Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Torgny is #1

                                                                  Photo by Hannibal

An author speaks to a few silent and polite members at a reading in a small village in northern Sweden. A newspaper man stands at a handmade lectern writing his latest article while staring out at the snow. A villager returns from a short trip searching for a wife with only a rabbit in hand. These are the facts of the simple beginnings of three stories. The stories are found in the novels of Torgny Lindgren.

Of all the fiction writers which I have read, studied, perused and/or scanned lightly I have come to the conclusion that Torgny Lindgren is the greatest living novelist. There is room for argument, of course, and differences in favored styles, but there is a case to be made for this 73 year old Swede who holds the #9 seat on the Swedish Academy. 

Let me begin with three of his latest books to be translated into English. In the mid-nineties he began a series of three nearly perfect novels. They are Light, Sweetness, and Hash. While not technically a series their tones fit together well. They share no characters among them. However, they are all set in the villages of northern Sweden. These three novels are peopled by low key, nearly unflappable citizens who are at times completely outrageous.

In Light alone you will find lying, incest, bestiality, the plague, and thievery – Lindgren has obviously been reading the bible. And I haven’t even mentioned the giant pig who eats a small member of their community and is then henceforth brought to the gallows.

In Sweetness a traveling author becomes the caretaker and arbiter between two aged dueling brothers who have not spoken to each other for decades but are neighbors out in the Swedish countryside. The brothers full of enmity share a cat, and perhaps once even a wife and child. The cancerous Hagar eats barely anything besides a few savory snacks while Olof, his obese weak-hearted brother, consumes immense quantities and yet ingests only sweet treats including sugar by the handfuls out of the bag. Olof dreams of the days he his father (his father may have even eaten his own dog) ate honey from hives they found in the ground.

And yet, Hash is the oddest and best. It begins in 1947 as a stranger comes to town who may or may not be the Nazi Martin Bormann. Oh, don’t worry; he has no weapons or power except a van full of cheap fabric and clothing which he sells to unsuspecting locals. Eventually he hooks up with the local school teacher, recently cured of consumption, to sing classical duets. The two singers become obsessed with a local delicacy and begin to travel throughout northern Sweden astride a German-made motorcycle searching for the perfect hash. Although they are often transcended by hash it is not the drug of hash that the story is concerned with but the food hash. It is actually called Polsan in Sweden but there is no good translation here because in America we seldom eat gelatinous offal foods featuring animal giblets, gizzards, hoofs and entrails.  Oh, by the way, the entire story may be a fictitious newspaper account written by a 107 year old man whose eyesight is mysteriously improving, whose hair is getting darker and thicker, and whose mouth is peopled by new and growing teeth. This unnamed elderly writer and protagonist claims to have outlasted old age, “Age is a tough adversary. Most people eventually have to admit defeat.

But Torgny Lindgren and his novels never do! 

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