Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Jo Nesbø on traitors, sunshine patriots and more

The social criticism in Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast goes beyond the humorous digs at presidential pomposity and, just possibly, Norwegian parochialism that I mentioned last week. Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak get fleeting mentions in connection with a summit meeting set to take place in Oslo as the novel opens. But another real-life politician's name resonates far more strongly: that of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist whose name became a synonym for traitor after he collaborated in the German Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II.

Nesbø has nothing but contempt for the neo-Nazis who plague 1990s Oslo, portraying them variously as apes and as children who refuse to grow up. At the same time, he is (or lets his characters be) just as hard on the "latter-day saints," Norwegians who were quick to declare their love of country — after Germany had been safely defeated. A murder late in the novel re-enacts Quisling's execution. The killer's identity makes clear Nesbø's scorn for the latter-day saints. Norwegians, those enthusiastic flag-wavers, could be just as nationalistic as Germans, he has a character say, and he means it as no compliment.

Did I mention that The Redbreast is also a murder mystery? The killings have their roots in World War II, in a cold, lonely Eastern Front outpost to which the novel flashes back frequently. Mysterious events happen there, in military hospitals and in wartime Vienna, and the moral lines are not nearly as clear as they become later. And love and betrayal, real and perceived, play as much a role as do political events.

Back in the novel's present, in 1990s Oslo, Nesbø's Harry Hole slowly uncovers the link to that World War II past, fueled by his customary mix of intuition, doggedness and alcohol, though there is far more to him than those hallmarks of the highly capable, highly angst-ridden detective.

I'd best stop before this post approaches the novel's 521 pages in length. Suffice it to say that the killing of a police officer precipitates a moving, formally surprising depiction of Hole's descent back into drink, that Nesbø knows how to make violence shocking by understating it, that he can darken a mood as few writers can, and that, boy, can he ever lay down plot lines for further novels. (Though translated into English after The Devil's Star, The Redbreast was written first and is set earlier.)

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A translation note: Don Bartlett chose not to translate most Oslo street names, a nice touch. Thus, one character lives at Vibes gate 18. This is interesting because gate is an archaic English word for street; hence the many streets in England that have gate as part of their names. Similarly, translators of Henning Mankell's novels leave untranslated street names that contain gatan. One may conclude from this that travel is broadening and that international crime fiction can be educational.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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