Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 2 January 2011



Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it. – John Hersey

On 22nd December 1947, a 54-year-old newspaper reporter is standing at his custom-built writing stand composing an article about two newcomers to the village of Avabäck where he lives: the first is a 28-year-old schoolteacher, Lars Högström, who has just been released from Österåsen Sanatorium where he has spent half of his life being treated for tuberculosis; the second is a 47-year-old clothing peddler going by the name of Robert Maser who may or may not be the prominent Nazi, Martin Bormann. The reporter is never named but that does not mean his identity is never known.

Martin Bormann A bit of history: As World War II came to a close Bormann left the Führerbunker with SS doctor Ludwig Stumpfegger and Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann as part of a group attempting to break out of the Soviet encirclement. Leaving the rest of their group, Bormann, Stumpfegger and Axmann walked along railway tracks to Lehrter Station where Axmann decided to go alone in the opposite direction of his two companions. When he encountered a Red Army patrol, Axmann doubled back and later insisted he had seen the bodies of Bormann and Stumpfegger near the railway switching yard with moonlight clearly illuminating their faces. He did not check the bodies, so he did not know what killed them. The bodies were never recovered and for years there were unconfirmed sightings of Bormann.

In 1965, a retired postal worker named Albert Krumnow stated that around 8 May 1945 the Soviets had ordered him and his colleagues to bury two bodies found near the railway bridge near Lehrter station. One was "a member of the Wehrmacht" and the other was "an SS doctor". The general consensus is that they committed suicide by biting cyanide capsules to avoid capture although, needless to say, not everyone was convinced.

The reporter has “no proof [that the salesman is Bormann]. But he has his convictions. Most proofs are no match for a conviction.”

Avabäck is, according to Eva Marklund (who becomes landlady to both men), a village in Sweden with seven seasons, “[o]ne spring, one summer, one fall, and four winters.” It is also a TB hotspot which is why Lars has requested that he be posted there believing that he is now immune from the disease. Eva’s husband, Manfred, is currently languishing, in much the same way the young Lars did, “quite happily, actually” in the sanatorium in Hällnäs suffering from the condition and, like everyone in the village, Eva imagines that it is only time before she proves susceptible herself that is until Lars offers to pass on his immunity to her. Although it’s never stated explicitly, because we never find out for definitive, it has to be assumed that Robert believes he is immune to discovery, that is, if his tales of amnesia are made up to avoid his having to talk about his past and maybe slipping up.

While the newspaper reporter is working on this article a messenger arrives with a letter from his editor. The editor is not a happy chappy:

For some time now, after tactful inquiries for perplexed and concerned readers, we have carried out careful investigations into the veracity of the reports you have submitted over the course of the years, the all too many years, which we have published conscientiously honestly and fearlessly.

Having done so, we have found your reports, not to put too fine a point on it, completely devoid of any basis in fact. The reality which you appear to describe is nothing more than a figment of your imagination.


I therefore impose an absolute ban on your writing reports henceforth. I forbid you to write another word.

The reporter reads the letter, twice to be sure, then picks up his writing stand, carries it into the kitchen and puts it “next to the wall shelf where they used to keep the cream separator.” He resolves not to write anymore. At least not for a while. In his head he does think up a response to the editor:

You seem to think that my news and other reports are products of my imagination and of my desire for income-generating fantasies. You contrast imagination with truth as if the two were incompatible, as if they were mutually exclusive, as if imagination were not a product of reality. You write about truth as if it were yet another of your possessions, as if it were at your personal disposal in the same way as the PHOTOGRAVURE DEPARTMENT, the COMPOSITING ROOM or the PRINTING PRESS. To put it bluntly: you have not understood the essential nature of truth.

It strikes me that there is much of Lindgren in the reporter. In an article in 1978 Lindgren wrote:

I lack the disposition for realism: as soon as I have managed to put together a suitable number of realistic people and placed them in reasonably realistic surroundings where they can live realistic lives, they start to fiddle about, they behave as if they had never before been in contact with real life, but had only lived in a fantasy world. They commit frightful crimes, they die and are resurrected, they ascend to heaven and allow themselves to be misled into all the foolishness the language happens to lead them to, till at last, with oaths and curses, they escape from the planned novel. – ‘Talking about writing’ (quoted on the Swedish Academy website)

A while passes. 53 years to be precise. Our reporter is now 107 when we meet up with him again and has been a resident of the Sunnybank Rest Home for 19 years which he entered a year after the death of his wife. He has not written a word in all that time, however, Chapter 3 of Hash opens:

In a written account events seem actually to take place. But is there really any connection between events and the writing that describes them? Is the writing itself an event? Or is it manifold events, compressed into tiny squiggles, often black on a white background? Do events occur at all in reality, events with a beginning and an end? Or are they created in the writing, with sentences, paragraphs and chapters that is, as a result of the written word’s need for order and method?

He was standing at his writing-desk again after all.

So what had happened?

I’ll tell you what. At the tender age of “ninety-eight years, five months and six days, at home, surrounded by his nearest and dearest,” the newspaper editor had finally given up the ghost. “Age is a tough adversary,” says the reporter, “Most people eventually have to admit defeat.” Anyway, the reporter “immediately asked the social services people to fetch his stand-up desk,” at which he stands until page 225 of this 236 page novel working on the article that he had abandoned all those years earlier. The effect is rejuvenating. He has outlived old age and is regaining lost powers and attributes: his hair is growing Benjamin Button dark again, and he doesn't need glasses to read anymore. But don't worry, this isn’t another Benjamin Button.

The book jumps back and forth between the present and the past, the present revolving around the reporter’s relationship with his three carers, Niklas, Susanne and in particular Linda with whom he has a special bond. Nothing much happens in his life which, as is the case with old people in care homes, that is not routine, uneventful or dull. At least that is the way it has been until he gets his new lease of life, something which makes most people very happy apart from the Leader of the Council who is concerned about the man’s burgeoning collection of spiral-bound notebooks most of which had been purchased out of public funds. And that’s before we get started on the pens and crayons.

Crayons? Yes. They were needed for a little side project, to draw a map for Linda, the way to Avaberg mountain. She asks him how he managed to remember the map in such detail to which he responds, “Imagination is my memory.”

These are the main players. There is one other character, however, who has a significant role, Bertil Ohlin, the village’s local handyman, a confirmed bachelor, snoop and worrywart. Oh, and he’s perfectly symmetrical, his face, hands, feet, everything, right down to his penis which apparently – Lars decline’s a viewing – hangs perpendicular to the ground. Bertil is always to be found lurking. This is how we are introduced to him:

[Eva and Robert] were no longer alone in the kitchen. While they had been talking a third person had crept in and sat himself on the stool by the door. He did not greet them, he did not remove his mottled gray cap, he just sat still and quiet watching [them]. He had two sheath knives hanging from his belt, one against his left thigh, one against his right. He probably belonged to the house in some way.


“That's only Bertil,” she said about the young man by the door. “He pops up all over the place.”

Much the same happens when Lars arrives some time later. The only difference is that Bertil feels his cap every now and then “to make sure the peak was perfectly centred above the tip of his nose.”

So we have our players. But what binds them together other than the fact they’re all now living in Avabäck? Lars and Robert are brought together by a love of music – they each hear the other singing and decide to sing duets – plus, when Robert’s accommodation burns down, they end up under the same roof with Eva and her soprano is added; this is also where the men’s passion for hash is ignited. Pölsa From that first bite it is only a matter of time before they end up setting out on a tasting tour of the region in search of the perfect, most authentic hash.

The Avabäck hash was “more or less entirely meat,” Lillåberg’s was “very finely minced and ... smoother”, the Raggsjö variety was “darker but light in taste and had an aroma reminiscent of ginger yet not exactly ginger” whereas the Rönnmyrliden hash was “a brownish-grey stodge that reeked of entrails.” And then there was the hash from Lillsjöliden “which was the model, in a sense, for all other hash ... Extremely few had tried it: it was known mainly by repute.”

So what exactly is hash? For all intents and purpose, haggis. The title of the novel in its original Swedish is Pölsan:

Pölsa is a traditional Swedish dish, very similar in taste and consistency to Scottish haggis. The main ingredients are liver, heart, onion, pot barley, and often beef mince or minced pork, mixed with stock, black pepper, and marjoram. It is usually served with boiled or fried potatoes, pickled beetroot, and sometimes a fried egg. – Wikipedia

One of the reviewers on Goodreads, Randelina, said this about it:

Old folks say "I haven't had pölsa since..." and get a faraway look in their eyes. Pölsa is a way to preserve entire animals for years as usable food.

In many respects it’s an unfortunate title in English because of the obvious drug connotation and I expect many have bought the book and wondered where all the dope was. The only drug in this book is life.

The reporter’s article develops very nicely. It’s not the most exciting thing you’ll ever read but it’s well told and keeps one’s interest. As it progresses so we learn more and more about said nameless reporter. Close to the end, as you would expect, things start to pick up. The climax arrives! And I did not see that coming. 11 pages to go. And then . . . and then . . .

And then the reporter gets another letter, this time from the Council:

His writing must cease forthwith. He should regard his work as concluded. The Council was obliged ... to prohibit him from all further writing activity. With all good wishes. Yours sincerely, etc.

When Niklas brought him his evening meal, he told him to take the writing-stand and the pile of notebooks away. “Put them in the cellar or the attic or the pantry,” he said, “If there’s such a thing as a pantry in this place.”

Does that mean we don’t get to know how things pan out? Well, some of it is left hanging but we have the benefit of the present to carry us through those final two short chapters so don’t panic. The reporter is still connected to the events of the past. He’s still wearing the ready-knotted tie he bought from Robert Maser all those years ago even if it does have a hole in it.

The hash though is the most important element in this book. How could something made from such awful ingredients taste so wonderful? (Wait until you read what the "scrofulous" and tubercular Ellen from Lillsjöliden slips into her hash.) The same can be said for the reporter’s article and for Lindgren’s book as a whole. The book literally is a hodgepodge of ideas: everything is chucked into the mix and given a good stir. Fact or fiction, it doesn’t matter. All that’s important in the end is truth. And everyone’s truth is made up of their own ingredients, the things they’ve heard, read, seen or personally experienced.

This book is a meditation on the nature of writing and literary truth. It captivated me. For me that was my reason for keeping reading. I wanted more of Lindgren’s observations on writing, music, knowledge, imagination and truth. I never talk much about how my writing is going and so I connected with the reporter’s thoughts when Linda innocently asks, “How do you think it’s going yourself?”

Writing was so hard and so stressful that it couldn’t and shouldn’t be talked about under any circumstances. There was an enormous gulf between writing and talking. Especially if you were writing out of a sense of duty, because anything else would be gross neglect, verging on a sin of omission. He would like her to know that he often looked back wistfully to the time of not writing and the wild but pleasing emptiness devoid of people. But he was forced to live in a way that was not himself and write something other than what he thought, and think something other than what he expected of himself. He wrote from memory, memory being the only reality there is. No one can write from fleeting enthusiasm or passion, you have to write from self-control and restraint, in a state of immutable constancy.

Once you discover a bit about Lindgren himself the book starts to take on a different complexion though:

The book is partly based on autobiographical experience – Lindgren himself suffered from TB and witnessed the arrival, at the age of six, of a pair of freewheeling, singing strangers in his home hamlet of Raggsjö. – Giles Elliott, ‘TB or not TB?’, The Guardian, 20th November 2004

vasterbotten Even without having read that I might have guessed it because late in the novel as the two men continue their quest they come to a remote house near Norsjö in the province of Västerbotten. There they find a boy of "strangely emaciated and elongated appearance." His brothers have gone to watch a seaplane land on the lake and his parents are at the cemetery, tending graves. "We've got such an incredible number of graves," the sick boy says, solemnly. His name? "I'm Torgny. Torgny Lindgren;" the author has written himself into his novel in the guise of a poorly boy.

The men are upset by how “gloomy and negative” the boy seems and they try to reassure him saying that “new medicines and new treatments are being discovered all the time.” The boy is a stoic though:

“[H]ere in Raggsjö,” he said, “consumption is almost eradication. When I am gone, everyone will be healthy.

“Do you never get sad and cry?” Lars Högström asked.

“We northerners are from Västerbotten let our tears out through our navels,” he replied. “So no one notices.”

At the time of the men's arrival, he was trying to draw a scene out of a book by Selma Lagerlöf.

It's significant that Torgny is engrossed in Selma Lagerlöf, who also used the device of appearing in her fiction. Lindgren learned much from Lagerlöf, not least passionate engagement with the folk-tale. The pawky humour often integral to folk-tales, which informs Lindgren's books, surely derives from the hardness of life in remote rural communities like Norsjö. – Paul Binding, review of Hash, The Independent, 19th November 2004

Lagerlöf was the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and most widely known for her children's book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. In her novel Körkarlen by Selma Lagerlöf, the protagonist David Holm is sick with TB, and so are his younger brother Bernard and his friend Sister Edith. This is not the book the boy is reading. Rather it’s Gösta Berling's Saga where the protagonist is actually a defrocked minister and chief character and the men do talk to the boy about the existence of God.

The point I’m making here is that there are layers to this book that non-Swedes are not going to get. I never thought of Bertil as a troll but if you’re looking for folkloric elements in the book that’s one of the most obvious ones; trolls are common in Swedish folk tales.

An odd touch is the insertion into the text, like newspaper ads, of numerous explanatory boxes including, for example, details of where Avabäck is located, who Bormann was, obituaries notices for Svea Dalberg and Ture Rangström, a recipe for hash, a prayer for the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, details for the treatment on tuberculosis by gas among other gems and oddities. In one of these boxes Lindgren declares that "figuratively" the term “hash” can also denote "consolation, mercy, healing or alleviation".

This is a hard book to classify. It is a funny book but the humour is dry and on the quirky side. To simply call it a comic novel devalues it and will probably disappoint the reader; there are no belly laughs lurking here. There are metafictional elements, touches of magical realism and even some existential pondering. It has the feel of a modern fairytale too. I was quite taken with it. I believe writers especially will enjoy it and its unique take on the art of storytelling and highly recommend it to them. One can’t help but feel when reading it: There’s more going on here than I’m seeing.


Lindgren The Swedish writer Gustav Torgny Lindgren was born on 16th June 1938 in Raggsjö, Norsjö, Västerbotten County. He studied in Umeå to become a teacher and worked as a teacher until the middle of the 1970s. He was for several years active as a local politician for the Swedish Social Democratic Party. In the 1980s he converted to the Catholic faith. Lindgren began as a poet in 1965 but had to wait until 1982 for his breakthrough, with The Way of a Serpent. Lindgren has been translated into more than thirty languages and is one of Sweden's most internationally successful contemporary writers. He became a member of the Swedish Academy in 1991. His word has been described in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as “Possessing elements of both Franz Kafka and Harold Pinter, Lindgren's style is distinctly suited to depict the ambiguities and absurdities of the present day.” Now who wouldn’t be tempted to read a writer described in such terms?


Rachel Fenton said...

A schmorgasboard of info and insight, Jim - I'm going to have to keep coming back for more.

Kass said...

Some posts of yours stimulate me to the point of rapid heartbeat. Most of the time I don't know why. This time I decided to jot down the words that quickened me: if imagination were not a product of reality...
...truth as a possession...
...the essential nature of truth... the writing an event?
...outlived old age..
...imagination is my memory...
...write from restraint...
...tears through navels...
...hash (as a mish mash, my words of consolation, mercy, healing, alleviation.

I can see why you liked this. It's a great jumping off place for a lot of creative rumination.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Between the concept of the book, the hash, the humor, and the author’s bio – you sold me on this one. It's now on my want-to-read list.

Art Durkee said...

I appreciate your very well-written review here, but the result is that I have no desire to read this book. In fact, it seems to be a great example of what I don't like about a lot of contemporary literature, its mannerisms, its navel-gazing to the point of narcissism, its over-awareness of its own "literariness." That self-conscious sense that it is recursively writing about its own written existence.

I like meta-fiction, I like meta-fiction a lot, which this seems to be at times, from your descriptions—but I like meta-fiction that has a larger scope and plan than merely looking in a literary mirror. (Borges still does it better than most.) Some of the premises here in this book I find very hard to believe; as a long-time science fiction reader, I'm very familiar with "the willing suspension of disbelief" that some kinds of fiction require of the reader. But I find myself straining beyond credulity here.

I suppose because I'm half-Norwegian, and of that stoic Northern mindset at times, folks might think I'd be sympathetic to a novel like this; but in fact it strikes me so clearly that it is an example of what I don't want to read anymore.

Jim Murdoch said...

It really is a great word, isn’t it, Rachel, smörgåsbord, far better than buffet or finger-food. Glad you feel like coming back for seconds.

Kass, yes, that’s very much how I felt about this book, wonderful expressions that made me think, made me want to explore those ideas on my own and in my own way, like the possibility of outliving old age. I’ve heard people say that they’ve drunk themselves sober, implying that drunkenness is simply a gauntlet to be run. I suppose in some respects that’s true for many because they do revert to a childlike state before they die. Anyway, I agree that the writing is quite stimulating.

Jane, glad it’s piqued your interest. I actually saw the book in a bookshop when it first came out but let the title put me off – I assumed it was about cannabis. So bad title – but good book.

And, Art, what can I say? My review has done its job, presented enough information to help you make an informed decision. Whether the book succeeds or fails is neither here nor there (for me); what I liked was that it showed what is possible even if the author himself didn’t quite pull it off. I could say the same of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death and Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium both reviewed by me last year. There are lots of reasons for a writer to read and I think this is a book that writers should read and learn from.

Dave King said...

I am going to buy this book. It appeals to me greatly. Thanks for the review - and for your continued presence on the blogosphere.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm pleased, Dave. I'm always glad when I can introduce a book and a reader who were made for each other. At least I hope that's the case here.

Anonymous said...

Tempting, yes - I like a bit of meta-fiction too and, as ever, Jim, your analysis is detailed and thorough just up to the point of too much revelation so that the reader is perfectly poised for choice!

Rachel Fenton said...

“We northerners are from Västerbotten let our tears out through our navels,” he replied. “So no one notices.”

I love the above quote. I think it applies to all Northerners in general!

I'm always amazed by how much work you put into your reviews/essays, Jim.

I'm always impressed when a writer reaches for the stars, even if they don't quite make it to Orion's belt they'll have pushed themselves, and this book appeals to me for that reason alone.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Dick, where to draw the line. I worry about revealing too much. Sometimes I know I seem to but often I’ve only talked about the opening chapter or two. Often as you know I get sent books that I haven’t asked for and usually I simply open these and start on page 1 without even reading the blurb on the back so everything is a surprise/delight/disappointment to me as it should be. And then I have to write about it and a lot of the time all I want to say is, “This book was GREAT. Trust me.” But you can’t can you? Not reading anything at the moment. I can read and write but I prefer not to when I’m on a roll because all I really want to do is get back to the writing. I only have two outstanding and neither of them is out until March so I can afford to let them lie.

And, Rachel, I’m glad you appreciate the time and effort. My parents were northerners and I was born in Scotland which is really one big ‘north’ so I really get what Lindgren was on about at here. I was also brought up to believe that a job’s not worth doing unless you’re going to do it well. I think the term ‘failed masterpiece’ is an interesting one. It’s the kind of expression one might use about a book like this. I’m not sure it’s an expression I care for because it misleads you. It’s a bit like saying, “Never mind, you gave it your best shot,” which dwells on the negative rather than the positive. Only the author can really say if he’s failed. According to Woody Allen all his films have been failures because he’s not managed to do what he set out to do to the (impossibly high) standards he sets for himself but the simple fact is that none of his films are failures and a number are indeed masterpieces. But I digress.

I love to see writers stretch themselves. I like to see what’s possible, where I might want to take my own writing. That’s nothing less than inspiring.

Mairi said...

Wonderful review. We'll never see coverage like this in a newspaper.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know Mairi in fact I was reading a review on the bus last night in the Scottish Review of Books for a book I did a few weeks back and it was probably no more than 500 words with no quotes (obviously) and how can you really judge a book without getting to read a bit of it? I actually feel sorry for reviewers who only have a fixed space like that; it must be very hard. Thanks for dropping by.

Gwil W said...

Jim, as an interesting aside - there was recently a report in the Austrian press that the 80-year old son of Bormann who seems to be some kind of priest teaching in a monastery Salzburg is alleged to have had some, ahem, misconduct with boys. I don't know if anything will come of it. These things, people like to keep quiet about, tend to quickly disappear under the radar. Like for instance the news of the graves of 220 inmates of a mental hospital at Hall in Tyrol found on 2nd Jan. We now only have to wait 2 years for an official report. It's obviously a case of Nazi euthanasia.
I'm currently reading the novel Hitler's Niece by Ron Hansen (Perrenial pub.2000). First couple of chapters pretty well factual. It has the feel of being well researched.

Jim Murdoch said...

People can only be shocked so many times I find, Gwilym. A part of me wants to be aghast at the things you mentioned but most of me is simply fed up with the whole thing: “Enough already.” And even thought I’m sure the book you’re reading is well researched any fascination I had with Hitler and his clan waned long ago too. It’s not that I think the world should forget but I’d hate to think in a couple of hundred years they’ll still be unearthing gruesome facts about what went on during World War II.

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