The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl, translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally

The Land of Dreams can be classified as Nordic Crime.  On the surface it is the story of an elaborate murder in a small Minnesota town. Minnesota is known for having a large Skandinavian-American community. Norwegian characters are involved. The book explores the dark side of human nature.  But, if it is Nordic Crime, it is atypical of the genre. Put aside the fact that the story is set in America.  The plot is only tangentially interested in solving the mystery or describing the minutiae of the investigation.  Writing in the third person Vidar Sundstøl focuses on two men – the American officer who found the body and the Norwegian detective who is sent to represent his country in the investigation.  Their interactions and impressions, both on and off the case, overshadow the mystery.

Lance Hansen is a police officer for the U.S. Forest Service with a predilection for local history. While investigating a routine call – illegal campers – he makes a gruesome discovery. Two Norwegian canoeists: one dead. The other huddled, bloody and naked, at the base of a large stone cross.  When a fellow officer comments that this is the first murder committed in Cook County history Hansen becomes curious.  What he learns impacts his relationship to the past and has repercussions in the present.

Because the murder takes place within the borders of Lake Superior National Park the FBI is brought in to head the investigation. Hansen is indisputably the novel’s protagonist, but Sundstøl chooses to spend much of the book following Eirik Nyland, a detective sent from Norway to partner with the FBI.  Nyland is obviously a stand-in for the author (who lived for 2 years in Minnesota).

The locals identify themselves as Norwegian- and Swedish-Americans, but most are several generations removed and have never visited their “homelands”.  Nyland’s observations are surreal and funny, without being cruel.  A tenderness comes through, one that makes me believe that Sundstøl enjoyed his time in America.  In one passage a local police officer working on the investigation, Sparky Redmeyer, invites Nyland and the American FBI agents to the local Fourth of July celebration.  The American agents are obviously not impressed.  After they leave Nyland learns that Redmeyer gave up spending the day with his family in order to show the men around.  Nyland tells him “I think it’s great…. I’ve never been to a Fourth of July celebration before.  It’s something I’ll remember all my life.  I’m grateful you took the trouble to bring us out here today.”

“Oh, that’s okay.  It was no trouble,” said Redmeyer.  His face suddenly radiated genuine joy.  “Really no trouble at all.  Just ordinary hospitality.”

Nyland turned around, pretending to study the people at the neighboring tables as he smiled.  It was impossible not to smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d encountered such a sincere response from an adult.  And someone he didn’t even know very well.  It made him happy.  At the same time, it struck him that Sparky Redmeyer would not have made a very good investigator.  That job required being able to play a covert game with people, as well as the ability to expose the double-dealing and hidden agendas of others.  An investigator constantly had to listen for what people were not saying.

Later that day the two men will run into Lance Hansen.  They separate, agreeing to meet again later. The author then follows Hansen who walks along the shore of the lake and has an eerie encounter.

A man was kneeling in the back of the canoe. He was using a short, old-fashioned oar, which also looked new and beautiful. The man wore a dark jacket nd a big round hat. His clothes looked old and tattered. He was paddling with slow, steady strokes,  making the canoe glide lightly and quickly through the water.

Lance had an urge to call out to the man.  It wasn’t unusual to shout and wave to somebody in a boat. And this was a very special kind of boat.He was just about to raise his hand when the man stopped paddling and turned to look toward Lance standing on the breakwater. His face was filthy, in a shin sort of way, as if he’d spent a long time sitting in front of a bonfire. And now Lance recognized him.  This was the man he’d seen walking along Highway 61 the day he drove to Two Harbors to visit Andy and Tammy….

Lance thought his jacket looked like he’d found it in the attic of a house that had been unoccupied since before World War II.  Discovered in the attic and then put to use, without giving it so much as a good brushing. At one time it had apparently been black, maybe a suit jacket, but now it was so worn it seemed almost gray. And then there was the man’s hat with the wide, round brim that drooped a bit, as if it had been in the water for a long time and lost some of its original shape. The man in the canoe was truly a pitiful sight. And yet Lance felt nailed to the spot by the man’s eyes. Because he wasn’t merely looking at Lance, he had fixed his eyes on him. Lance felt his legs turn heavy and stiff while his heart hammered unpleasantly. He didn’t know what there was about this man – all he knew was that he’d never experienced this feeling before. Never. To feel someone looking at him this way. A man like this.

Most events, including the initial discovery of the body, are written in this kind of even-handed prose style.  The graphic violence and gratuitous sadism that I’ve come to associate with Nordic Crime is (thankfully) absent from The Land of Dreams.  Furthermore, Sundstol’s writing is devoid of emotional bias.  The reader never ascends dramatic peaks or falls into valleys.  None of the characters descend into archtypes.  Nyland, while kind, views his hosts with the attitude of a scientist peering at amoebas through a microscope.  Hansen, while both decent and honorable, sometimes displays a small-mindedness that fits a little too neatly into the small town/Red State stereotype.  The story drifts amiably along in this way until the end, with little to no fanfare.  Everything – the characters, all the descriptions and dialogue – feels normal.  Almost mundane. Even Tiina Nunnally’s translation; which rings somewhat awkward and overly formal to American ears. The combined effect is charming.

The Land of Dreams is an unusual interpretation of what, in the beginning, appears to be a fairly typical murder-mystery.  There are allusions to a ghost story. Pages are spent on the history of the town, the immigrant families who settled the area and the Native Americans who were there first.  The central mystery – the murder of the Norwegian tourist – feels more like a red herring than a central plot point.  In that way it reminded me quite a bit of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.  The stories are very different, of course.  But the authors both use murder as the jumping off point to explore family dynamics and the secrets that can tear families apart.

_________________

The Land of Dreams is Book 1 of Sundstøl’s  award-winning Minnesota Trilogy.  There is a lot of material in this first book, much of it left unresolved, any piece of which could be spun into a novel all its own.   After doing a little research online I found a link to a description of Book 2: Only the Dead (contains spoilers for The Land of Dreams!).  And at the blog Mystery Fanfare there is a great guest post by Vidar Sundstøl.  Only the Dead is due out in 2014.

Publisher:  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8166 8940 8

The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre, translated by Lucas Lyndes

The Swimmers is a short novel published this past September by Frisch & Co. – an e-book only publisher focusing on translated fiction. Ostensibly about the end of the world, it features no natural disasters, barren landscapes or bands of survivors fighting savagely over the few resources that remain. Azaústre’s vision is much more surreal, one could argue that it is meant to function as metaphor.  Jonás is a photographer who has grown too accustomed to interacting with the world through the lens of his camera. Which might be why his girlfriend left him and why his art career, once so promising, has stalled. He is an only child of divorced parents and carries that slightly clichéd aura of loneliness and isolation with him. The most important person left in his life is his best-friend, Sergio. The two have a relationship more like brothers than friends. They meet regularly at a pool in Jonas’ old neighborhood to swim laps.

Central to the novel are Jonás’ visits to the pool – with and without Sergio. These swimming sessions are integral to the structure and overall tone of the book.  In a wonderful article on the website Necessary Fiction (as a part of their Translation Notes series), Lucas Lyndes describes the challenges of translating a novel written under an Oulipian style constraint -

The novel’s protagonist, Jonás, goes to the pool almost every day, where he swims 2,500 meters. The book is broken up into 50 chapters, representing laps in the pool; as I learned during the translation process, an Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so essentially the book (50 laps x 50 m) is the equivalent of one swimming session. I read the prose, and especially the rhythm, as an imitation of the act of swimming. Most chapters start off a bit slow, with short(er), sharp(er) sentences, like diving in or kicking off from the wall, and then the sentences start flowing into one another, like strokes and kicks.

The carefully choreographed rhythm of the prose (apparent even without reading Lyndes) has a soothing effect and lessens the impact of the events driving the story.  People are vanishing into thin air.  Not to be confused with abductions and/or kidnappings – men, women and children in the city where Jonás’ lives are simply no longer there. Their disappearances are almost supernatural. First, other swimmers at the pool.  Then, Jonás’ mother. In quick succession: the daughter and grand-daughter of an older swimmer who Jonás meets regularly at a cafe; followed by a fellow artist and, then, the daughter of an underworld boss. As the pages pass the urban environment through which Jonás moves steadily empties.  Azaústre manages to create the feeling of a physical world expanding as, in almost direct correlation, Jonás sheds his personal relationships and connections. The disappearances come to represent an existential detachment.  At the same time they create discomfort in the reader – a primal response to the idea of non-existence.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre is a novelist and a poet; with the ability to evoke the full range of sensory details.  He’s particularly strong when describing abandoned places. He breaks down the space into units of time – individual moments which the reader explores with the protagonist. Beautiful, haunting imagery appears all throughout The Swimmers. Azaústre’s writing is a combination of Camus, a young Stephen King and the great Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone).  He challenges our preconceptions of reality in new and interesting ways.  He plays with the concept of negative space, twins, reflections and parallel universes.  But he does it in a way that seems to exclude the fantastic.  There could be a logical explanation for all this.  In the meantime, people and events constantly move in and out of the periphery of the story.

It’s five in the afternoon. The clarity of the foothills is enveloped by the specter or rain. There is no countryside beyond the city, just a wasteland, a barren stretch of dry earth. On the right-hand shoulder, the bus leaves behind a hamlet of moveable homes and shacks erected with miscellaneous materials from demolition sites. He sees no one, not a single face. They take off so quickly that later, after driving out of sight of the wood and tin huts, some of them made from old emptied-out bodies of cars and trucks, scrap metal with plastic curtains and tarp roofs, Jonas starts to doubt their existence, as if the expulsion from the city had turned them into phantasms, as fleeting as the rest of the bare mounds of earth.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre has unknowingly embraced Alan Weisman’s initial premise in The World Without Us – what if humanity were to inexplicably disappear? -  and stopped there.  Whereas Weisman explores the event’s aftermath, Azaústre is interested in the experience of disappearing.  Very little in The Swimmers gets explained or resolved, least of all where everyone has gone.  Instead we’re given tantalizing glimpses of another, untold story happening parallel to this one.  Even the characters feel it.  While explaining his mother’s disappearance to Sergio, we’re told that Jonás “felt as if he too was a witness to his tale, as if for a few minutes he had been able to contemplate his own narration…” Later, Sergio expresses “…that sometimes, when I think about it, I get the impression that out there, somewhere else, far away from this house, someone else is living my life for me.”

Everything about the novelthe prose style, the structure, the characters and settings - feels purposeful.  The author has a bigger idea in mind but it’s too much to absorb in just one reading.  I can’t say, definitely, what The Swimmers is about.  Upon finishing it I was left with an impression of thoughtful writing, a plethora of ideas, and the yearning to understand something that seemed important.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?   The Swimmers could just be one of those books that exists simply as the sum of its parts – regardless of our expectations (or desires) on how those parts should connect.

Publisher: Frisch & Co., Berlin (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 9891267 2 4

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