Sunday, January 23, 2011

Copenhagen in the Dark

I like to think of crime fiction as resembling adult fairy tales that address common fears, so I enjoy reading non-U.S. crime fiction to get a feel for what worries people in other places. Two of Norwegian writer Karin Fossum’s Sejer novels, for example, look a lot at the violence that lurks behind pleasant-looking facades and faces. (previous post)

If I were to use my criteria to analyze Copenhagen Noir, an anthology edited by Bo Tao Michaëlis, translated mostly by Mark Kline, and published by Akashic Books, I might come away a little afraid of Danes and Denmark, where my ancestors moved after they left Sweden… Copenhagen Noir left me with the overwhelming feeling that Danes, at least Danish writers, are most concerned about misdeeds related to sex, often prostitution, and crime involving immigrants. These two categories often overlap, and many stories mention these topics in passing even if they focus on other subjects.

Before I discuss stories in the book, I want to tell you the reason I asked Akashic for a review copy of Copenhagen Noir: I visited Copenhagen twice in the early ‘90s and felt, both times, a strange and indescribable something dark about the city. It was more than just the aimless-looking teenage guys wandering Tivoli Garden in pods – I find theme parks a little creepy anyway – or the young man next to me on a train who lit up a glob of some sort of goop that looked like an opiate. None of this made the Danish pastries taste less airily sweet or the fish taste less saltily fresh, but I sensed something deeper than a routine melancholy.

[Beware: Mild spoilers may follow.] Almost 20 years later, there’s Copenhagen Noir, where many of the descriptions are as minimalist as the details in Scandinavian design: that’s fitting given Michaëlis’s mention in his introduction of “the seamy side of modernism.” Michaëlis also writes: “All the short stories in Copenhagen Noir are about meaninglessness, violence, and murder in various districts of the city.” I especially related to the meaningless he mentions: For example, “The Booster Station,” by Seyit Öztürk, involves two guys who find a body and then wait for the murderer to return to the scene of the crime. They wait, eat sometimes, and talk. I had my suspicions about who might have done “it” (this crime also involved sex), and things get increasingly tense. These guys might have been at Tivoli that night.

The first five stories in the book are grouped in a “(Men and) Women” section; some depict sex-related crimes rather graphically, but Christian Dorph and Simon Pasternak’s, “Australia,” about an immigrant prostitute trying to escape, has something approaching a happy ending. Bonus: it also mentions hockey. I enjoyed Gretelise Holm’s “When It’s Tough out There” more: a well-to-do woman with an original Arne Jacobsen Egg chair and a Philippine au pair decides to join up as a worker at City Sex and Luxury Massage. Even if the victim doesn’t deserve the final punishment and I guessed the ending, the story felt satisfying as twisted social satire.

Savage City, Cruel City,” by Kristian Lundberg, translated from the Swedish by Lone Thygesen Blecher is about Malmo, a Swedish city across a bridge from Copenhagen. Though the story, which involves a hardboiled cop, wandered, I welcomed its metaphysical side after some of the book’s very spare stories. This paragraph felt especially fitting as I watched the snow fall: “Now it’s January. The month when everything stands in the balance. When everything is both too late and too early.”

Two others stories stood out: Kristina Stoltz’s “The Elephant’s Tusks,” which starts off with writers celebrating and ends with something very strange, and Benn Q. Holm’s “The Great Actor,” about two actors, one famous, the other a cab driver, who meet by chance after many years. I enjoyed the homey voice of the cab driver: Holm creates a nice balance between concision and chattiness. I wish I’d said this first: “I had become a night person, and I liked winters, the long dense dark. Autumn was my spring, the sublime overture of darkness.”

Though Copenhagen Noir doesn’t achieve the body-and-soul-rending reading experience of Moscow Noir (post on my Russian book blog), its stories melded together for me into an uneasy Copenhagen populated by sex traffickers, willing and hesitant murderers, and kind people. And it’s successful at drawing a city that feels like a city instead of a tourist attraction: Copenhagen Noir’s writers generally avoid gratuitous mentions of recognizable tourist spots. And I think there’s only one mention of that Scandinavian classic called Ikea. Even if I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about Copenhagen Noir as I was about Moscow Noir, I was grateful for the chance to read fiction about my historical homeland, particularly since it’s fiction that addresses, if only indirectly, the impressions I had of Copenhagen when I visited year ago. I’m looking forward to more of Akashic’s Noir books about places outside the U.S.

My favorite Copenhagen tourist spot: Rosenborg Castle. Photo from Bluedog423, via Wikipedia.

Up Next: Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Copenhagen Noir from publisher Akashic Books. Thank you!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Zoning in and out with Énard’s Zone

So I finally finished Mathias Énard’s Zone last week and since it is a one-sentence wonder, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I thought I’d do something different, that is write about the book in kind of, sort of the style in which the book is written, which is to say one big, long sentence that wanders but has a definite destination because the main character is this guy, Francis Mirkovic, who is French but Croatian (I think you can see that in his name) and a former soldier and an intelligence gatherer, and anyway, he’s on a train because he missed his plane, so that means he has a lot of time to look around and think about his family and his life and all the things he’s done and people he’s met, and lots of that isn’t very pleasant, really, it’s about war and violence and truly horrible, awful things people do to each other and the Zone refers to places where many violent conflicts happen, the Mediterranean basin, as the back of the book says (I couldn’t say it better myself), and while he’s on that train he reads a book about Lebanon, but he also refers very often to mythology and ancient history and World War 2 and World War 1 (I almost forgot) and his own participation in the strife in what used to be Yugoslavia, which is awful and very vivid, some of the most interesting stuff, and, well, a lot of this is interesting, particularly when it’s about him and what he did himself but some of you probably already know that I don’t really like reading much nonfiction (which I always hate to admit) which means that some of the more historical asides got a little not-interesting for me, and Francis also talks about his girlfriends, who I kind of felt sorry for because he’s no gift as they say in Russian, not the nicest guy, not that that matters, no, I can read fiction about nice and not-nice people, but some of the things he does aren’t very pleasant, and also you can tell there’s war in his DNA because his father was in Algeria so there’s this feeling that war is just part of who people are, and what else can I say about this book, well, there are also many threads about literature like Don Quixote and Under the Volcano and I can’t forget The Iliad, you really can’t miss them, they’re pretty obvious, plus there are carnivalesque themes with lots of drinking (what better way to forget, right?, particularly when you’re a guy who collects memories about awful things that we shouldn’t forget) not to mention dancing, and in Beirut there’s a mention of a dance that “instead of a dance of memory it’s that dance of oblivion that only state-controlled memory allows,” so Francis thinks about all this as he takes the train, because he missed the plane, and he’s going to Rome where he’s going to turn in a briefcase full of information about all these terrible things and then he’s going to disappear and no longer be Francis Mirkovic but be someone else, using the identity of a guy he knew who’s now in a psych ward and that guy too was involved in conflict though not of the same type as a declared war, the book is really a lot about war so if you like reading about war and what it means, you’ll probably like Zone, especially because it’s really about how war and violence and conflict go on through the ages, on and on and on, kind of like that train clicks along until, maybe, the tracks or the journey or the world ends, which is also referred to in Zone, and the book is about memories, heavy stuff, and even I think male bonding, and about a sort of person like Francis who is, oh, I don’t know, maybe pan-European, and I think the book is pretty-not-bad for what it is, though I think that 516.2 pages of mostly all one sentence (with the exception of that book Francis reads on the train) is really quite a lot, too much, probably, for a reader like me so sometimes I felt I read a lot like I ride on a train, meaning sometimes I felt fully alert and engaged, watching what’s out the window, but other times I kind of zoned out (sorry I like puns), mesmerized by everything, with blurred vision so I probably missed things, but in the end, I felt like it all made sense, that it had a point, as I hope this post does, too, that you can get something out of it, like I got out of Zone, and here’s the disclaimer, I thank Chad Post of Open Letter for sending me a copy of the book to review, and of course I also want you to know that you can read more about Zone in lots of other places, like Scott Esposito’s very informative interview on Conversational Reading with Charlotte Mandell who translated Zone from the French, and Oh wow, she didn’t read it all before she translated it, I can’t imagine doing that because I always like to know what’s coming, I really do, but I can understand it might be fun to have suspense even as you translate, plus there’s also a review in last week’s New York Times Book Review (here) and on Words Without Borders (here) and if you read all of them you’ll learn lots more about the book because there are so many threads in it that one blog post like this can hardly catch and write about them all, so I think that’s all I want to say about Zone, which I do recommend, I’m glad I read it though it is one of the harder books I’ve read in a long time and oh, one more thing, I think it would be a fun book to read and research simultaneously, very enlightening, because Énard mentions so much history and literature, eons of it, really, I could probably spend months reading it and all the subtexts, now that would be a great project, so that’s all for now, bye, next week I will probably tell you about Copenhagen Noir, which sure is easy to read after Zone, even if there are some pretty disturbing things there, too.