This June, my spouse and I will be taking a trip to Norway. Being of the reading sort, I was looking for books to harmonize with the forthcoming expedition.
Travel guides often have listings of well-known authors, artists, composers, etc, associated with the given region. In Rick Steves Scandinavia, I came across a mention of the contemporary (and popular) Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø (whom I had never heard of). As a novelist, Nesbø is best known for his “Harry Hole” crime series. (But also he belongs to a rock band, and is a former economist and reporter!) I am an avid reader of detective novels; and being in addition a methodical reader, I settled on the first book in the Harry Hole series, called The Bat (1997). It is set in Australia (not Norway, but … well, nothing is perfect). Harry — the Norwegian detective — tells people his last name should be pronounced “Hoo-Leh”, but people still persist in calling him “Harry Holy”.
However, “Holy” he turns out not to be. Well, maybe except for his deductive powers …
We get glimpses into the rather dark and cheerless workings of Hole’s mind. Here, he tries to explain himself to a lady friend:
“You’re a tiny bit damaged every time you unravel another murder case. Unfortunately, as a rule there are more human wrecks and sadder stories, and fewer ingenious motives, than you would imagine from reading Agatha Christie. At first I saw myself as a kind of knight dispensing justice, but at times I feel more like a refuse collector. Murderers are generally pitiful sorts, and it’s seldom difficult to point to at least ten good reasons why they turned out as they did. So, usually, what you feel most is frustration. Frustration that they can’t be happy destroying their own lives instead of dragging others down with them.”
Is this gloominess peculiar to Harry, or illustrative of something general in the Norwegian mentality? Not possible for me to determine, at this point. Hopefully our trip — unusually for us, a group tour, complete with Norway specialist — will shed some light on this.
One advantage to starting a book series from the beginning (as I did) is that one often gets a “back story” on the recurring character(s). In this case, one finds out, among other things, that Harry had a serious drinking problem in his past. Again, can one legitimately extrapolate from this, to an alcohol issue in Norway, as a whole? (I believe that Norway’s high taxes on alcoholic beverages are an attempt to control excessive consumption.)
One of the Australian characters asks Harry to talk about his home country. Here is his response — predictable, to me, in some ways, and surprising in others:
Harry talked. About fjords, mountains and people living between the two. About unions, suppression, Ibsen, Nansen and Grieg. And about the country to the north that saw itself as enterprising and forward-looking, but seemed more like a banana republic. Which had forests and harbors when the Dutch and English needed timber, which had waterfalls when electricity was invented and which, best of all, discovered oil outside its front door.
“We’ve never made Volvo cars or Tuborg beer,” Harry said. “We’ve just exported our nature and avoided thinking.1 We’re a nation with golden hair up our arses,” Harry said, not even trying to select an appropriate English idiom.
The last part of Harry’s response to his Australian acquaintance is more personal:
Then he told him about Åndalsnes, a tiny settlement up in Romsdalen Valley, surrounded by high mountains which were so beautiful that his mother had always said that that was where God had started when He was creating the world, and that He had spent so long on Romsdalen that the rest of the world had to be done posthaste to be finished by Sunday.
Upon doing a bit of geographical research, I found (to my pleasure) that Åndalsnes is a real place. In fact, Jo Nesbø has his roots near there; he was born in the nearby coastal city of Molde. I am seriously considering (subject to my wife’s approval!) shaping our travel itinerary to include this part of the country. The combination of visual delights and literary resonances is hard to resist …
Harry concludes with these recollections:
[He talked about] fishing with his father on the fjord early in the morning, in July, and lying on the shore and smelling the sea—while the gulls screamed and the mountains stood like silent, immovable guards around their little kingdom. “My father’s from Lesjaskog, a little settlement further up the valley, and he and my mother met at a village dance in Åndalsnes. They always talked about moving back to Romsdalen when they retired.”
It’s hard not to wonder if some of the above reminiscences are not only Harry’s, but Jo Nesbø’s as well …
In addition to the Scandinavian aspects (the murder victim is a — blonde of course — Norwegian woman, another character is Swedish), the Australian scene is rendered in plausible and satisfying detail … complete with fully drawn Aboriginal characters (and their ancient legends). One of the Aborignals in the book has some thought-provoking remarks about racial prejudice:
“It’s not what you say,” Toowoomba said [to Harry]. “It’s what you unconsciously expect of me. You imagine you’ve said something wrong, and it doesn’t occur to you that I’m intelligent enough to take into account that you’re a foreigner. I don’t suppose you would be personally offended if Japanese tourists in Norway didn’t know everything about your country? Such as your king being called Harald.” Toowoomba winked. “It’s not just you, Harry. Even white Australians are hysterically cautious about saying something wrong. That’s what’s so paradoxical. First of all, they take our people’s pride, and when it’s gone they’re scared to death of treading on it.”
In my fiction reading, I normally shun translations. Yet this book — ably translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett– has helped convert me from such linguistic purism. Even without the “excuse” of the Norway trip, I would have put The Bat well up there, on my list of favorite detective novels.
1 The Norwegian people were not always as passive as Harry would have it. Norway’s “1 percent” was in charge of things untill about 1935. At that time, the Labor party — aided by militancy among workers and farmers — created a society that provided for the economic good of all. For more information on this, see here .