The Conqueror Hardcover – Jul 1 2009
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'An enormously accomplished and compelling novel by one of Scandinavia's outstanding contemporary writers. Barbara J. Haveland and Arcadia Books have performed a great service by giving us Kjaerstad in English at last' - Paul Auster'I read the Norwegian writer Jan Kjaerstad's energetic blast of a novel, The Seducer, in one. It's irresistible and playful' - Ali Smith, TLS'Jan Kjaerstad is a brave writer. The Seducer succeeds at being a great work of fiction, and a terrific read' - Anna Paterson, Independent --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Jan Kjaerstad made his debut as a writer in 1980 with a short story collection, The Earth Turns Quietly. The three books making up the Wergeland trilogy
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An unnamed historian specializing in academic biographies of obscure Norwegians is given a huge advance to write a biography of Jonas. He completes the research but serious writer's block keeps him from writing the book until one day a mysterious woman arrives at his turret (yes, turret) and tells him she will dictate the story he needs to write, he need only take down the story. Does this sound a tad far-fetched, fairy princess kind of stuff? Yeah, well it is. What follows is a book of 60 chapters, 54 stories about Jonas and 6 chapters of asides by the Professor on the writing of the book. The book is told in something like third-person semi-omniscient one step removed. Meaning you are reading a tale and then reminded that it is the mysterious woman dictating the story to the Professor. That rigamarole of adding the Professor and the mysterious woman I found just annoying. It distances the reader from the written material, which is fine, but only if it serves a point, and I saw none.
Okay, so first there is the odd, distancing, narrative gimmick, and second there is the only real character in the book, Jonas. The 54 stories from his life do not add up to a very complete portrait of the man, nor do they offer a very comprehensive explanation of the murder, but again, that is the author's choice. The problem is that we are hit over the head with certain re-occurring "themes" which the author is trying to weave together into this portrait, but for this reader it was a complete failure. Why? Because Jonas is simply a selfish, shallow jerk. I completely lost interest in him after maybe 150 pages. I can give you a rather long list of his characteristics (strong-willed, selfish, determined to be a success, brutal, a conqueror) and for each of these we are given too many examples from throughout his life. But in order for the book to be a success these disparate events must coalesce into a whole, and that whole should be more than its individual elements. For this reader, it wasn't. The events were merely a well written set of minor stories giving us yet more details of the despicable Jonas. I couldn't even feel much sorrow for the death of his wife, Margrete, even though her death was described in brutal detail. She simply had no flesh and blood as a character. She existed solely as a foil for the author's description of Jonas.
The only real character in this book besides the despicable Jonas is Norway. We are served up massive dosages of Norwegian history, geography, and national characteristics. Sorry, but this simply isn't interesting to non-Norwegians, particularly since there are no notes or introduction to this book. Since Norway has a tiny population (half the size of my home town) and we are repeatedly told how irrelevant Norway is to the bigger world, I assume at least some of the Norway comments are in-jokes for the natives. For example the Professor proudly tells us he was Norway's first Annales representative. That is a Norwegian joke, right? And "I had done for a number of prominent Norwegians what Lytton Strachey did for a bunch of his countrymen." Another joke, right? And the endlessly long and boring descriptions of the bio pics on famous Norwegians most of whom are unknown to non-Norwegians? Oh, and the stamp collection consisting solely of stamps from countries other than Norway depicting famous Norwegians? Bored yet?
The translation is okay, but hardly flawless. There were many sentences that were oddly worded, forcing me to stop, reread the sentence, shrug my shoulders and continue reading. Examples include...
"dad came home proud as a stag in rut"
"Jonas had a musical cicerone that galvanized his ears"
"led him to espy a similarity"
A summary of the author's intentions can be seen in a couple of related conversations...
Why are you doing this?
Out of pity. Sheer pity.
And your purpose?
To save a life. Otherwise there would be no point. [page 63]
Of course not. Something far more difficult. From pointlessness. [page 277]
By that test, the book is a failure. I give it 3 stars because of the immense effort involved in its writing and translation, plus the author certainly knows how to construct a sentence and a story. It simply fails to accomplish what it has set out to do.