That war, every war

The cover image is a detail of this painting.
It´s a few days before Christmas, it´s snowing and the King is dead, shot in the head while on a campaign in Norway. Probably by one of his own, desperate soldiers. As a courier passes through the town (Uddevalla, but neither that name nor the year 1718 nor Karl/Charles XII is mentioned in the story - it could be any war, really) with the news, war veteran and apothecary Jakob Hård tells his wife the terrible news and in response she hurls a kitchen knife into his arm. Why? Only in the very last pages will we know. It´s not a who-done-it, but a why´d-she-do-it. And more. On the following dense couple of hundred pages, we get to know Jakob Hård and his neighbours, and we, as they, become aware of what kind of war their dead King has led them into, as surviving soldiers begin to pour into town. Not beaten by the enemy, but by the cold winter that they have not been prepared for, dressed only in summer uniforms. Is it possible that the King had so little regard for his men? Is it possible to grieve under any circumstances? How far can loyalty go?

Jakob Hård is a kind man, and he is naive. Not stupid, but he is not a thinker. Our perspective throughout is his, and through him we get to know the poorest homeless children, we get to drink with the Mayor, and we get to help the King´s personal physician embalm the royal body. Hård relates to others emotionally rather than intellectually and not until he understands the deep emotions that fuels his wife´s behavior can he reach out to her and forgive everything. He is almost Jesus-like in his acceptance and mercy. One can, and I like the idea, see him as a personification of Mother Sweden, who blindly loves her son/the King, but who wakes up to the bleak consequences of his hubris.

I had never heard of Ellen Mattson when she got the Selma Lagerlöf Award this spring. I put this book, "Snö" (=snow) from 2001, on my reading list mainly because it was set in the 18th Century and that seemed really interesting. I am impressed, this is a great, great novel. It´s intriguing, exciting, moving (I cried like I haven´t done since the little matchstick girl) and profound. There are so many levels to this story. I just googled her and I was surprised to find that she is only four years older than I. For some reason, I had thought she was older. Probably the maturity of her writing. I wouldn´t mind knowing a bit more about how she came up with the idea for this. I´m so impressed I´m staggering, really.

Only a couple of times did the illusion break for me. Just a couple of words that seemed out of place in a story from 1718, like "automatic". Not a word I would have chosen for a novel set 150 years before the Industrial Revolution got near us. But that´s nitpicking.

The one novel this reminded me of is Coetzee´s "Waiting for the Barbarians". But, dammit, this is better. 

I wonder how this novel would do in translation. Surely it´s worth a wider audience? A bit more aggressive marketing? Or am I the only reader who´s missed her? I wish I could recommend her to the whole world!

No comments:

Post a Comment