affecting the increasing numbers of Moslems making their home there. For decades, Moslems have been denied permits to build a mosque in Copenhagen and there were no Muslim cemeteries. This book revolves around the building work to create the first mosque in Copenhagen. With the Danish Government due to attend the official opening, this is a flashpoint moment.

Agnete Friis

Agnete Friis

On the way, we get to see something of the plight of refugees in Denmark. In many ways, the official system is shown as deficient. The unofficial is dire. The exploitation of these individuals is shown in an unflinching way. Those who have money must pay. If there’s no money, there are other ways of paying.

I don’t think I suffer from compassion fatigue. I hope I retain sufficient morality to be offended by news of those victimised around the world. But in fiction, I begin to wonder whether there’s too consistent a trend to incorporate “suffering” into novels. Unlike the news media where there’s a level of saturation, novels have tended to focus on less obviously exploitational content. Although the plots may require readers to walk through settings where people are being victimised or they have come to escape victimisation, these have been in the background. Now authors are parading their own outrage through their novels, some explicitly using the medium to engage in a political debate about how “we” should react. In this book, we’re given a terrific adventure/crime plot. What the young men find in Hungary and why this is of interest to people in Denmark are credible. The question we should ask ourselves is whether the plot becomes the basis of a better novel because the young men are Roma and Nina gets involved with them because they are in the country illegally. It would have been perfectly possible to write this without any reference to the suffering of the Roma, making the book a straight antiterrorism story about a criminal gang smuggling people and “stuff” across borders. Nina could meet the injured Sandor in the street and, as the Good Samaritan, find herself caught up in exactly the same way. I’m not saying that I don’t want to read about the terrible treatment of people who find themselves in Denmark illegally. In this case, the “truth” exposed by the novel is yet one more piece of suffering to add to the many others. I suppose it’s slightly more shocking because I still tend to think of Denmark as better than this. But I’m not entirely convinced this is a “better” novel because it dips into the seamy side of Denmark and shows us where some of the bodies are buried (literally and metaphorically). So taken in the best possible light, Invisible Murder is a powerful book which deals with a threatened terrorist attack in Copenhagen. It’s an exciting thriller. But I remain on the fence as to whether I approve of this politicisation of novel writing.

For a review of the next in the series, see Death of a Nightingale.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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