Sunday, July 10, 2011

Two Swedish novellas: Manolis' Mopeds, The Legend of the Plague King

[From my Sunday Guardian books column]

The bilingual literary journal Pratilipi has done some notable work in the field of translation in the past few years. Recent titles by its publishing arm Pratilipi Books include Home from a Distance, which is an anthology of Hindi poets translated into English, and Prabhat Ranjan’s Marquez ki Kahani, a study (in Hindi) of the life and work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Now, as part of a project to introduce voices from around the world to India, they have published English translations of three very interesting contemporary Swedish novels.

Scandinavian crime fiction has been popular here in recent times - with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy giving Indian readers a pretext to discover earlier classics like the Martin Beck series - but of course the region has a rich body of literature in other genres too. The slim books published by Pratilipi tell offbeat stories that combine melancholia with dry humour, and the settings range from medieval Sweden to the post-war Balkans to a sleepy village facing the advent of modernity.

I particularly enjoyed Jan Henrik Swahn’s Manolis’ Mopeds, which has been translated from Swedish to English by the author himself. The book’s fragmented narrative and whimsical tone take a while to get used to, but it soon resolves itself into a devastating portrait of an old man who has become irrelevant – even to himself. A mason by profession, Manolis lives in a Greek village, growing tomatoes and eggplants, occasionally meeting his estranged wife (she has remarried the TV, we are drolly told) and riding about on his precious moped; it’s the fifth he has owned. At times he imagines that there’s an alternate Manolis living somewhere nearby, one who opted to ride donkeys instead of mopeds. But things are changing in the village anyway: there are no donkeys around now, the quaint old buildings may soon be torn down and replaced by shiny modern ones, and even the tavern that Manolis spends most of his best moments in could be under threat. An old way of life is quietly passing.

Nothing of all he knows about the island and the islanders has he managed to pass down. He will take it all with him to the grave. He'll take the donkeys, the tobacco factory, the old chairs, the smoke house, the coffins, the barrels, the wheelbarrows, the days when the village reeked of retsina, he will take it all with him.
The strength of Swahn’s book lies not so much in the plot as in its detailing of vignettes – the tragedies and small pleasures – from a life; in the way, for instance, that it almost unobtrusively discloses that Manolis’s young son died in a car his father had saved up to buy (“at a bend in the road where no one else during one hundred years of automobile history had ever succeeded in killing himself before”). This is one of the strangest, most moving novellas I’ve read in a while.


Reading Manolis’ Mopeds is a bit like watching the deadpan films of the Kaurismaki brothers, but Lars Andersson’s The Legend of the Plague King made me think of the indelible images of spiritual despair in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Andersson’s book is set in the same place and period as Bergman’s film – the mid-14th century, shortly after the Black Death had devastated Sweden – and centres on a meeting between King Magnus Eriksson and a hunter named Tormod Gopa. The encounter doesn’t begin on an agreeable note (the king – already burdened by an insurgency launched against him by his son – is trapped in the hunter’s throwing net and strung up on a tree), but soon the two men recognise their affinities. “It is right that I free you,” Gopa tells the ruler, “for you once freed me.” Magnus’s law outlawing slavery had saved Gopa, then just three years old, from a life of serfdom. Ironically, Magnus was also three when he first became king (effectively losing his own freedom).

This becomes the starting point for a tentative conversation that draws on Nordic and Icelandic myths, touches on the relationship between a ruler and his subjects, and encourages us to wonder what manmade laws and authority might mean in a world that has been ravaged beyond imagining. Gopa’s account of the horrors he witnessed in plague-devastated villages amount to a vision of hell, and reminded me of scenes from The Seventh Seal: a procession of groaning self-flagellators; a young “witch” being burnt at the stake; Death standing on the beach, a scythe over his shoulder. But as in Bergman’s film, there is also a note of grace and affirmation at the end.

(The third book in the series – which I’ve just started – is Agneta Pleijel’s A Winter in Stockholm. Pratilipi is also
planning a series of Spanish novels translated into Hindi)

1 comment:

  1. I have a feeling Spanish might be a more nature fit with Hindi. I mean, almost all the Spanish novelists write long, big ass, half page sentences-similar to Hindi. English is usually terse.