Book: The Seducer by Jan Kjærstad, trans. Barbara J Haveland

The Independent 27 February 2004.

10/03/2004 ::  

Life in a thousand brilliant fragments

JAN KJÆRSTAD is a brave writer: a Viking of literature, unafraid of risk-taking on a grand scale. The Seducer is the first novel in the Norwegian author's trilogy, which took nearly 10 years, weighs in at 1,500 pages and contains more than 200 "stories".

It succeeds at being a great work of fiction, and a terrific read. Its central character is Jonas Wergeland, elusive genius behind the mesmerising TV series Thinking Big. Jonas' climb to fame has relied on handholds that fate and talent have placed within his reach: restless curiosity, awareness of emotional realities, ability to learn for a purpose and love for its own sake.

And, not least, erotic magnetism and a "magical penis". Even as a child, Jonas attracts accomplished, dominant but adoring women. Their gifts have made him who he is.

Kjærstad is a compelling storyteller, who ties plots and images into an interlocking whole. He speaks of tales retold in patterns of oriental rugs and likes using themes from myths of the East, especially Shahrazad's 1,001 life-saving stories. Every life, we are told, is a collection of stories.

Jonas instinctively senses what is important and trusts sensation above book-learning. He regards knowledge as a prism that turns the blinding light of existence into vivid colour. Having got through school by quoting great books, and a university course in astronomy by learning about the planet Pluto, he achieves fame by splicing fragments of great Norwegians' lives into TV formats.

This we learn from the mysterious, all-knowing narrator. He is apologetic about being a stranger to Norway, but insists it offers him a wider perspective. Just as well, because Jonas's wide-ranging experiences always retract into the personal, and his homeland is the most cherished of icons. Norway, once poor and puritan, now rich and expansive, is present in the narrative like a kind of collective being, loved but sternly chastised.

Kjærstad has argued that a strong narrative matters more than a distinctive voice. Despite the narrator's occasional pomposities, The Seducer reads like fast-flowing, elegant conversation. It sometimes slips into verbosity, as do some of the stories. Barbara Haveland has translated the allusive flood of language with remarkably faithful fluency.

Every path in the labyrinthine narrative is connected to the same place. Jonas has come home. His wife lies dead on the floor, shot with his Luger. He must phone the police, but senses when he does, the kaleidoscope of his existence will be shaken. So he hesitates.

On the last page he dials the emergency services. Nothing is resolved as yet but, knowing that there are two more volumes of stories about Jonas (The Conqueror and The Discoverer), our frustration changes to anticipation.


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