‘It’s an historian’s duty to uncover, not to judge.’ He lit his pipe. ‘Many people believe that right and wrong are fixed absolutes. That is incorrect, they change over time. The job of the historian is primarily to find the historical truth, to look at what the sources say and present them, objectively and dispassionately. If historians were to stand in judgment on human folly, our work would seem to posterity like fossils – the remnants of the orthodoxy of their time.’
This snippet of dialogue is delivered by one of the characters in the novel The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbø. I’m having trouble deciding exactly what to think about this book, but that passage seems to me about as close to a statement of the author’s world view as I can find (I may, of course, be entirely mistaken). Nesbø seems to believe that moral choices are extremely important, but who’s to say what the right ones are?
Scandinavians have long been great lovers of the mystery genre, and this passion has found expression in a thriving, high quality domestic literature which is becoming increasingly available in English translation. I’ve come to be a big fan of the late Stieg Larsson’s Swedish mysteries (in spite of the author’s unrepentant Communism). Someone mentioned to me that the Norwegian Jo Nesbø has been attracting a lot of attention lately, and as a lover of Norway I hastened to buy one of his books. My response is mixed.
Nesbø’s hero is police detective Harry Hole (and you’re in luck, because I’m qualified to tell you how to pronounce his last name. It doesn’t rhyme with “pole.” It sounds more like “hoo-leh”). Harry is a troubled, driven man, struggling with alcoholism. At the beginning of this story he gets a promotion purely for political purposes, into a job where he’s (ostensibly) supposed to keep an eye on Neo-Nazi gangs, but in fact is just supposed to keep out of sight. But evidence is discovered that somebody has imported a very powerful (and illegal) sniper rifle into the country, and old men who were Nazi collaborators in World War II are turning up murdered. In classic loose cannon fashion, Harry goes looking for answers in his own way, regardless of his superiors’ wishes.
The plot moves right along, and the characters are engaging. There was one major surprise (an unpleasant one). I have to report that I figured out the killer’s identity before Harry did. I thought the translation was good, but not great. There were small moments of awkwardness, which I would have handled differently (which is not to say I could have done a better job. I just would have generated a different set of infelicities). Oddest, to me, is the translator’s decision to translate the 17th of May holiday, Grunnlovsdagen, as “Independence Day.” It’s culturally equivalent, since (for complicated reasons I won’t go into here) this is the really big national holiday in Norway, but it’s nevertheless most definitely not the Norwegian Independence Day. It’s Constitution Day, a very different thing. Maybe the decision came down from the editorial offices. But it’s wrong.
The most memorable thing about The Redbreast, however, is its revisionist treatment of the Norwegian occupation during World War II. A major character promotes the view that most of what we’ve read about the heroic Norwegian Resistance is manufactured mythology, and that the majority of Norwegians were happy collaborators, at least at the beginning. It should be noted that this character is not necessarily reliable, but there’s little or no effort to refute him. There’s a certain respect, as well, in the author’s treatment of the Norwegians who fought for Germany on the Eastern Front, which most readers will (I think) find it as hard to digest as I did.
Assuming (I’m not at all sure) that the extract I stuck at the top of this review is a fair summary of the author’s moral view, I can only assume that such ambiguity is intentional. “Suppose the Germans had won?” he seems to be saying. “Wouldn’t the people we now call heroes be called traitors, and vice versa? And would that really be wrong? Who are we to judge?”
I enjoyed the book. Quite a lot. But I’m not sure I want to read any more from Nesbø. Maybe I should give him another chance, though, just to see if I can figure him out a little better.
Lars Walker is a Norwegian translator, in addition to being librarian for the schools of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations in Minneapolis. He is the author of the novel West Oversea, published by Nordskog Publications.