x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 October 2017

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories From the North explores the Nordic short story

Sjón and Hodgkinson have carefully chosen 18 stories that showcase a remarkable array from authors from across eight Nordic lands

Suthor Hassan Blasim. Courtesy Anni Laivorante
Suthor Hassan Blasim. Courtesy Anni Laivorante

The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories From the North
Edited and Introduced by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson
Pushkin Press 

What do we think of when we hear the description “stories from the North”? Well, in recent years, Nordic noir, no doubt; the popularity of Scandinavian crime – whether in the form of novels, TV shows, and film too (The Snowman, the big-screen adaptation of the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø’s novel is about to be released) – has extended far beyond the reach of the countries in which these stories are set. Then, if we hurtle way back in time, there is the epic storytelling of the sagas, with their intoxicating blend of folklore and fairy tale.

Less internationally renowned is the Nordic short story, which, in its contemporary incarnation, Ted Hodgkinson – one of the editors of this new collection – explains, “is a crucible in which these properties are fused together, capturing a quest for survival while prising open, in the space of just a few pages, potential for radical change”.

Despite the presence of these unifying themes, as Icelandic writer Sjón – Hodgkinson’s co-editor for this volume – expounds in the introduction, the question of what binds together the literature of the North is a tricky one, each country having its own individual literary tradition.

As such, the scope of the works included in The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat is impressively broad. Sjón and Hodgkinson have carefully chosen 18 stories that showcase a remarkable array of subjects, genres and writing styles, from the pens of authors from across the eight “distinctive” Nordic lands: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Faroe Islands, the Åland Islands, Greenland and Iceland.

Celebrated Swedish novelist and playwright Per Olov Enquist’s The Man in the Boat (translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner) is an unsettling tale of a boating trip taken by two young boys that ends in tragedy. Like the lake on which they’re sailing, the story has a lulling calmness, despite its eerie supernatural undercurrents.

“I remember the peculiar stillness, the motionless black water, the moon, the raft in the middle of the moon path, the silence, the pitch-black night around us,” recalls the narrator, a 9-year-old boy at the time of the incident described.

Both this and the story that follows, In a Deer Stand by the Danish author Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra), whose novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, use the majesty of the natural environment to great effect.

In Nors’s brief but unforgettable tale, we encounter a middle-aged man with an injured ankle stranded in the forest. “It’s a question of time,” it begins. “Sooner or later, somebody will show up. Even dirt tracks like these can’t stay deserted forever.”

We’re treated to glimpses of his life – his unhappiness, the battles he has lost – but what concerns him the most is the fact he is sure that those wondering what has happened to him will be describing him as having left home “in a depressed state”.

As the story progresses, the optimism of the opening fades away in tandem with the daylight, the final line an ominous portent of the dark fate awaiting him: “A mist has risen, the night will be cold, and a wolf has been sighted.”

Discontent rears its head time and again, characters stricken with varying degrees of intensity, from clinical depression to low level ordinary, everyday gloom.

“I have always known my mother’s rage,” says the narrator of Sørine Steenholdt’s Zombieland (translated by Jane Graham). “Her recurring breakdowns. The number of pills she took rose and fell like the tide.”

But it is in the story from which the collection takes its title, by Finnish author Johan Bargum (translated by Sarah Pollard), that a parent’s mental-health problems manifest in the most striking manner: the narrator’s father, who is now living in New York City, believes he is a dog. Although the urban setting – one that is “crazy” enough to allow for the strangest of behaviour to go unremarked upon – is a world away from the traditional rural landscapes of the North, this tale of human transformation taps into Nordic folk traditions.

It is something that we see again, though from a different perspective, in Don’t Kill Me, I Beg You. This Is My Tree, by Hassan Blasim (translated by Jonathan Wright), a native of Baghdad who now lives in Finland. Blasim’s taxi-driving narrator – himself an Iraqi who goes by the name “the Tiger” – is haunted by crimes he committed in his homeland: “In those days, the Tiger’s claws dripped with blood from the brutal water wars.”

Thanks to such a rich chorus of voices, you will come away from this collection with a host of new perspectives.

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Read more:

Iraqi author Hassan Blasim on refugees, war and futurism

Through the lens of science fiction, Iraq’s distant future is reimagined

A look at the Arab writers who have highlighted the pain and poetry of prison

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