The Killer’s Art bring us up to date with Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas novels that are available in English. As the title suggests the setting for the novel is the world of modern art – at least, the commercial world of modern art (the private galleries, collectors, investors and the trade in stolen art), rather than the concerns of the artists themselves. As with the earlier novels, the story is set on Gotland and, at least in part, explores the tension between Stockholm, the capital, and the provinces. It is a tension that is best exemplified by the character of the reporter, Johan Berg, who is constantly torn by his responsibilities to his Stockholm-based employers and his responsibilities to his Gotland-based partner and young daughter. It is also a tension that Jungstedt uses well to address the central problem that faces her as a writer – how do you write a novel that is set in the world of modern art, that is inarguably metropolitan in its focus, and which is also set on a provincial island known for a sense of remoteness for the modern centre?
It seems that Jungstedt’s writing becomes more confident with each novel and The Killer’s Art is her most accomplished to date. Nevertheless, there are moments of clunkiness in the plot that aren’t well explained and the occasional passages that are rather derivative. Also the very notion of setting a crime novel within a particular and closely-defined sub-world (in this case that of the art world) feels a bit ‘old hat’. As such the novel, as with her other ones, lacks some of the edginess and bleakness of other Scandanavian crime writers such as Nesbo, Mankell and Fossum. Nevertheless, it is still a good read – perfect for a night in!
The Following Story is for me one of those chance encounters. I came across it whilst browsing in the bookshop looking to spend a book token I got for Christmas and something attracted me to it. I’m not sure what it was, but this is a beautifully written novella which is distinctly European. Its language has the feel of European modernist writing and that is not just the fact that there are strong echoes here of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The language has a poetic quality and a kind of formality that reminds me of some of the writing from that same period. This slightly old-fashioned feel to some of the writing, juxtaposed with occasional moments of contemporary idiom (in the form of direct speech) is one of the books striking features.
The novella tells the story of Herman Musert, a former classics teacher, who goes to bed in Amsterdam but wakes up in Portugal in the same hotel room where twenty years previously there took place what turned out to be a life-changing event. It has a dream-like quality, yet this is reality and when he goes to sleep he dreams of being back in Amsterdam, only to wake up again in Portugal. It is only when he finds himself boarding a boat with a cast of unlikely co-travellers, that he begins to realise the significance of what has happened.
This is a deeply lyrical and philosophical book, highly literary in its references (for which your old school lessons in classical mythology come in quite handy), but completely engaging. It won its author, Cees Nooteboom, the European Literature Prize in 1993 and deservedly so. As a reflection on life, death, dream, reality and passion, it is a book that deserves reading and returning to.
Still with Scandanavian crime fiction and to the third novel in Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas series. This is a very well constructed traditional police procedural with a strong ‘whodunnit’ feel to it and perhaps the most satisfying read of the series to date for me. I mention its ‘whodunnit’ quality because this so so often a rarity these days in crime fiction and I felt a certain nostalgia in reading this book at its rather charming and old-fashioned feel, which Jungstedt manages so well.
This time Knutas and his team are called in to investigate the murder of an archaeology student. Jungstedt brings together some of the gorier elements of Gotland folklore, along with the island’s Viking history and the fact that archaeology has become a veritable industry and source of income for the island. It is this bringing together of the ancient and the modern that allows Jungstedt to convey something of Gotland’s landscape and culture – certainly more so than in the earlier novels. Gotland is much more a living character itself in this novel, but not just as a pohysical presence – a cultural, historical and psychological one too.
Where Jungstedt has innovated is that there are two heroes in her novels and this becomes stronger in each of the three books so far. As well as Knutas, there is also the journalist Johan Berg – so two heroes, pitched against each other, but both on the same side, as it were. The tension and rivalry between Knutas and Berg is nicely set up by Jungstedt and looks set to play an increasingly important role in future novels.
Aravind Adiga’s novel won the Man Booker Prize last year. I can’t say whether or not it was a worthy winner, as I haven’t read the entire shortlist, but I shan’t be complaining. This is a magnificent novel, all the more so because it is Adiga’s debut novel. It tells the story, through his own words, of Balram Halwai, a rich Indian entrepreneur, who on the occasion of a visit to Bangalore by His Excellency Wen Jiaboa of the People’s Republic of China, decides to narrate his life story so that the distinguished visitor can learn about the country he is about to visit. Balram’s story begins in poverty and it appears that this might be a rags-to-riches story. Instead Balram declares himself a murderer and a fugitive and his story tells not of a romanticised India, but of an India that is corrupt, violent, riven by the caste system and unable to shake off his colonial past. It is in equal measure narrowing and hilarious and is a biting satire not only on modern India, but on global capitalism. The great irony is that Balram, for all his deception and his murderous, violent and remorseless past, emerges as an insightful critic and commentator, and as the most human of all the characters in the book. This is a hugely impressive achievement and an epic of a novel in its reach. I look forward to his next book that is due to be published later this summer.
Netherland is a book by an Irishman with a Dutchman as its central character about cricket in New York. Of course, it’s about much more than that, but it is this unlikely combination that makes this a rather remarkable novel. I was in some ways reminded of Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, which has baseball as its focus, and O’ Neill’s book has been described as a great American novel as well. The novel is set in the years immediately following the events of 9/11 and follows the life, through a first-person narrative, of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker with a passion for cricket, married to an Englishwoman and living and working in New York. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks van den Broek’s marriage begins to falter, his wife moves back to England with their young son and he finds solace in the world of New York cricket.
It is an affectionate and ultimately optimistic book. It may well be a great American novel, but this is very definitely a post 9/11 America that is not only diverse, but also connected to the wider world. It is a story of loss and redemption, both tragic and comic in equal measure. O’ Neill’s writing is careful and, as a reader, I appreciated the time that he seems to have spent constructing each sentence. It is beautifully written, yet the quality of the writing also seems understated, almost passing you by without your noticing, until you stop reading and realise how good the last 20 pages or so were. I know very little about baseball and while that didn’t stop me enjoying The Great American Novel, I remember at the time wishing I did know more about the complexities of the sport. Likewise with Netherland, you don’t need to be a cricket fan to enjoy this book, but it probably helps.