Sunday, 4 November 2012

Asko Sahlberg: The Brothers

I’ve been a convert to Peirene Press’s editions of contemporary European fiction since I read The Murder of Halland by Danish author Pia Juul, and the short stories of Austrian Alois HotschnigThe Brothers comes from Finland and is by Asko Sahlberg, one of the country’s best poets and prose writers, but very little known in England. The book blurb was terse and very brief, but when I read it, I knew I wanted to read the book:
      ‘Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.’

It all begins with a horse - Henrik ‘was a man born to understand horses’.  As a young boy, working his father’s estate, Henrik sees a young colt in a neighbour’s field and knows immediately that he wants it.  It’s a big, ugly, beast of a horse, which has‘the burning eyes of a wolf or a lion, or maybe the Beast of the Book of Revelation’, but there’s a definite, uncanny, connection between boy and colt.

Henrik works five years to get the money to pay for the horse, but in the end he is cheated out of it, as he is cheated of the woman he loves.  He leaves the house in anger and despair to fight for the Russian Emperor, in the war over Finland, while his brother fights on the Swedish side. Henrik hopes to find a new identity in Russia:  ‘In St Petersburg, I thought I could strip off this nation like a torn shirt, but it was not that easy.’  There is too much unfinished business at home, particularly the enmity between the brothers.

When Henrik returns, his presence causes ripples of fear and unease in the house. As the Farmhand remarks, ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat....’  Henrik’s father is dead, his brother Erik now manages the estate and his mother, ‘the Old Mistress’ is in charge of the house. Henrik has little regard for her either, commenting, ‘I might as well pay my respects to the whore of Babylon.’  

We are inside each character’s head in turn and this gives the narrative a certain intensity, but also a claustrophobic feeling, as if you are in an Ibsen drama, inhabiting one character after the other, playing them all.  It took a little getting used to, but in the end I thought it was very effective, and the language is as economical as poetry.

Henrik has returned home at a critical moment.  His brother Erik is mysteriously absent, Anna, Erik’s wife, believes he is having an affair.  Henrik’s mother has taken to drink and the destitute cousin, Mauri, who lives with them as a kind of superior servant, is behaving oddly.  Only the Farmhand is what he has always been.  Although Henrik treats him with contempt, he is also aware that ‘he is the only one of us who is free from the sin of lying and thus he is innocent’.  The atmosphere inside the isolated farmhouse is tense with mutual distrust and dislike.

The novel builds to a very satisfying climax, which I didn’t expect.  Because you see every character from every other character’s perspective, you begin to have a detailed picture of each person and a cumulative knowledge of what is about to happen.

It’s wonderful to get these glimpses into what is going on in European literature at the moment.  What is published in England these days seems mostly to look across the Atlantic to America.  In Europe there are different traditions of story-telling and much more experimental writing.  I suppose the nearest I’ve read recently would be The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt - that’s definitely in the European tradition, and about the same length.  I’ve got a couple more Peirene Press books on the virtual bookshelf, but I’m saving them for a treat!  Peirene Press have the added advantage that their e-books are very attractively priced in relation to the paper back.

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