4 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next twelve days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Discoverer by Jan Kjaerstad. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)

Yes, The Discoverer is the third volume in Jan Kjaerstad’s “Wergeland Trilogy.” And yes, the other two books are also quite long. I only mention this because it was such a big deal to Tom Shone when he reviewed the book for the New York Times, and I quote:

Reviewing books doesn’t often feel like real work — not the kind of work that makes you break a sweat or join a union. So when an editor from The New York Times calls you up and asks if you want to review a new novel from Norway, and the novel turns out to be not only over 400 pages long and largely set in a fjord, but also Part 3 of a trilogy, Parts 1 and 2 of which ran to over 1,000 pages, with multiple narrators and a nonlinear time scheme — yeesss — then you jump at the chance to take your place as a worker among workers.

Which is kind of a shit way to start a review, no? It’s like saying “fuck modernism” because Ulysses is going to take a while to get through.

All that aside, I really want to point out that there’s no need to read the other two volumes in this series before reading The Discoverer. If you have read The Seducer (available from Overlook) and The Conqueror (from Open Letter) before approaching this book, the resonances will resonate that much more and the depth and awesomeness of the novel will be that much more complex and, well, awesome. But dif you can’t squeeze 1,000 pages of prose into your free time, don’t worry, here’s a little primer:

Jonas Wergeland is a Norwegian television celebrity responsible for “Thinking Big” an artsy program depicting a series of very important Norwegian people. He’s extremely popular. He’s bigger than Terry Gross plus Ken Burns. But following the mysterious death of his wife, he’s not quite so universally loved . . .

What’s fascinating about this trilogy—and the reason why you don’t need to read all three books to “get it”—is the way that each volume presents Jonas’s life and Margrete’s death in completely different ways. There’s some tricksy narrative stuff going on—who is narrating The Seducer and how do they know all the details of Jonas’s life? who is the woman giving the professor all the dirt on Jonas in The Conqueror?—but on a basic level it’s pretty straightforward: in The Seducer, Jonas is a superstar who is one degree from perfection and arrives home from a trip to find that his wife has been murdered, and in The Conqueror, he’s always has some violent urges which culminated in him murdering his wife. And in The Discoverer, he’s out of prison sailing down a fjord with his daughter and a group of young people working on a high-tech multimedia project.

For the first time in the trilogy, Jonas finally gets to speak for himself. And instead of really clarifying anything, he just adds another level of uncertainty as to what sort of person he is, and what actually happened to his wife. As Jan told me during his visit here to the States: people always turn to this volume for the “Real Truth” but in many ways it’s less reliable than either of the other two volumes . . .

And that’s Kjaerstad’s genius. The way these three separate visions overlap and interplay is absolutely brilliant. You can start anywhere with the series, and depending on the order in which you read these, you’ll end up with a different impression of Jonas, of what really happened, and of the various threads that tie together the three books.

Going back to the tricksy nature of these for a second: in all three books, the plot (or plots, since these are composed of hundreds of mini-stories from Jonas’s life), is way overshadowed by the overall structure of the book. The Seducer is organized like a fugue, with story nested inside of story, bouncing up and down between levels before coming to rest on the “present now” of Jonas arriving home to find his wife on the floor. The Conqueror is more like a mosaic in the form of a spiral, with little chunks of different stories coming up every hundred pages or so, gaining momentum as the book progresses, and leading to a hugely powerful payoff.

In many ways, The Discoverer is a much different, in some ways more mature, and—although it’s almost unbelievable to say so—more ambitious than the previous works. Although the meta-structures are very different, both of the other volumes are constructed from very short pieces that build on one another. The Discoverer is made up of eight longer chapters that are named after planets and moons (Jonas narrates the former, his daughter the latter) that weave several episodes from Jonas’s life into a highly literary, well-rounded (sic), almost standalone story.

I’d have to quote tens of pages to give you the full effect, but here’s a bit from the opening chapter, that sets the scene and motions toward the whole construction of this book, and the way is moves through the times of Jonas’s life:

Why did he do it?

One has to start somewhere, and a good, not to say almost perfect, departure point—or even, to stick with the climbing motif: viewpoint-from which to examine Jonas Wergeland’s life would be another stony edifice, another gallery, a hallowed hall, a room with walls of granite, and an autumn day in the 1980s—an autumn day which would bring with it deep sorrow and wisful joy, as well as a strange mystery, an incident bordering on the scandalous. Nor is it entirely inappropriate that Jonas should be at the organ, an instrument befitting his history and the pwoer which for so long he had exerted over the minds, not to say the souls, of the Norwegian people. Jonas Wergeland is playing the organ, framed by its gleaming, monumental face, making the whole church tremble with his playing, making the very stone, the bedrock of Norway, sing. He is not an organist, but he handles the instrument almost like a professional musician; he is an organist by nature, he might have been made for this part, this pose. No wonder he once replied when asked, in Samarkand, what he did for a living: “I am an organist.”

Scarcely an hour earlier, after collecting a pile of sheet music, he had closed the gate of the house he would soon be moving into and which people would dub Villa Wergeland, and set off down the road he had walked every day of his childhood. Wherever he turned his eye he risked becoming lost in memories: a life-threatening bonfire, the windows Ivan broke, the wallet in the ditch which brought him a heaven-sent fifty-krone reward, the magnetic, nipple-shaped doorbell on the front door of Anne Beate Corneliussen’s building. He sauntered along, wishing to prolong the poignant aspect of the moment. There was a strange mood in the air too. It felt as though there was no longer anyone living in the houses he passed. Even the shops looked deserted. It was an exceptionally dull day. Damp. The last leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground was covered with an indeterminate gunge, as if after an incredibly drunken party. The blocks of flats and the shopping center reminded him of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The whole of life seemed suddenly drab and dreary. And yet—in spite of all this—he felt hopeful. As if he knew that behind all the greyness lay something else, something surprising. Something is about to happen, he told himself.

Kjaerstad is a gifted writer, and even if it takes a year to work your way through all three books, it’s totally worth it.

16 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II and here for Part III and here for Part IV.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

They were shown round the rest of the factory, saw the storage room and the cabinetmaker’s workshop in the basement where the great machines were housed and the façades, wind chests and wooden pipes were made. “See this, Jonas, cherry wood. And over there: ebony! This is a far cry from whittling willow flutes, eh?” They proceeded to the first floor, to the pipe store and the tuning room where the pipes were given their first rough tuning. His father’s face lit up, he picked up pipes and blew into them. Each pipe had a life of its own, was an instrument in itself. Haakon Hansen was looking more and more happy, chatting incessantly to their companion about matters which went way over Jonas’s head, about the Principal and the Octave Bass, about the importance of the choir organ to the tonal quality of the instrument. Jonas watched as a man made a notch in a pipe with a knife and rolled back a tongue of metal with a pair of pliers, much as Jonas would have opened the lid on a sardine tin. He wished his mother could have been there, she would have loved this, working as she did at the Grorud Ironmonger’s. Jonas always got a great kick out of places which combined ironmongery with music, uniting his mother’s and his father’s work—in such situations he could well understand why two such different individuals came to be married to one another. He heard his father and the strange man talking about the German factory which had supplied the stops. Jonas loved all the secrecy surrounding the metal alloys for
the pipes, it smacked of alchemy. I’m not in an organ factory, he thought. I’m on a visit to a wizard’s cave.

Then, to crown it all—a well-orchestrated surprise—their guide flung open the doors of the assembly hall, a room the size of a medium-sized church, and there, standing against one wall, all ready for playing, was Grorud’s new organ. A shimmering palace. Jonas’s father bounded over to the organ, looked back at the others, his arms outstretched to the gleaming façade, like a child unable to believe its eyes, while people stood there nodding, as if to say: “Yes, it’s yours, you can have it.” Haakon Hansen switched it on, set the stops and began to play. He played the only fitting piece of music: Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude in E-flat major, pro organo pleno, he played so resoundingly that he all but raised the roof. And as his father played, Jonas tried to grasp how everything he had seen, all those separate elements in so many different rooms—there were thousands of pipes alone—could conjoin to form such a palatial instrument, one capable of producing such glorious, polyphonous music—a whole that was so much more than the individual parts which he had seen. A sound which caused the body to swell. It was true, it was alchemy, gold was made here, but it was gold in the form of music.

Jonas knew, of course, that with this visit his father was trying to tell him something important, and on the way home Haakon did indeed say something, although it was no more than a single sentence: “Remember, that was just an organ.” That was all. His father did not say another word on the drive home. Haakon Hansen never said too much. But in his mind Jonas could hear the rest: “So just imagine how everything in life fits together.”

And that was why you had to save lives. In his mind’s eye, Jonas sometimes pictured people as being like walking organs. The first time he saw a dying child on television he realized what a tragedy this was, because what he beheld was a mighty organ into which no air, no spirit, no life was being breathed, one which, in all its senseless and ghastly complexity, was breaking down into its individual parts.

Jonas Wergeland sat in Grorud Church, playing an organ which he had, so to speak, seen unveiled; he was playing Bach, the fugue which accompanied the prelude in E-flat major, marveling at an invention which enabled him, with just ten fingers and two feet, to produce music so splendid, so powerful, that it penetrated right down into the foundations of the building. Perhaps, when his life was over, this is what would be cited as his greatest achievement: that he had, at one felicitous moment, succeeded in playing Bach’s prelude and fugue in E-flat major. He felt the tears falling, realized that he was crying, as if the music had also penetrated to his foundations. He did not know whether he was weeping out of grief or at the thought of an experience shared with his father or because of the beauty of the music, a beauty which reminded him of having his head inside a crystal chandelier sparkling with light and shot with rainbows.

The fugue came to an end. Jonas Wergeland altered the stops, struck up the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light,” and how he played: played joyfully, played wistfully, played as if he were a lifesaver, someone capable of breathing life into people. And from the church beneath him the song swelled up, the singing truly hit the roof, with a force unlike anything Jonas had ever heard before. Because he was not alone. The church was full. He had got there in good time, but the church was already packed when he arrived. That was why Grorud had seemed so deserted. Everyone was here. Well over a thousand people. It had come as a surprise to him. Who was his father? Were all of these people really here to honor Haakon Hansen, to pay him their respects?

Jonas played. Down below, in front of the altar rail, lay his father. Not as if dead, but dead. Haakon Hansen had died “on the job,” as they say. Jonas was playing at his own father’s funeral, a funeral which some would describe as scandalous, others as baffling, while his mother, who had more right than anyone to speak on the subject, simply said: “No one would understand anyway.”

Jonas played “Lead, Kindly Light,” Purday’s lovely melody, he had the urge to improvise, introduce some provocative chords, produce innovative modulations while moaning and humming along like Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett. His father would have liked that. Jonas was always nervous when playing for his father. Now too. Even though Haakon Hansen could not hear him. He lay in his coffin, dead. Yet Jonas played as if he could bring his father to life, was amazed to find that he still possessed it: the longing to be a lifesaver.

He had trained so hard, so resolutely. Particularly during the year when he turned ten it seemed to him that he was more in the water than out of it. At Frogner Baths, at Torggata Baths, out at Hvaler, this was his main pursuit: practicing staying underwater for as long as possible. Building up his lung capacity. He could swim underwater for longer than any of his chums, had no difficulty in swimming across Badedammen or the length of the Torggata pool. At Frogner Baths, where you could look into the upstairs pool through round windows, he scared the wits out of spectators by diving down and goggling out at them as inquisitively as they were peering in, rather like a seal in an aquarium—except that he stayed there for so long, on the other side of the window, that people began to shout and bang on the glass in alarm. These daredevil dives did not escape the attention of the lifeguards either: “Any more of your tomfoolery and you’re out on your ear,” they bawled at him from their high stools.

But it wasn’t tomfoolery, it was conscientious training. Jonas Wergeland was preparing for his great undertaking: that of saving a life.

15 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II and here for Part III.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

How could anyone have missed it? All those books, a whole sea of articles and reports on Jonas Wergeland—and no one has mentioned the real prime motive behind everything he did. Because the fact is that Jonas made up his mind in the spring of the year when he turned ten. As he saw it, the answer to the question of the fundamental reason for living obviously had to be related to life itself: it was, quite simply, to save lives. Jonas made the sort of secret, solemn decision of which only a child is capable. One day, he vowed, he would save someone’s life. Most children do not give much thought to what they will be when they grow up. Even when coming out with the expected “A policeman!” or “A ship’s captain!” they are really not that interested. It is too abstract a concept. But Jonas meant it with all his heart when, in response to the grown-ups’ questions, he declared: “I’m going to be a lifesaver.”

From the very start he knew it would have to do with water. With drowning. He could not picture himself reaching out a hand to stop a runaway pram from careering downhill onto the electrified rails of the new subway line, all but stifling a yawn as he did so, or nonchalantly sticking out a foot to prevent some brat on a sledge from sliding into the path of a big truck. No, it would have to be something more spectacular. A real act of heroism. Preferably with masses of spectators. Grandstands full. He toyed for a while with fire as an alternative; in his mind he saw himself rescuing a woman from the licking flames in a burning building; pictured himself dashing out, coughing, his eyebrows singed, with the woman in his arms, just as the fire engines drove up with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring and the whole edifice collapsed in a deadly inferno behind him. In his imagination, the woman was always wearing lacy underwear and had her arms wrapped tightly around him, a reward greater than seeing his name—inscribed in letters of fire, so to speak—on any “Norwegian Fire Protection Diploma of Honor.”

But training for such an eventuality was not easy, and Jonas realized that it would have to be water—even though this was several decades before television series about lifeguards would become such a hit. For Jonas, this conviction went hand in hand with the knowledge that he was in possession of an extraordinary gift: it could not be for nothing that he had been endowed with his almost uncanny ability to hold his breath. Some day, possibly a cold winter’s day, in front of a stunned crowd, he would have to dive off a quayside to save a child that had fallen in and was lying many meters below the surface. There might even be ice, and he would have to find his way back to a little hole in it, like a seal. Shouts and cheers. Banner headlines. His name in shining letters. “Boy risks his own life.” The classic life-saving exploit. The sort of thing for which people were awarded the Carnegie Medal. Some day the call would come and he had to be ready. In his daydreams the child was usually a girl, a lass with wet hair and lacklustre eyes which, nonetheless, were turned up to him in a look of eternal gratitude.

Jonas trained with single-minded determination. Held his breath on the walk to school, held his breath in the classroom, held his breath before he went to sleep. He thought the hour of his great deed lay far in the future, that he would have to be patient. And then, only a year after he had made up his mind to be a lifesaver, with his basic training barely completed, it was upon him. The accident occurs on a day when he is totally unprepared for it, a day when he has almost forgotten about it or is, at any rate, thinking about something else. A day when the aim is not to save a life, but to see as many naked women as possible.

Jonas Wergeland sat on the organ bench. Remembered a dream he had put out of his mind, rejected as being far too naïve. Of being a lifesaver. The first time his father had taken him behind the organ and shown him the fan and the bellows; it had reminded him of breathing, of being able to control your breath. Jonas thought, wove, his playing suddenly more inspired, as if he really could save lives, breathe life, spirit, into something that was dead; manipulated the stops as if he were Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory. There, in Grorud Church, he played Bach, the exquisite “little” Prelude in E minor, a piece which starts out sounding like an improvisation, a playful exercise in runs and harmonies, but gradually slips into a more definite pattern, following a more distinct theme. Jonas had spent a long time practicing to get it right, but now he simply sat there, weaving, or leaving it to Bach, the great weaver of the Baroque. Every musician knows that sometimes—on mysteriously blessed days—one can exceed one’s own musical and, not least, technical skills. For Jonas, this was one of those days. It felt good to play. There was something special about the contact between his fingers and the keys, an unusual sureness to his touch; even his feet seemed to dance of their own accord.

Jonas did not know that a woman clad in bright orange was about to enter the church beneath him and, indirectly, change his life. He was playing the organ, and because he happened to be playing Bach on the organ, a piece of music resembling a network within which everything was connected in a comforting and meaningful fashion, his thoughts kept revolving around his father. His father and him. Always these two, Haakon and Jonas. He knew he was the apple of his father’s eye, thought it might have something to do with a talent they shared, that his father saw something in Jonas which he recognized. He had the feeling that his father was trying to shield him from something, though he never knew what.

As a small boy, Jonas could have appeared on Double Your Money, answering questions on his father. He knew his every wrinkle, every scent, every story. He could describe the way his father ate grapefruit, or his virtual addiction to the National Geographic; he could detail his father’s method of cutting his toenails or repeat word for word the minutes-long spiels he recited every morning in bed as he stretched his limbs until they cracked. Jonas was the only one, so he believed, who knew of the great pleasure Haakon Hansen took in being able to paddle, edge, his kayak in and out of the little islets around Hvaler. And then there were father’s breakfasts: bacon and egg every morning when there was no school. Instead of bawling out the standard “come-and-get-it” refrain their father would sit down at the ivories of the piano in the living room and wake them with a rendition of Bach’s Goldberg variation no. 6, a piece which is only thirty seconds long, but which Jonas felt was the closest one came to the perfect work for the piano. His father played
that same piece every Saturday and Sunday morning, year in year out; the pleasure of it stayed with Jonas for ever, that of waking to Bach’s Goldberg variation no. 6 and the smell of his father’s breakfast. “What more does a man need than Bach and a bit of bacon?” as Haakon Hansen would say, thereby making his contribution to the great debate on the meaning of life. It was a weekend in itself: Bach and bacon. And bacon, mark you, that was as crisp as the music of Bach.

Jonas would be well up in years before he understood that even though you knew someone, you might not know them at all.

One day in April they went for a drive in his father’s Opel Caravan, these two, always just these two, Haakon and Jonas. A journey of discovery his father called it. Jonas had been given the day off school; he thought they were going to Gjøvik, but they had carried on past it and taken a road away from Lake Mjøsa, running inland. Jonas stared out of the window as they drove through a valley, feeling rather disappointed. Nothing but farms, a few scattered houses. Could anything be discovered here, in such a lonely spot? Just at that moment his father pulled up in front of a large, yellow-painted building at the head of the valley. On a sign on the façade tall, white letters gleamed in a rainbow arc: The Norwegian Organ and Harmonium Works. Jonas found it hard to believe that something as thrilling as this could be hidden away deep in the forest. A man greeted Haakon Hansen courteously when he stepped out of the car, as if he were a visiting prince. “Welcome to Snertingdal,” the man said. Snertingdal—to Jonas it sounded as full of promise as Samarkand.

First they were ushered into the workshop where the pipes were bored. Jonas knew a fair bit about organs, but nothing about how they were made. He was so taken with the carpentry skills of a man working on a console with a manual keyboard that he had to be dragged away to the drawing office, from which they also had a grand view of the valley and the mill next door. To the accompaniment of a droning saw his father pored over the drawings for the new organ for Grorud Church—since that was, of course, why they were here; his father had been informed that work on the instrument would soon be finished. Enormous charts on a tilted drawing board showed the organ from different angles. His father nodded and smiled, traced lines with his fingers and enquired about details which meant nothing to Jonas. To him it looked like a cathedral, or the designs for some fantastical machine.

14 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I and here for Part II.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

After a while he began to discover crossover points between lines, eventually he even found one line that ran in a circle. He would have liked to stay down there for days, becoming part of the network, until he realized that he had reached Kievskaja station, a short step from his hotel. Later he would study the patterns on the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral and visit the Kremlin with all its undreamt-of treasures; he would see monasteries and churches with incandescent icons and glittering domes, but for Jonas Wergeland nothing could compare with what he had experienced, the sights he had seen, in the underground: a maze of sunken palaces. “In Moscow,” he would later say, “I learned that sometimes you have to go down into the depths in order to see the light.”

As he left Grorud station behind him, something told him that the Moscow experience was about to repeat itself, that something which had until now lain hidden awaited him. His current job with NRK was also the happy outcome of a story about going astray. In many ways it was the tale of needing a bathroom and making, therefore, a bit of a detour only, when all but sitting on the toilet, to be offered the chance to fill a vacancy. Now, though, he suspected that there was a sequel to this story, that his job as an announcer was merely the first—possibly dull—stage along a path that might almost have been said to lead to sunken palaces.

This suspicion was confirmed a moment later when he pushed open the main door of the church and that lofty room lay before him, suddenly much warmer, much brighter, much richer in scents and sensations than before. Myrrh, the thought flashed through his mind. Like a child in Sunday school, sticking goldfish onto a drawing of a fishing net in a book. Like Christmas Eve, he thought, in the days when the church was still a place filled with anticipation, with swelling organ music and colored light from stained-glass windows. In the days before anyone told you there was no God.

Jonas Wergeland was playing the organ. Or rather: not playing, but weaving, playing Johann Sebastian Bach, causing transparent worlds to pour from the organ casing, causing a succession of veils to drop down over the lofty room. His thoughts flew in all directions. Forward in time. Back in time. Often, on his way home from school or from piano lessons he had popped into the church, where his father was the organist. On a couple of occasions—during serious crises in his life—he had lain on the red carpet in front of the altar, feeling as though he were dead. Then his father had played, usually fugues, and he had walked out again like a soul resurrected. To Jonas it seemed that his father played life into him. Blew life into a dead thing. “This is a control center,” his father had said, pointing to the instrument’s complicated keyboard. Jonas was more inclined to call it a rescue center. He did not think of his father as an organist, but as a lifesaver. Maybe that was why, at an early age, he decided that this was what he, too, would be.

Jonas Wergeland sat on the organ bench in the church of his childhood, playing, weaving music into being, weaving thoughts into being, smiling as he pictured his mother’s horrified face, the look that met him when, as a boy, he shot up from the bottom of the bath gulping for air. She never spotted Daniel—a reassuring element—until it was too late. His brother would be perched on the toilet seat in the corner with the stopwatch they used when they went skating or lay in front of the radio listening to broadcasts of various sporting championships, as if they did not trust the lap times and final results quoted by the commentators.

“Blast!” Daniel always exclaimed, in dismay and delight—heedless of his mother’s stricken expression. “He flippin’ well did it again. A minute and a half.”

“You owe me five krone,” Jonas would gasp, his face tinged with blue, not altogether unlike the image of Krishna in Indian paintings.

Åse Hansen, normally the most even-tempered member of the family, remarkable for her stoic composure even when Rakel did not come home from parties or some ill-mannered relative ruined a Christmas dinner, was for a long time worried sick every time Jonas sneaked off to the bathroom and she heard the water start to run. It played merry hell with her nerves to know that if she peeked round the door she would see her son lying at the bottom of a full bathtub, holding his breath until his lungs screamed for oxygen. One day, when she could no longer turn a blind eye, she flung open the door just as Jonas’s head burst to the surface, with him coughing and spluttering from all the water he had swallowed. She gave him a telling off, asked him why on earth he was doing this.

“I’m practicing,” he wheezed.

“For what?”

“To save lives.”

Well, there was really no arguing with that. His mother sniffed some remark or other and closed the door, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. But Jonas was in deadly earnest. Ahead of him lay a summer during which he would establish his goal in life. He practiced with all the perseverance of the perfectionist. And he became very good.

Some people go through life without sparing the most profound existential questions more than an occasional heavy sigh. They want simply to live. Not to live for anything. For them it is enough just to scrape some money together, to seduce someone. And if that doesn’t do it, you can always go parachuting. To what extent such people are fortunate is not something we will go into here, because Jonas Wergeland belonged to another branch of humanity, to that group who from a very early age, possibly a little too early, begin to reflect on the purpose and the meaning of life. This question was as obscure for Jonas as it was crystal-clear for Daniel: as far as his older brother was concerned the whole point of life was to be the best. At everything, no matter what. Daniel belonged to that category of Norwegian who from the moment they were born seemed intent on dedicating their lives to proving the truth of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s later assertion that “it is typically Norwegian to be good.” For Daniel, the whole point was to be able to ascend the winner’s rostrum, be it a high one like Mount Everest or a low-lying one like a woman’s mount of Venus.

Jonas, on the other hand, had come to the conclusion that the purpose of life was to make a name for oneself—the reason for this need be nothing more mysterious than that he was distantly related to the people in the Book of Genesis. Although, it could of course also have had something to do with the fact that he liked to walk around town looking at all the shop signs: Ingwald Nielsen, Thv. L. Holm. At night some names, such as that of Ferner Jacobsen, were even written in neon. He could stand for ages on Egertorg, staring at the jeweller’s where Aunt Laura had begun her career, admiring the lettering proclaiming david andersen. More than fame itself, Jonas longed to see his name in lights. The world would read his name and know that it stood for something of great worth, right up there alongside silver, gold and precious stones.

Jonas considered many different options. For some weeks—apropos this business with the names—he was quite convinced that the whole purpose of life was to have a dish named after you. He had long been used to hearing people refer to such culinary delights as Janson’s Temptation or beef à la Lindström: names which might not conjure up images of silver or gold, but which certainly made the mouth water. His mother was surprised by the interest displayed by her younger son in the kitchen. But after several unsuccessful, scorched attempts at what he called a Jonas cake: a concoction involving bananas, cardamom and liquorice gums which had Daniel, his guinea pig, hanging over the toilet, throwing up—he started to think bigger.

13 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair is going all week, so rather than vanish for a few days, all this week we’re serializing the opening of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife. [Click here for Part I.]

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

Scarcely an hour earlier, after collecting a pile of sheet music, he had closed the gate of the house he would soon be moving into and which people would dub Villa Wergeland, and set off down the road he had walked every day of his childhood. Wherever he turned his eye he risked becoming lost in memories: a life-threatening bonfire, the windows Ivan broke, the wallet in the ditch which brought him a heaven-sent fifty-krone reward, the magnetic, nipple-shaped doorbell on the front door of Anne Beate Corneliussen’s building. He sauntered along, wishing to prolong the poignant aspect of the moment. There was a strange mood in the air too. It felt as though there was no longer the discoverer anyone living in the houses he passed. Even the shops looked deserted. It was an exceptionally dull day. Damp. The last leaves had fallen from the trees. The ground was covered with an indeterminate gunge, as if after an incredibly drunken party. The blocks of flats and the shopping center reminded him of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union. The whole of life seemed suddenly drab and dreary. And yet—in spite of all this—he felt hopeful. As if he knew that behind all the greyness lay something else, something surprising. Something is about to happen, he told himself.

As his eye was drawn to a couple of solitary clusters of rowan berries, two rosy, bright spots in all the greyness, he found himself thinking of another grey day in his life. The year before, off his own bat, he had gone to Moscow with a friend and colleague from the NRK purchasing department who was attending a television conference there. They had stayed at the Hotel Ukraine, one of Stalin’s seven so-called “wedding-cake” buildings from the fifties, all of which looked like squat, bulky versions of the Empire State Building. One morning he had crossed the grey River Moscow, meaning to walk to the Kremlin. Ahead of him lay Kalinina Avenue, broad and surprisingly empty-looking, despite the cars. The weather was clear, but a haze still managed to leach everything of color. The distances seemed enormous, and almost in order to escape from those vast, empty spaces thick with the fumes from low-octane gasoline, he took a right turn which led him into some narrower streets. Here he found more people. Women in headscarves, carrying baskets. And there were lines. Two in one short stretch. For eggs, perhaps, he thought. Or toilet paper? To these people, even the magazines he had bought at Fornebu airport, with their glossy adverts, would be objects as rare as rocks from the moon. He walked along, looking and looking, trying to take in the dreariness around him. Brown, grey, black. Hulking, homogenous buildings. Everything covered in a thin layer of grime. He fancied that he was wandering through a sort of populated desert. Always, when he came to a new place, he went exploring. As a small boy he had transformed every house he visited into an unknown continent. He was a Columbus, stepping ashore. The threshold was a beach. The hallway a jungle, the stairs a mountain, every cupboard a cave. But Moscow: so gloomy, so dispiritingly vast. This was obviously not a city one simply strolled through. Best be getting back, he thought, before I am engulfed by all this greyness.

The problem was, however, that he no longer knew where he was. And as if that weren’t enough, he desperately needed to go to the toilet. He cursed his bad habit of drinking too much coffee at lunchtime, while casting about in hopes of finding some building that was open to the public. He fell in with a stream of people who seemed to have been caught by a current and were being swept towards a façade with a large M over the doors. He had always liked the letter M, took this to be a good omen. He was not prepared, however, for the sight which met his eyes, for the way the stony desert gave way to a shimmering oasis.

In his mind he was in Moscow, in reality he was approaching Grorud shopping center, casting a nostalgic glance in the direction of Wolfgang Michaelsen’s garden where every autumn as boys they had gone scrumping for glossy, green apples so juicy and so sweet that they even merited running the risk of the Michaelsens’ Rottweiler getting loose. There was a slight haze in the air, the sort of autumn mist that quickens the senses and which, rather than concealing things, seemed to bring them closer, even things that were a long way off. Chet Baker weather, he thought to himself. He felt nervous. Before him lay a sight which triggered memories of childhood theatricals, packed gym halls. The fluttering in his stomach might otherwise have been attributed to his own misgivings, a dawning sense of having come to a dead end. In his life. The problem had to do with his work at NRK TV. He was an announcer, and popular. And yet he wasn’t happy. He did not understand it. At some point in his life he had abandoned all of the goals he had set for himself as a youth. He had thrown in the towel halfway through a course in architecture, having previously dropped out of a course in astrophysics. By chance—and not really caring one way or the other—he had allowed himself to be led into a tiny television studio. For many years he had been more than happy with his good fortune, with having found a job where he could do so little, and yet, it appeared, mean so much to so many. But now it seemed that an old ambition was once more stirring. Something he had forgotten. Wanted to forget. His conscience still pricked him. He caught himself looking for a loophole, a way out, a way forward. Which may have been why now, on this day especially, despite his sense of confusion, he suddenly felt optimistic. He had a strong feeling that something awaited him. That it was only minutes away. That something, a curtain, would be pulled back and something else, he did not know what, would be revealed.

As in Moscow. Because, when he penetrated beyond the grey façade with the steel M over the doors it was like stepping into the foyer of a theatre. As though someone up in the flies had dropped a richly hued stage set into place right before his very eyes. He walked along broad, brightly lit corridors, gazing round about him in disbelief; found a toilet without any problem. He had always set a lot of store by mazes and the possibilities these presented. You set out to sail to India, and wind up instead on an unknown continent. You go looking for a toilet and stumble upon a metro station, a veritable treasure house. He seized his chance, followed the crowd, popped a five kopek coin in the slot and passed through the barrier. Moments later he was being transported down into the bowels of the earth on the steepest, longest escalator he had ever ridden, a wooden one, at that; then he found himself in a vast, glittering white chamber hung with magnificent chandeliers. A sunken palace. He was Alice in Wonderland, the victim of a supernatural occurrence. He took the hall in which he found himself for a glittering ballroom until a train came rushing in and stopped right in front of him.

Out of sheer curiosity he hopped on, only to alight at the next station—Plostsjad Revoljutsii, he later learned: Revolution Square. It was like entering a museum. The station concourse was full of bronze sculptures. As far as he could tell, they represented the different trades. He was about to take a closer look at a statue of a sailor when he almost bumped into a shabby-looking character sweeping the floor. The man stopped, leaned on his brush and examined Jonas. The look he gave him contrasted sharply with his down-at-heel appearance. Keen eyes studied the small Norwegian flag which Jonas was wearing in his lapel while in Moscow, a badge intended to serve much the same purpose as the tag on a dog collar: indicating which embassy to contact were he to collapse in the street. The cleaner stood for a while staring into space, as if deep in thought. Then: “Gustav Vigeland,” he said at length, extending his arms to the statues round about them. Jonas nodded. There were certain similarities. “Gustav Vigeland,” he responded. These two words pretty much said it all. Forged a bond between them. Encapsulated a whole story. Or so Jonas thought, until the Russian leaned towards him: “Fascism!” he hissed, pointing eloquently at the sculptures. Jonas smiled uncertainly, tried to nod politely before continuing his tour. This man could easily be a professor of art, he thought, but now here he is, sweeping railway platforms for holding certain incorrect opinions on art.

Jonas was right underneath Red Square, but he was not interested in taking the escalator up, out. Why see Lenin’s tomb when he could see this? He wanted to stay down here in this brilliantly illuminated secret. Here, in Moscow, they had built their sculpture parks underground. Jonas wandered on and off trains for hours, endeavoring to see as many stations as possible. A subterranean grand tour, he thought to himself. Proof that man had evolved beyond the caveman stage. He strolled through halls faced with every sort of polished stone, a genuine geological museum. Everything was spotlessly clean. Jonas walked upon gleaming tiles, down colonnades, amid copper and steel, surveying all manner of ornamentation: mosaics, reliefs, stained glass, statues of pilots and scientists. All of this decoration sprang from the ideal of bringing art to the people. He thought of his brother’s favorite writer, Agnar Mykle: “Socialism is clean bodies and classical music in the factories.” And art in the metro stations, Jonas might have added. During his visit, Jonas came across nothing that told him more about the Soviet state and, not least, its part in the last war. He had seen something like this before: the Town Hall in Oslo. He went on walking and thinking, considering. What, today, was the greatest public space? Might it not be television, the box, the square common to all? In other words: wasn’t that the place for art—in palaces of a sort, beamed into
people’s living rooms?

12 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Frankfurt Book Fair starts tomorrow, and in a few short hours I’ll be on a plane to Germany. (Hastily preparing for a Tools of Change panel I’m going to be on a mere six hours after I land . . .) Anyway, I will be blogging for the FBF site, and hope to update Three Percent with that info, but in the meantime, I thought we’d offer up a special treat this week and serialize the first few pages of Jan Kjaerstad’s _The Discoverer, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. This is the follow-up to The Conqueror (although each book in the Wergeland Trilogy can be read independently of the others) and takes place shortly after TV-producer and Norwegian icon Jonas Wergeland has released from prison for the murder of his wife.

You can purchase the book from our site, either by itself as part of a subscription to Open Letter or as one of the titles in our special 2 books for $22 offer. It’s worth noting that as part of this special offer, you’re automatically entered into a drawing to win a free year’s subscription. So, without any further ado . . . _

Jupiter

Behold this man. Behold this man, as he feels three tugs on the rope and slowly, after smiling uncertainly, proceeds to traverse, to edge out onto those dauntingly airy galleries. Behold this man as he inches across the rock face; see how with the caution of the novice he feels his way forward using all of his limbs, his whole body in fact, before shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I can sense how frightened, how truly terrified he is, and yet how full of the determination to do this, to see it through, make it to the top. And then, suddenly, as if something has ground to a halt, he freezes. He shuts his eyes. He looks as though he is listening to the wind, while at the same time concentrating hard, trying to place the scent emanating from the rock against which he is pressed. The bright sunlight glitters off the cliff face, sparkles in the runnels of meltwater. As far as I can see he is holding his breath. I have known it all along. This is the moment of truth. On a ledge, with a drop of hundreds of meters into the abyss only a step away. Here you live, or you die.

“This is a second I shall remember.”

Then he does the one thing I have begged him not to do. He half turns, while apparently hanging on tight with both hands. He looks out. Looks down. As if intent on defying something. Proving something. For a moment he seems to be completely dazzled by the Slingsby glacier far below. Or no, not dazzled, but stunned, panic-stricken. Psyched out, as they say. I refuse to believe it. That this man could be afraid of anything, a man who brought thousands of cars to a halt on Oslo’s Town Hall Square and who, by his mere presence, drew a cyclone to himself; a man who has been with three fair maids at once and who would not hesitate to dive to a depth of fifteen meters without an oxygen tank. Yet he hangs there, rigid. Still holding his breath. Or am I wrong? Does he bend down ever so slightly? I think—I know it sounds strange, but I almost believe he is trying to kneel.

One hand fumbles with the knot, as if he means to undo himself from the rope. “Sit!” I call sharply. “Don’t look down.” But he goes on staring, seeming more mesmerized than frightened now. Or infuriated perhaps, contemptuous. As if this were a set-to with Norway itself, a confrontation for which he has waited years—to stand on the edge of an abyss, without a safety net. I can see temptation written large on his face. He could let himself fall. He could realize the cliché which will forever be attached to his story: that of his downfall. The final, glorious headline.

“You’re perfectly safe,” I shout. “It’s all in your head.” I’m jittery too now, I check that the coil of rope is securely fixed around the sharp rock next to me. I know I can trust Martin, who has led the way, hammering in pitons at regular intervals, and is now out of sight behind some large boulders, a short rope-length from the bottom of the chimney. Martin has climbed everything from the Bonatti pillar to Ama Dablam. But never with such a partner, a man who—according to the newspapers—lost his head and shot a woman straight through the heart. I am uneasy. The uncertainty of the figure huddled against the rock face radiates towards me. I may have miscalculated. Perhaps I should have said no after all. Then he turns to me. His face is calm. I can see that he is breathing, drawing the cool mountain air deep into his lungs, hungrily. He smiles, even raises his hand in a wave, traverses onwards.

Behold this man. Behold this man, the bearer of a mystery.

The rest of the climb went well, remarkably well. Down by the stone cottage at Bandet earlier that day I had been worried. A couple of times on the way up the ridge, on the toughest, most exposed stretch, I had considered turning back. I could see that he was gasping for breath, he looked a little lightheaded. The air was keen and thin. Over one stretch we secured our passage with a length of rope—mainly for his sake—and when we started climbing again he dislodged a rock which went clattering down the mountainside, leaving a whiff of gunpowder behind it. An omen. His fleece clothes and the harness made him look like a child—truly, in this situation, like a helpless child. And, funnily enough, I felt responsible for him.

“Aren’t you a little afraid of heights?” I had asked him when we set out from Turtagrø that morning.

“I used to be. I’m a different person now,” he said.

We reached Hjørnet—the Corner, slipped off our rucksacks. It was early in the season, and there was more snow than I was used to. Wetter and dirtier. We wouldn’t be able to switch to climbing shoes. It went fine, though, with no great problems—even over the few meters of real climbing up the Heftyes Renne, transformed now into a chill, slippery, icy chimney.

We reached the top around midday. I shall never forget the look of triumph on his face, the way he stretched his arms up and out. To the spring sky. All those years inside. Down. And now, only a couple of years after that first intoxicating taste of freedom: on the roof of Norway. Right at the very top. Everything below us seemed much lower, markedly so. I heard him murmur, partly to us, partly to himself: “I never thought I would make it.”

And a moment later: “But I knew I had it in me.”

We sat down beside the little cairn. He studied the commemorative plaque fixed to the stone as if expecting to find his name inscribed there. There too. I took the landscape shots I needed. He said not a word, just sat there looking at the view, could not seem to get enough of this, the most spectacular panorama in Norway. The massive Jostedal Glacier, Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind and all the other peaks of Jotunheimen. Alpine forms with peaks and crests, carved and gouged out by the ice. “Organ pipes,” he muttered suddenly. “This has to be the world’s biggest organ, listen to the wind!” From the massif on which we sat, two jagged ridges wound off like petrified vertebrae. “What are they?” he asked. “Kjerringa og Mannen,” I said—the Woman and the Man—and instantly regretted it. A strange look came over his face.

Behold this man.

We prepared for the downward journey. Just as I was wondering how he was going to cope with the abseiling, he turned the wrong way, towards the sheer drop to Skagadalen. I was about to call out, but the cry stuck in my throat. He stretched his arms out to the sides, as if about to do a swallow dive.

Why did he do it?

One has to start somewhere, and a good, not to say almost perfect, departure point—or even, to stick with the climbing motif: viewpoint—from which to examine Jonas Wergeland’s life would be another stony edifice, another gallery, a hallowed hall, a room with walls of granite, and an autumn day in the 1980s—an autumn day which would bring with it deep sorrow and wistful joy, as well as a strange mystery, an incident bordering on the scandalous. Nor is it entirely inappropriate that Jonas should be at the organ, an instrument befitting his history and the power which for so long he had exerted over the minds, not to say the souls, of the Norwegian people. Jonas Wergeland is playing the organ, framed by its gleaming, monumental face, making the whole church tremble with his playing, making the very stone, the bedrock of Norway, sing. He is not an organist, but he handles the instrument almost like a professional musician; he is an organist by nature, he might have been made for this part, this pose. No wonder he once replied when asked, in Samarkand, what he did for a living: “I am an organist.”

18 December 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I referenced this book in my earlier post about “The Conqueror galley giveaway”: but in introducing the spring Open Letter titles, it definitely deserves it’s own entry.

The Discoverer is the final volume in the “Wergeland Trilogy,” a collection of three books—The Seducer and The Conqueror being their other two—by Jan Kjaerstad that focus on the life of Jonas Wergeland and the death of his wife Margrete.

In Kjaerstad’s universe, Wergeland is an ultra-famous Norwegian TV producer who created a series called “Thinking Big” about famous figures in Norway’s history. Everything’s going really well for him (more or less) until he returns home from a trip and finds his wife dead on the floor.

The three books in the series can be read independently of each other: each title recounts stories from Jonas’s life from a different person’s perspective, weaving together small events in hopes of explaining what happened to him. The Seducer builds up to the moment that he arrives home and finds his wife dead, and The Conqueror recounts his life story in light of the fact that he admitted in court to killing Margrete.

The Discoverer opens years later, after Jonas has been released from prison. The novel is narrated by both Jonas and his daughter, who are together on a voyage down the great Sognefjord with a group of young people working on a multimedia project to encapsulate all the history and importance of the Sognefjord. Which is interesting and relevant, since taken together, the three books in this trilogy attempt to create a new way of looking at the world, of processing information.

This novel is a bit different from the others—the chapters are much longer and tend to weave together a number of stories first encountered in the earlier books. One of Kjaerstad’s great strengths is his ability to sequence stories in a particular way to create a mosaic of Jonas’s life. If The Seducer is arranged like a fugue, and The Conqueror like a spiral, The Discoverer is most like a set of concentric circles. Not that it’s necessary to pay attention to this—each part is incredibly compelling and immediately draws the reader into Jonas’s complicated, fascinating life.

It’s hard to choose a favorite of these three books, but I agree with the translator Barbara Haveland that this novel is mindblowing, and alters everything that came before . . . And it’s not surprising that it won the Nordic Prize when it was first published in Norway.

Our entire spring catalog will be online in the very, very near future, but in the meantime, here’s an excerpt of The Discoverer, and you can find write-ups of four other spring titles by clicking here.

....
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