The Hurricane Party

After "Gangsters" I was so curious about how Klas Östergren the Author, Östergren the Narrator, Östergren the Character related to each other that I had to read something else by him, just to explore his literary style a bit more. I chose "Orkanpartyt" from 2007 ("The Hurricane Party"). I realize now that this novel is part of a worldwide project called "Myths retold" by publisher Canongate to which writers from 35 countries were invited. Perhaps I would have chosen differently if I had known this.

The story is set in a dystopian future city (Stockholm, I suppose), after the world has been destroyed by climate collapse, plagues, and wars. There is no proper government, but some areas are governed to some extent by clans, as is this one. Lacking any objective media channels, the citizens have a rather vague idea of who or what is ruling them and how the government really works. For most people, it´s a struggle to stay alive, and for entertainment they have a kind of game/reality show on television with gigant woman TomBola (bola is an old Swedish world for fornication, and some of the game is about surviving a night with the gigant woman...), and for culture they have a slow, never-ending concert from a church organ which must be inspired by John Cage´s concert "As Slow As Possible" which is being performed in Halberstadt, Germany, right now, scheduled to play for more than 600 years.

The protagonist is Hanck Orn, an ex-insurance investigator turned typewriter repairman. He has a son, Toby, who is twenty years old and one of the best chefs in the country, cooking for the upper classes at a stylish inn located in the archipelago. Toby is the result of a casual liaison with a woman belonging to a sect called "the sneezers" who believe that God enters them in the moment of sneezing. She dies giving birth, the son is brought to Hanck and becomes the sole purpose of his life. It is an unexpected shock when he is told that the son has died, from a heart attack.

Hanck goes into a mad state of grief. After the initial shock he starts investigating, wanting to know the circumstances surrounding his son´s death, finding the body, and if possible, get his revenge. This is when the story completely changes - it is as if Hanck is entering a mythological universe, and we meet familiar characters from the Norse mythology. He finds out that his son has been cooking for a Clan party that got so out of hand it turned into "a hurricane party" which forever redefines the power balance among the Clan members. Toby has simply gotten in the way of the scuffle, been at the wrong place at the wrong time. His death has been completely pointless and unnecessary.

As the story goes on, it gets more and more confusing, more and more fantastical, and in the end, I can only think that this is all Hanck´s madness from beginning to end, perhaps a period of mad dreams that help him come to terms with his overwhelming loss and give him some new direction. All his wishes come true, in a way, he goes through a magical metamorposis of sort, and comes out a changed man, with a new mission in life. Saying more would be giving too much away.

Other books I have read that come to mind during this read are J M Coetzee´s "Waiting for the Barbarians" and Neil Gaiman´s "American Gods". I think Coetzee´s story had a similar dreamlike, timeless quality, and Gaiman´s has all the gods, but instead of retelling, Gaiman reinvents. The theme is grief, of course, but also art: what art can mean to people who are suffering, from what kind of soil (or soul) great art is born, and what kind of courage and madness it takes to attempt it. It seems to me Östergren is hinting at a parallell to the courage it takes to try raise a child in a world that seems doomed (and when doesn´t it?); his dystopian world seems uncomfortably familiar, after all.

I picked up two quotes from the Swedish text, and I have made a translation myself (which might differ from Tina Nunnally´s official translation):
"När hon såg sig i spegeln såg hon bara smycket. Ett märkvärdigt smycke, alltså. Ett mindre märkvärdigt smycke får betraktaren att tänka på priset. Stor konst står över sådant." 
"When she looked in the mirror she only saw the necklace. A remarkable necklace, then. A less remarkable piece of jewellery makes the observer think about the price. Great art stands above that."
"Skulle han äventyra sin värdiga sorg och minnet av den döde med ord och påståenden som vem som helst kunde missförstå, av ren elakhet förvanska, missbruka och dra i smutsen? Han hade ju sett de mest renhjärtade chikaneras, bidragit själv med sin grundmurade misstro. Vad sa att just han skulle lyckas? Ingenting. Absolut ingenting."
"Would he risk his dignified grief and the reminiscence of the dead one with words and statements that anyone could misunderstand, out of spite distort, abuse, and drag through the mud? He had seen the most pure of heart disgraced, contributed to it himself with his firmly rooted mistrust. What guaranteed that he of all people would succeed? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."
I think this novel is a very ambitious one, but not entirely successful. If "Gentlemen" had vitality and flavour, if "Gangsters" had flavour and depth, then "The Hurricane Party" has much depth but little flavour and no vitality. I think I´m done with Östergren, for now at least.

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