Monday, June 14, 2010

The Discoverer (Jan Kjærstad)

In my limited access and awareness of world literature, there are many regions whose readings I have never been introduced to. Sometimes a Nobel laureate in an area helps bring it on the literary map, or sometimes it is an explosion of the kind that has helped Lat Am literature take the readers by storm. Sometimes it is the quietly persistent Three Percent, which brings a large part of contemporary non-English literature to the forefront. And it is in the longlist of their Best Translated Book Award that I discovered The Discoverer by Norwegian writer Jan Kjærstad.
This is not the first writing from Norway that I have come across. Not if you count Hamsun - but my exposure to Hamsun so far has made me see him more as a Dostoevskian writer than a writer from Norway.
Discoverer is a remarkable book - I am still in the middle of it and I am already quite taken with it. It is the final part of a trilogy, and though reading the last part of the trilogy before you have read the prequels may not be the prescribed order, the book stands alone on its own so that it does not become a handicap.
The book is about Jonas Wergeland, an elusive character, who is a TV-genius, responsible for some remarkable shows on Norwegian television. He comes back from a trip one day to find his wife dead. He is tried for the murder and he confesses to the crime. The fall of a celebrity is much loved by people, and this fall brings about two books on Jonas' life. One is written by Kamala Varma – a woman under whom Jonas is now working as a secretary, and another is a biography 'staged' by Jonas's sister Rakel – these are the two books which form part 1 and 2 of this trilogy. In the third and the final part, we hear Jonas' own voice giving his version of the story. (Though there is another narrator interspersed with Jonas, someone whose identity is not yet revealed)

This account is remarkable in its reminiscence. Jonas' account moves from one memory to another through a tenuous link, and he has not finished narrating one story before he reaches the other, and suddenly you find yourself into tunnels of stories. You have to keep track of which tunnel you are in, and then when you get out there is the other original unfinished story, which is capsuled in another one. The stories themselves are so full of thoughts and ideas, and you wonder if Jonas could have lived through so many thoughts at 12.

The book is about discovery – of self, of past, of memories and also of those beautiful regions of Norway which Jonas and his team is traversing on a ship. Jonas seems to be a boy wonder of sorts, but also seems to have so many moments of failing, disappointment which constantly plague him about his self-worth. What I have read so far seems like a coming of age story, though the part where the 'coming' happens has remained elusive. Perhaps it happens with Magrete's death which is the part he has only begun to speak about tentatively. But before that happens, there is much meditation – on films, on music, on sports and all the things a growing up is wound up in.

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