Norway is a country of supernal freshness. A rugged, sea-charmed landscape --mountains, forests, fiords. After a rain, the air is soft with inhalable innocence. Oslo sparkles in sunshine and in snow. The Norwegians you meet wear candor like a summer smile. So why are all the Norwegian novels I read so grim? Hamsun? Borgen? Now Christensen, whom my Norsk friends consider the best living Scandinavian novelist!
The Joker is a mystery story, in which the "detective" is a burned-out drug-using petty thief. Hans Windleband, at age twenty-six, considers himself a waste of air space -- going nowhere, doing nothing, living in a shabby little apartment in a shabby little corner of Oslo, the reality of which I, a mighty walker, cannot ascertain. Like hey, dudes and dudettes, nothing in Norway is that sleazy! Well, one day Hans opens his morning paper (aha! a pre-internet novel!) and reads an obituary of...himself! Just a small item. Somebody's idea of a joke? The rest of the novel follows Hans as he slumps around town, hassling other slackers and sleazers, not quite hooking up with his maybe-girlfriend Berit, and eventually finding somebody's urn of ashes being buried in the Winkleband family plot. In a fumbling moment of selflessness, he ends up assuming the identity of the really dead somebody in order to offer consolation to the somebody's heroin-crazed mother. Is this the fresh start Hans has been seeking? Read and find out!
Honestly, this novel isn't as bad as I make it sound. It's suspenseful and tightly plotted. If you enjoy mystery tales, you might enjoy The Joker. But me, I'm sick of novels about low-lifes! I'm tired of literary figurations of mental illness! All stories about junkies have begun to look the same!
Go ahead, ask me why I read it then! "Why did you read it?"
"Because it was there!"
No, because a friend recommended it. And because Christensen wrote one of the most charming, wry, thoughtful novels for young readers that my son ever brought home from his school library. That book is titled "Herman". My son and I read it in Spanish, but an English translation is available.